When American Hockey League fans talk about AHL buildings, one of the things that's usually at the forefront of the discussion is how much character many buildings in the league have. Some teams, like the Rochester Americans, play in sponsored, older arenas and/or War Memorials that have undergone fairly recent renovations. Others, like the Lake Erie Monsters, share newer state-of-the-art buildings with other professional league teams (NBA, in this case). Still other buildings are considered relics, structures that are bursting with character but that, to be frank, haven't changed much since they were built 50-to-60 years ago.
The Onondaga County War Memorial, where the Syracuse Crunch plays, technically fits into that last category. The War Memorial Arena was opened in 1951, and the main shell of the building hasn't changed much at all since it was built. The building is owned by the county, has an active veterans' board, and is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Buildings.
The building's shell can't be made larger, mostly due to its location. Even if it could, any renovations would need to preserve much of the original architecture due to its designation as a New York State and national landmark. The veterans' board has, thus far, been adverse to the idea of a corporate sponsor, mostly due to an idea that the memorial aspect will get lost under a big corporate name. Any changes to the displays and historical information are pretty much a no-go area, especially after an extensive renovation in the early 1990's.
For better or for worse, what there is what's there, although some changes have been made in an effort to improve fan and player experiences since the Crunch became the building's main tenant 22 years ago. In 2009, War Memorial patrons saw a better scoreboard come in. They also saw the seating in the arena's ice level sections get a much-needed upgrade. But anything beyond those changes, other than a few fresh layers of paint here and there, wasn't really anticipated.
When the Crunch and the Lightning became affiliated, things started happening again. Tampa Bay took an interest in the experiences of the players who play for their farm team like no other previous parent club had. Many are already aware that the existing team locker spaces, located in the War Memorial basement, were completely renovated prior to the start of the 2012-2013 AHL season. The project was done in conjunction with the Lightning, who was looking for an upgraded environment for their prospects and an extra motivation for AHL veterans to want to come to Syracuse to play.
During the course of the renovations, 2,726 square feet was added on for office spaces for the coaching staff, while a larger area for strength and conditioning was created. Storage room and a waiting lounge for players' friends and family was added on. The player lounge, kitchen area, trainer treatment room, tub & shower spaces, drying room, and equipment room were completely renovated. Pictures of the finished results of all of that can be seen on the Facilities Management projects page for Onondaga County, at the bottom of the page.
Then last summer, the arena itself underwent some physical changes that were certainly more noticeable to fans attending the games. Brand new dashers were installed, updating the arena's boards to NHL standards. Those boards improved both player safety and how fans viewed the game. The dashers that had previously been in use had not been replaced since the Crunch's inaugural season, so the upgrade was certainly needed and appreciated by all involved, even if it did take away some of those fun bounces off the boards that Crunch fans always liked discussing. The Crunch also spent a lot of time, again with encouragement from the Lightning, looking at things they could do to improve their ice surface to make it better to play on.
This summer, even more is going down at the old barn. Under a joint plan that has been mapped out by the county, the Crunch, and the Lightning, the War Memorial's rink is (hopefully) going to be brought up to standard NHL size. Currently, there are only two rinks in the AHL that are not 200 feet long by 85 feet wide, which is the standard size for all NHL rinks. The Crunch's goal is to have that league-wide number down to one by the time the Crunch opens their 22nd season on October 17th. Also, as a side note to the project, the team is looking at ways to make their benches larger, as things are currently pretty cramped even without a backup goalie sitting with either team.
The plan, according to Syracuse Crunch Chief Operating Officer Jim Sarosy, is fairly straightforward and simple. Somewhere between 100 to 150 seats will be affected by the project. The team has a couple of things they're going to look at to maintain their 6,000+ seating capacity, something that is really important to the organization. No season ticket holders currently sit where the construction is going to take place.
One of the things Sarosy said the organization won't do is anything that will affect the improvements to the Crunch's ice surface. For instance, the Crunch originally had two big bay doors in use on the opposite side of the arena from where the construction is going to take place. Those doors lead directly outside the arena and both were used by the Zamboni drivers as a turn-around for years. This past season saw the Crunch lose a section of seating so that both Zamboni machines would be able to use just one of the doors. That alone led to a huge improvement in the War Memorial's ice surface. Sarosy said that bringing back that section to make up for the loss in seating on the other end of the building is not on the table. There are other "nooks and crannies" that the team is looking at to fit more seats in.
A project of this size obviously isn't inexpensive. In addition to ripping out whole sections of seats and digging down into concrete, Sarosy said that 380 more pipes are going to have to be laid to ensure that the chemicals which keep the ice frozen are evenly distributed under the newly expanded portion. Cost-wise, the exact percentages haven't been figured out yet. As this is a government project, the details are much less transparent than if the Crunch were undergoing it themselves, and the age of the building makes things even more murky. Sarosy did say that the majority of the cost will be covered by Onondaga County.
Sarosy explained that this was an important initiative to the Lightning, and that their emphasis on it made it an important initiative to Syracuse. Syracuse and Tampa are currently affiliated through 2017, and spearheading this initiative keeps the Crunch as an attractive partner to all NHL clubs, the Lightning included. Fans of the Crunch have been know to enjoy the more physical aspects of the game that the War Memorial's currently cramped rink creates, but developing prospects on a different ice surface than the one they're eventually expected to play on is a bigger issue than most people might think. Bringing the War Memorial's rink up to standard NHL size will improve players' transitions between the two leagues.
With the Crunch hosting the AHL All-Star game this winter, this is the perfect time for the organization to show off its improved facilities. It's also a great time to showcase the positive relationship with the Tampa Bay Lightning that helped those improvements happen.
Sarosy will be posting pictures and updates of the construction as it goes along on his Twitter account, and asked us to let everyone know they should follow along to see how the changes are coming. He will be doing more features on the project with us at Raw Charge as the summer continues. We'd like to thank him for his time, and we look forward to talking to him again.