'Library' checked out

GENE PEREIRA - Special to the Examiner

David Cottenie had no idea of the playful nickname fans had tagged the Barrie Molson Centre with the first time he watched a Barrie Colts game there.

Along with his wife, the Kitchener native had made the trek north to meet and get to know his future brother-in-law better. And what better way to break the ice and get better acquainted than a night out for the two

couples at an Ontario Hockey League game?

It wouldn't take long for Cottenie to figure out exactly why fans playfully call the local arena 'The Library.'

"I'm trying to get to know this guy and I'm feeling self-conscious that I shouldn't be talking now. It was so quiet," Cottenie said of the rink he would later go on to provide a full review of for the popular website

"It was my first impression of going to a game in Barrie and, at that time, I wasn't looking at it very critically from a review standpoint," he said. "That really jumped out, how quiet it is.

"I never knew (The Library) was a common moniker. It's just my take on it. I was waiting for some lady to shush me."

Cottenie, of course, took a more critical view of the Barrie Molson Centre when it came time to write his review for the popular American website, which he first came across not too long ago.

He loved how they provided fans with a detailed and informative review of rinks and stadiums that host all four major league sports, including the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, National Football League and Major League Baseball.

But having grown up following the Kitchener Rangers, the long-time hockey fan wondered why didn't do the same with the 20 venues that host OHL hockey. That's when he got in contact with website president and co-founder Paul Swaney.

"Dave contacted me and said, 'I really like your site a lot, but you don't have any OHL reviews and you're really missing out on a lot. I think you really need to start doing it'," said Swaney, a Michigan native who first started the website in July 2009. "I said, 'OK, would you like to?' He said 'OK' and it's gone from there.

"Several writers have come about that way where they contact me and have a particular interest and so we add it to what we cover and I'm kind of glad that we did," he added. "I've been to three OHL arenas now and I think they're great. I think the OHL is really fun to watch."

Today, the website has reviewed more than 733 venues and has 63 writers based in 13 different countries contributing in-depth reviews on venues that host everything from professional and college teams to junior hockey teams.

A long-time sports fan himself, the idea of such a website first came to Swaney when he was living in Chicago four years ago and his son, Owen, was born.

"Something about being a father made me think about the fact that some day we're all going to die and we should all be doing things that we love," he said. "So it made me think about what I would like to do and I thought if I could do anything in the world I would love to travel to different sporting events and write about it.

"With that in mind, I decided to start doing something about it, so we started the website."

The original idea was to do just post reviews of NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL venues, but he got through those pretty quick and decided to keep adding to it. Today, fans can check out reviews for sporting facilities that host NASCAR, college basketball and even soccer stadiums in Europe.

"Basically, we want people to reference (the review) before they go to a game so they know what to expect and have some idea of things that they should try to make sure to see, do, eat and that sort of thing," Swaney said.

"The thing that I get that is most gratifying is people that will see a review and send me an e-mail and want more information or, even better, people who will send me an e-mail and say, 'Hey, I read your review and we went to (whatever game) and followed the advice and had a good time and thanks for doing it.'

"That's really gratifying."

Including the Barrie Molson Centre, 10 of the 20 OHL venues have been reviewed by the website, including Brampton, Mississauga, London, Kitchener, Owen Sound and Guelph.

Cottenie is busy finishing up reviews on Peterborough and Oshawa and will be heading to Belleville and Kingston at the end of this month and then Sarnia early next month.

"We'll have almost all the OHL done by the end of this season," Cottenie said.

The Barrie Molson Centre is given three out of five stars for a FANFARE score. The FANFARE score is the site's device for rating each stadium experience and covers everything from food and beverage, atmosphere, surrounding neighbourhood, fans, access, return on investment and extras.

It also includes surrounding places to grab food or drink before and after the game, other entertainment in the area and even lodging availability.

"We want to show the whole experience and for many people the whole experience includes what you're going to do before or what you're going to do after," Cottenie said. "To me, with Barrie the unique thing is that you can make this as part of your vacation. If you're a skier and you want to go to Horseshoe Valley or Moonstone, that's great. You could do that and then catch the Colts game at night. Or you can hit a game and then hit the slots at (Georgian Downs)."

It's all totally from a fans point of view.

"We try to be as recommendation focused as we can, so we are giving an opinion," Swaney said. "I can tell you if the hot dog is good or it's no good and hopefully my misery can be avoided or my joys can be repeated by the next person."

That means a lot of stadium and arena hot dogs and Swaney mentions not all have agreed with him.

"Absolutely," Swaney said with a chuckle when asked if he's had a few stomach aches along the way. "I've gained some weight doing this. I do try to eat a couple of things at each arena and I do try and stop by a restaurant beforehand or afterwards, so I probably eat more than I should on each trip."

Swaney recently took in a Plymouth Whalers game on Martin Luther King Day with young Owen.

"I love it. I usually do two or three different arenas a week," he said. "It's a lot of fun. I just hope my car stays alive."

He tries not to look at his odometer too much. The mileage is just spinning these days.

"Yeah, it's gone up a lot," he added with a chuckle.

Cottenie lists the John Labatt Centre in London and the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium among his favourite OHL rinks.

While the JLC is considered one of the jewels among the newer rinks, he loves the atmosphere at the old Auditorium and how the steep seats mean there's not a bad sight line in the rink, not to mention how it's often compared to the old Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

"Those are probably my top two," Cottenie said.

Upon his "official review visit" to the Barrie Molson Centre, Cottenie spent a good chunk of the game sitting by the glass just outside the Horsepower Grill Restaurant.

Among the unique things that stood out about the BMC was that they put the private boxes at the ice level, which he admits is something he's never recalled seeing.

He also spent some time talking to and asking questions to long-time, die-hard Colts fans and their experiences at the BMC.

In his review, he gave the BMC a three out of five stars for atmosphere, but wrote, "In many ways, the atmosphere at the Horsepower Grill is better than the atmosphere at the BMC."

"I like the history that's shown around the rink in Kitchener and I was just at the rink in Peterborough and their building is just dripping with history," Cottenie said. "A lot of that stuff (in Barrie) was in the restaurant as opposed to the arena."

He also found the most unique idea at the BMC was the idea of having luxury boxes at ice level.

"The boxes are actually the closest to the action, right up against the glass," he wrote in his review.

Cottenie gives the BMC a four out of five stars for access, with the arena being located just off Highway 400. He also gave the same mark of four out of five for the return on investment, saying concession prices are decent, while raving about all the free parking available.

While other newer OHL rinks may be bigger and better, Cottenie believes the BMC, which opened on New Year's Eve in 1995, deserves credit for being the "base of what other franchises would look to in future arena construction.

"Seeing the Colts and OHL is well worth the investment, however if you are looking for a rabid fan experience, you will want to look elsewhere," he writes.

Cottenie points out how fans can express their own thoughts on the website.

"You could join the website and be a member and comment on the reviews, say that this is way off base, this is what I thought or I agree totally with what you thought," said Cottenie, who is a teacher in Kitchener and also reviews Canadian Football League venues for the website. "I think it's got a lot of potential for the OHL. We've just taken big huge steps this year and we're actually starting to get a little bit of a buzz. We got a few comments already and the more we get the more we know they're interested."

Cottenie always tries to bring in something different in his reviews because he says it's fair to say that the majority of people checking out the website are from south of the border.

He points to Barrie, being right on the edge of cottage country and being a nice vacation destination. And best of all, he hopes the website will allow more people to watch the OHL and maybe fall in love with junior hockey the way he did.

"It's neat that we can promote the league and tell other people that, 'Hey, this is great.' This is where your stars are coming from'," he added. "When I can say up in the rafters in Kitchener there's (banners) for guys like Larry Robinson and Paul Coffey, hockey guys know who those guys are.

"It is a lot of fun."

Swaney plans to soon get up a separate tag for the OHL like he has for the four major sports and others along the top of the website's homepage so fans will be able to find the reviews easily.

"I'm pretty proud of how quickly the concept has taken off and how we've been able to get a group of people together," Swaney said of the website. "We post two new reviews every day at this point. The nice thing about this concept is there really is no end in sight. We can always expand, we can always do something more."

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