Calgary Flames

What the Calgary Flames’ new arena should copy from the United Center in Chicago

After much back and forth and endless political posturing by everyone involved, the Flames are officially going to have a new home in the coming years. The arena project is expected to include many other elements, including a community rink, outdoor and indoor meeting spaces, and more, but the key facility in all of this is the big shiny new arena for the Flames, Calgary Hitmen, Calgary Wranglers, and more.

Undoubtedly, whoever is contracted to design the new arena will be exploring rinks across North America and around the world to see what works and more importantly what doesn’t to determine what the new arena in Calgary should keep. Having already looked at the SAP Center in San Jose, the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, and the Flames’ current home in the Saddledome, and Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, let’s turn our eyes to the United Center in Chicago, IL, another similar project to the new arena in Calgary. The arena is located just outside of downtown, but still remains accessible broadly.

Here is what the Flames should borrow and definitely not borrow from the home of the Chicago Blackhawks.

History of United Center

Officially opened in 1994, United Center is the second largest arena by capacity in the NHL and the largest basketball arena in the NBA. It is home to both the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bulls, and is owned by the Wirtz Family and Jerry Reinsdorf, the owners of the Blackhawks and Bulls respectively. The arena was almost entirely privately funded, with the owners of the two teams putting up about 20% of the $175 million cost, with the rest being paid for by bank loans. The City of Chicago did help with some of the infrastructure costs, but contributed little to the actual arena development.

Aside from the NBA and NHL, the arena has been home to numerous sporting events including NCAA basketball, gymnastics, tennis, and even bull riding. It has also played host to numerous concerts including Guns N’Roses, Prince, Jay-Z, Aerosmith, Taylor Swift and more.

United Airlines owns the naming rights to the arena, and has since it was built in 1994. The only change to the naming rights was in 2010 when United and Continental Airlines merged, changing the logo on the arena to be the one used previously by Continental.

To wear or to tear

Here is what the Flames’ new home should borrow (wear) or not (tear) from the home of the Blackhawks.

Tear: Ugly exterior facade

United Center has possibly the ugliest appearance of any arena in the NHL right now. Take a look below:

Having been built in 1994, the arena has the brutalist appearance of many buildings being built in that era, and compared to other arenas, it simply does not look good. The nice thing is that thankfully that era is long gone, and glass is the name of the game in modern architecture. The Flames shouldn’t have an issue with wanting to build an arena that looks like this, but if ever the conversation does come up, this should be avoided at all costs.

Wear: Quality interior layout and organization

United Center is incredibly well laid out, with multiple concourses and food options throughout. Let’s take a look through some photos:

The entrance to the arena is very wide, allowing for good flow right into the arena. Perhaps most exciting, the arena has a number of statues, including the iconic Michael Jordan one pictured. While the Flames do not have a reason to have a statue of the second-best NBA player of all time, having a statue of Jarome Iginla would be a huge addition.

Even more than that, the arena has finished walls instead of concrete finishes, as well as many video boards for added engagement.

The arena has multiple concourses, including one limited for boxes and premium seats. This is an added revenue stream that the Flames could look to add for the new arena. The second photo is from the premium concourse—you can see the difference in the way it’s laid out.

From there, the arena has multiple food and drink options, and they are laid out really well inside the arena. Unlike in the Saddledome, the signage is beautifully done and fits with the theme. This may seem like nothing, but it makes a major aesthetic difference.

Wear: Excellent in-game entertainment

The in-game entertainment team in Chicago does a phenomenal job making the game exciting for the fans in the stands. This starts with having just a stunning arena interior, but then continues with engaging programming.

The inside of the arena is beautiful, including comfortable chairs throughout. There are also multiple rows of boxes, as well as three separate sections of seats for fans. You can tell just how large the arena is from the image. The Flames should look to enhance the number of seats in the arena.

The in-game entertainment starts with a wicked pre-game entertainment package that culminates in the skate out. The Blackhawks lean into their name and have a very heavy Indigenous focus in their pre-skate out montage. This is super exciting as well as informative. The Flames have a very good one currently, but should look to update theirs in the new arena.

Then when the game begins, the team uses the huge videoboard to both entertain but also inform fans. The goalie heatmap is helpful for established fans to better understand the opponent, but also to help teach new fans how the game works. They also use many different parts of the board to show stats of what’s going on in the game.

Like other arenas, United Center has a stage area where they have performers going throughout the game. This game, the Blackhawks had a local drum line come and perform during the intermission.

What to expect

The Flames are still a few years away from having a new arena, but the hope is that it is among the most beautiful in the NHL. Given the fact that the City, Province, and CSEC are splitting the cost, this should be reasonable to expect. This should also be done in conjunction with the development of the surrounding area, to make the whole area feel like a real district, similar to Edmonton’s ICE District.

The part that I think Flames fans should hope for is that the new arena has an iconic shape. It’s very easy to make the new arena look like every other building in the league, but the Saddledome has been such a huge part of the Calgary skyline and the city should fight to build a building that continues that legacy. The Saddledome reflects the history and traditions of this city and province, and the new arena should do more of the same.

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