The Memorial Coliseum Problem

On January 2nd of the New Year, I went with my family to Memorial Coliseum to watch the Portland Winterhawks take on the Kelowna Rockets.

Thanks to an awesome Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium that combined a shootout with snow flurries, and rapidly building anticipation for the upcoming Olympic hockey tournament in (unfortunately) Sochi, I had puck fever.

But once at the Coliseum, I became very afraid that I had a depressed case of dyslexia, or possibly, vertigo. While our tickets called for us to find our seats by section, or number, all the gates were lettered.

It was an impossible task – almost as tough as finder an usher at the Coliseum – and if the crowd looked soft on Thursday night, it’s because half the people in the building were wondering where they were supposed to sit. 

Eventually, we had to sit down somewhere – there were plenty of available seats – so we didn’t miss the game trying to figure out if HH correlated to section 2.

Turns out, we plopped down in a box. And it also turns out that the next box over was the owner’s box. And it turns out that the only way we figured that out was by accidentally walking through it on a hot dog run.

The owner of the Winterhawks – Bill Galacher, a Calgary businessman who bought the team in 2008 – was sitting there in a sweater with his family, and kids climbing all over him as the Winterhawks got blitzed 7-2.

After our little joyride through his box, a blue “Please Do Not Enter” sign emerged at the end of the open box on the side adjacent to where we, and the rest of the We Have No Idea Where We Are Supposed To Sit Club had congregated.

The Western Hockey League is not a glamorous business. The players stay with host families in their home city. Some make it to the NHL, but most don’t. That’s fine. You know what you’re signing up for with minor league sports. And despite all the trouble, and poor performance from the home team, it was a good time.

But the Memorial Coliseum is no place for hockey. Not even minor league hockey. When they can, the Winterhawks play in the building across the way, but the Trail Blazers were hosting the Charlotte Bobcats on Thursday night, and so hockey was relegated to the preverbal basement.

I know the Coliseum is a nostalgic place for the people of Portland and the city itself. But at this point, it’s little more than that. Memorial Coliseum is a horrible hockey arena – there are concrete walls in both end zones that move the fans away from the action and saps the atmosphere in the building.

It’s small – only about 10,000 seats, and barren. The scoreboard screen is broken. The building is close to disrepair. It’s amazing to think that it hosted the NBA less than 20 years ago.

The fact is, the Winterhawks product isn’t as good at the Coliseum. When I want to see a game next, I’ll be sure I go to the Rose Garden Moda Center.

The city of Portland loses money on Memorial Coliseum each year. The operating costs to keep the building open far outweigh the profits made from half the Winterhawks’ schedule and not much else.

And if Paul Allen brings in the NHL – a possibility that’s out there – then there will be nothing to do with the Coliseum except rent it out for birthday parties.

Attempts have been made over the years in Portland to move forward, to make something of the prime real estate in the Rose Quarter, but nothing has come to fruition. Merritt Paulson wanted to build a ballpark for the Beavers there, but was met with a brick wall of opposition, mostly from veterans, on the ground of the memorial that is very real to fallen soldiers on the site.

The name of the building was officially changed to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Beavers moved to California.

The city and the Winterhawks did commit 30 million dollars to renovations, but those were completed in 2012, and I didn’t see anything new or improved on the second day of 2014. What’d they fix, the vending machines?

There has to be a happy medium here between protecting and recognizing the memorial, and making use of the Coliseum. It’s a poor fit for hockey (and for sitting down), and the Winterhawks better hope that their playoff dates don’t clash with the Blazers in the spring.

It may not be feasible to play the Hawks’ entire schedule at the Rose Garden, but it’s something that should be worked on. Many arenas share NBA and NHL teams.

The Memorial Coliseum just isn’t doing anyone any good right now. Turn it into a recreation center, or a retail district, or a museum, or sink enough money in for huge renovations that will make a real, tangible difference.

Don’t just let the building rot. That’s what’s happening right now. The Rose Garden makes it obsolete and inferior, as it should be. The Coliseum is not a nice arena in this day in age. 

Absolutely, the Memorial Coliseum is a Portland gem. We’ll always remember that. But it’s time to put the old place out if its misery.  

About Stuart Kemp

Stuart Kemp is the President of the Portland Winterhawks Booster Club, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.