I can't remember last night's dinner but I can prattle off the capacity of the Milwaukee Arena during the Bucks' 1970's glory days like the names of my kids.
Radio play-by-play man Eddie Doucette would dutifully announce each night's attendance and, without question, it would always be the same as Milwaukee's love affair with it's hoop club ran hot with capacity crowds for each game, whether contenders like the Lakers and Knicks were here or if it was an also-ran, like the Pistons.
It was the most people I'd ever seen at once. My junior high school organized bus trips to Bucks games back in those days, and I tried to make each one. Walking into the Arena the first time was magical, seeing the guys I'd listen to each night on the radio right there, warming up in front of the swelling crowd. The lights overhead made the floor practically glow, and as the night went on the rafters filled with smoke from the thousands of cigarettes sparked by fans in the stands.
A venue once at the center of the city's sports universe is back among the living, re-purposed as the home of the UWM basketball team (it's now the UWM Panther Arena), the Milwaukee Wave and now the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals who played there from their inception until moving with everyone else to the Bradley Center in 1988 (the Ads did the season before the shift at Wilson Park, the offshoot of a scheduling dispute between the team and the old MECCA board).
To see hockey back at the Arena Saturday night was a trip: the narrow concourses are still there but they seem much brighter now. Seating levels aren't "parquets" anymore but the railings in the exits remain. The chairs are new, the scoreboard is fantastic and the overhead lights change colors--each bulb has its own I-P address. The changes are part of the $6 million dollars plus poured into the venue by the Wisconsin Center District and the Admirals. Many can't be seen by the average fan, like the new locker rooms and such, and some of the work is unfinished (like the kitchen, which the Arena never had before, remarkably enough).
Saturday night's home opener came off with few if any noticeable glitches, certainly not within the confines of the new boards and glass where the Admirals were losing to Iowa 3-2 before an assemblage numbering 6,458. There's an organ now, played by Miller Park keyboardist Dean Rosco which gave the place a "Slap Shot" kind of feel.The "Human Hockey Puck" still happens during the second intermission. The "Kiss Cam" made the trip across the street, too.
The new team store was rockin', the lines for beer and food were long but not daunting (although I did learn to leave with a minute or so left in each period to beat the queue). The bathrooms are as I remember, with the 1950's-era floor tile buffed to a military shine.
It almost felt as if a collective "Ahhhh!" should've been exhaled at night's end. As fancy and palatial as the Bradley Center was, not to mention the fact the structure was built for hockey first and foremost, the place always felt too big for the Admirals' purposes. A crowd of 65 hundred on a warm October night at the Arena would've been swallowed up amid a sea of empty seats across the street. So much for the home ice advantage. Even sitting halfway up along the blue line at the Arena, it felt as though we were still right on top of the rink, and the place was loud even when the Admirals fell into a 2-0 hole. I can't wait to hear what it's like when the place is full.
That's how many bodies the UWM Panther Arena holds for hockey.
That's how many home games remain, by my count. It felt strange Saturday night to be wearing an Admirals jersey and crossing the street near 4th and State only to turn AWAY from the BMO Harris Bradley Center to head instead for the UWM Panther arena. Nostalgia was thick as all get out as fans reacquainted themselves with an historic venue that, for now, feels new, different, and admittedly unfamiliar. Soon, for fans and players, it'll feel like home.