Robert Guertin Centre – Gatineau Olympiques
The Final Chapters at ‘Le Vieux Bob’
Canada’s National Capital Region is divided into two provinces, and cultures, side-by-side straddling the Ottawa River. On the south bank, English-speaking Ottawa holds Parliament, but the region is not complete without Quebec’s French-speaking Gatineau on the north bank.
These two different jurisdictions so nearby have a rare and very happy upside for hockey fans in Canada; it’s the only place where two of the three constituent leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League, share a market. With the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s playing nearby at Lansdowne Park, on the north bank is Centre Robert-Guertin, home to the Olympiques de Gatineau, and a tremendous history as a cornerstone hockey club in the LHJMQ (Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League).
The Olympiques have had numerous successes since their founding in 1969 and joining the LHJMQ in 1973, they have been to the national championship Memorial Cup a remarkable seven times, including winning in 1997. The list of alumni from the Olympiques who have achieved NHL greatness is immense, including Luc Robitaille, Ales Hemsky, Jose Theodore, Claude Giroux, David Krejci, and coaches Alain Vigneault, Claude Julien, and the legendary Pat Burns.
As well, the club can uniquely claim to have been owned at one time by Wayne Gretzky. The club spent most of their history known as the Hull Olympiques but changed their geographic identifier to coincide with a civic merger of the Hull neighbourhood with the surrounding locales to form the city-region of Gatineau.
The arena of the Olympiques is just as venerable, though its time as home to an LHJMQ club is almost over. The Centre Robert-Guertin is one of the oldest in the CHL, having been constructed in 1952. Though there have been some renovations, it is nowhere near the modern standard for junior hockey rinks in Canada and harkens back to a time when arenas were just about the ice rink, and little else. Still, it is going out gracefully, honouring its namesake, mid-20th-century sportsman and politician Robert Guertin, well. Though outdated, it has come by its loving nickname ‘Le Vieux Bob’ (‘The Old Bob’) by having been such a remarkable part of the civic and sporting history of Gatineau.
By 2021, a new arena will replace the Vieux Bob, and while it is clearly needed, it will lose the old-school charm and history of the current home. Hockey fans and visitors to Ottawa should take the opportunity while they still can to visit this rambling old Québecois barn and enjoy one of the last holdouts of the good old days of junior hockey.
Food & Beverage 2
In a rink like the Old Bob, concession menus are limited to the standards, though prices are good and alcoholic options have improved in recent years. There are four concession booths in each corner of the bowl as well as one under the stands, near the ticket office, and some beer stands midway along the sides of the arena.
The main hot item is the Canadian staple, poutine. Various permutations can be found throughout the arena, with a combo including a snack and drink for $12.75 – a good value for an arena for sure. Pizza can be ordered by the slice or by the box, and it’s possible to take a full pizza to your seat from the concession booths. Another interesting item is the Slush Puppie flavoured ice snack. Chocolate bars, candy floss (‘barbe a papa’), licorice (réglisse), chips, coffee, tea, and pop are all $3. Hot dogs, frites sauce (French fries with gravy), pogo, and nachos are all between $3 and $4. Terrific prices.
In terms of drinks, Coca-Cola is the brand for pop, and beer choices are from Molson. For $8.25, tall cans of Canadian, Molson 67, or Coors Light are available alongside Smirnoff Ice coolers, wine, and Clamato Caesars.
A tip; with the limited number of locations to purchase food, the lineups during intermissions can be very long. The best bet is to go during play or to go downstairs near the ticket booth, where the lineups can be a bit shorter.
This arena is not like the wave of new arenas sweeping junior hockey across Canada. In Ontario, the standard is now miniature-NHL palaces, and whilst the LJHMQ and Western Hockey League tend to build slightly more modest new arenas, the Centre Robert-Guertin takes hockey minimalism to another level.
Entering through the main, side entrance, it becomes clear how small the facility is surrounding the ice pad. You immediately enter the ticket window and merchandise boutique. To the left is a snack bar and then roped off hall featuring the change rooms. To the right, there is a small vestibule featuring a temporary booth for the local STO transit service. Behind this is the Jos Montferrand Bar, which is usually only used for special events.
You immediately enter by the bottom of the seating bowl. There is a walkway along the bottom of the seating bowl and another at the top. Washrooms are in the corners on the lower level and concessions are at the top. Along the upper concourse, the walls are lined with historical displays telling of the history of the Olympiques, which are very informative, and a nice way to spend the intermissions.
The seating bowl itself is as old-time as arenas come. Brightly-coloured sections of wooden seats are tightly crammed along the steep tiers. Because of the compact design, every seat feels right atop the ice. The suites, accessed by catwalks, extend over the top of the seating bowl, and the whole effect could be called cosy or intimidating depending on which team’s being asked.
The banner display is impressive, as it should be for this club. Famous names are honoured as are the seven LHJMQ championships and one Memorial Cup win in 1997. There is a centre-hung scoreboard, but it is dim. There are crisp video boards underneath but these unfortunately only display promotional messages and advertisements, rather than replays. Announcements are bilingual, first in French, and the in-game presentation does not distract with corporate gimmicks at all.
The Centre Robert-Guertin is located at the outer edge of the Isle De Hull, the historic centre of the Gatineau region. Although the immediate surroundings are highly residential, a fifteen-minute walk brings you to the centre of Hull, with bars, restaurants, and lots of government offices. The sprawling Casino du Lac-Leamy is not far away either.
Many of the restos and bars nearby are concentrated on Rue Laval. Bar le Whip is a bit closer, on Maissoneuve. Bistro-brasserie Gainsbourg is well-known on both sides of the river. Nearby, the Gatineau Hills have resort towns and charming B&B’s. The Chelsea Pub in Chelsea is a 20-minute drive north and very charming. At the same time, cosmopolitan and worldly Ottawa is just across the river, minutes away from the arena by bus or car. Canada’s Parliament and scores of national museums share space with trendy neighbourhoods like Byward Market.
The Glebe neighbourhood on the edge of the city centre is home to Lansdowne Park, where the Ottawa 67’s play as well as CFL side the Ottawa Redblacks, and soccer club Fury FC. Of course, the NHL’s Senators also play a bus ride away in Kanata, Ontario. Getting to the area from out-of-town is easy, with good train service to Ottawa from Montreal and Toronto, and an international airport as well. It is about a $25 cab ride from the Ottawa train station to the arena, though a major new train line will soon enhance regional mobility when it opens in Spring 2019.
In short, though the immediate vicinity of the arena isn’t chock-full of options, venture just minutes away and you’ll find yourself in the centre of a world-class destination.
Though the cosmopolitan Olympiques supporters don’t bring the awe-inspiring/terror-inducing madhouse atmosphere of the more remote Quebec teams, the province’s reputation for rabid junior hockey support is alive and well in Gatineau. Much more vocal than their counterparts in Ontario, the small, steep seating bowl helps support direct itself right onto the ice surface. It is obvious the players and referees can hear much of what is yelled at them throughout the night. Though the atmosphere is usually vibrant, it can particularly crackle during meaningful games and will rise to a crescendo that surely has bought the home side more than one win over the years.
Attendance has been very middle-of-the-pack in recent years, matching the team’s performance. Though under 3 000 fans usually fill the arena, the small size of the venue means it rarely feels empty. It will be interesting to see how the attendance resolves itself in the new, larger arena, but for now, the fans enliven the barn with vocal support. Though French is the main language here, almost everyone in Gatineau is bilingual, and this is a great place for hockey fans to overcome their nerves and practice a little French. The Olympiques are very much a community team, and in spite of the hostile reception for visiting teams, supporters are extremely friendly and welcoming.
If you come early enough, there is plenty of parking outside the arena, but once the lot fills up, nearby streets may be the only option. Public transportation is a great alternative, with the STO providing service from points all around Gatineau and from downtown Ottawa across the river. The arena itself is actually within walking distance, on a nice day, from most points in the Ottawa or Gatineau city centres. The walk from Ottawa particularly is very scenic, crossing the Alexandra Bridge under Parliament Hill, leaving English Canada on one side and entering French Canada on the other. The views of the Ottawa River are stunning year round. The beautiful Sentier De L’Isle trail is near the arena, but it can be icebound during the winter.
Inside, the age of the arena means washrooms are quite small and lineups for concessions can be frustrating. It’s best to visit the concessions or washrooms outside of the intermissions, even if it means missing a minute of the action.
Return on Investment 5
If it were possible to score a 6 or 7 here, the Olympiques would attain it. Simply put, there is no better value for sport or entertainment anywhere in the National Capital Region. Tickets range from $13.92 to $16.96, with discounts for seniors. Youth 17 and under can enjoy tickets for just $8.70. Family packs for four are between $30 and $37. Keep in mind there is a $1 administration fee per ticket, but even still, the prices are unbeatable. The Olympiques offer Flex packs of either ten or forty matches, which make for good alternatives to season’s memberships. Food and drink are equally affordable, as is the free parking, making the chance to experience a classic hockey barn well within reach. Don’t expect the fantastic prices to remain in the new arena!
A point for the unusual but terrifically passionate rivalry between the Olympiques and the neighbouring Ottawa 67’s. Though they play in separate leagues, the teams contest the Alexandra Cup, playing a home-and-home series that actually configures in the standings in each respective league. A truly unique and passionate experience. Seeing this series on each side of the river should be on any junior hockey fan’s bucket list!
An extra point for the thorough history pages on the Olympiques website, such as explanations of the banners in the arena, which add to the experience in-arena. On the same note, the informative displays in the concourses provide plenty to learn during the intermission.
An extra point for the placement of the team benches, which are on opposing sides of the ice. This may not seem like a big deal, but it goes a long way to preventing skirmishes between benches which are often a waste of time.
A final, key extra point acknowledging the history and old-school vibe of the arena, which makes for a unique experience that is sadly becoming very difficult to enjoy. This is one of the last of the old guard of junior hockey temples still in action in Canada.
Although the arena only achieves a middling score in our rankings, it is absolutely one of the best pilgrimages for a true hockey fan. The chance to see CHL hockey still played in such a character-filled barn is an opportunity that should be cherished, and immediately taken advantage of. Though some of the modern comforts and amenities don’t apply here, the ‘Vieux Bob’ is a rambling place filled to the brim with Olympiques history and great hockey moments. That it exists in the heart of the National Capital Region, so easily accessible, and with so many cultural activities and big-city delights, is remarkable.
The new, and needed, arena plans for Gatineau are bittersweet; time is running out for fans to experience this gem of an arena before the Olympiques open their next home. Though that will be an exciting day, it will mean the epic story of this arena must close. To see the ‘Old Bob’ is to see hockey history in action, and is a chance to be a part of the final chapters of this storied place. It’s a journey not to be missed!
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Latest Crowd Reviews
With the opportunity to see some great QMJHL hockey, a trip to Gatineau is worth your time and money. A superb return on investment, Olympiques hockey brings you back to a previous era, where sports were simple, and a great place to see all of your friends in the neighbourhood. I’m not sure what to expect when they close the doors for the final time, and christen a new building, so take Robert-Guertin for one last dance … while you still can. You may regret never getting there.