There are really two answers to that question. First, the arenas with the best broadcast locations, since that’s always my vantage point. Second, the arenas that provide the best fan experience.
Regarding the former, most of the NHL’s arenas are similarly built, meaning that the press box locations don’t differ that much from location to location. They are situated at center ice and are at the top of the arena. Being high up helps one see plays develop and that’s very useful for broadcasters. Fans might wonder how play-by-play announcers can identify players from that height. It’s not unmanageable, although the task becomes more difficult as one gets farther back from the ice surface. Still, after having called college games from press boxes that were located behind a net (from where it’s not easy to clearly see the action at the other end), all these top of the building press boxes provide broadcasters an excellent view so that we can do our jobs.
We all have our favorites, however, and Atlanta is one of mine. At Philips Arena, the luxury suites are all located on one side of the arena and are stacked on top of each other. The press box is at the very top. Therefore, the broadcast location, while high up, is quite close to the playing surface. Then there are the Canadian buildings. Five of those six arenas built their press boxes as gondolas or halos. In other words, the press box is actually in front of the upper level seats. Again, it gives broadcasters a much closer look at the action on the ice. I love calling games in both Toronto and Montreal. Tampa Bay doesn’t travel as often to Western Canada (next week being an exception), but Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver have wonderful setups as well.
In my opinion, Madison Square Garden is the most challenging arena for broadcasters. This is not anyone’s fault within the Rangers organization. MSG was built in the ‘60s and the current management can only work with what exists in the building. The “official” press box is only big enough to seat the TV announcers. It’s just not a great broadcasting locale. The Garden has such a gradual seating grade that in this press box, one is neither high up nor close. The radio announcers are placed closer to the ice in make-shift booths above concourse exits. The home booth is inside one blue line and the visiting booth is at the other. From these spots, seeing the numbers on the jerseys isn’t a problem, but the sightlines are. The angle to the net in the far zone is so sharp that it’s commonplace to lose the puck at that end, especially if there’s traffic in front of the goalie.
But here is the distinction between my two answers. For a fan, MSG is one of the best arenas to see a game. The fans are passionate and knowledgeable. Every game is a sellout and when the Rangers start to generate momentum, there’s a buzz in the air. The Rangers feed off that momentum and that makes the Garden a very tough building for visitors.
For many of the same reasons, going to a game at Montreal’s Bell Centre is special. The crowd is so invested that there is a constant hum throughout the game. As the Canadiens mount an attack, the din gets louder until the sound is literally bouncing off the walls. I recall that in Game Three of the 2004 Eastern Conference Semis, I couldn’t hear myself speak for the opening 10 minutes of the first period. And that was with headsets on!
So if you’re ever in New York or Montreal and have the chance to take in a game, I’d highly recommend it. But I also believe that going to a hockey game is a great experience, no matter the location. Obviously, that includes the St. Pete Times Forum, which can get as loud and electric as any other building in the league.