All posts by curtis72

23 Aug

Return to Buffalo

Yesterday, I set out bright and early for what would be my 27th two-wheeled visit to the great state of New York since defecting from the SPRM just over two years ago. This day’s destination was a return trip to Buffalo after first visiting the city in May of last year.

Rather than tackle virtually the entire distance on my own, as I did last year, I crossed the Rainbow Bridge and caught a #40 Metro bus that took me into the heart of downtown Buffalo. Normally, the bus stops at the first light past the customs plaza, but on account of the congestion around the bridge at this time of year, I had to catch it a couple of blocks to the south at the Niagara USA Visitor Center. There is a sign to this effect at the stop, but no mention of an alternate location to catch it, so I had to rely on a printed schedule I had picked up at the visitor center on a previous trip. You can also download a PDF of the schedule from NFTA’s website.

The bus soon arrived and I loaded my bike on the front rack. The racks are slightly different than the ones some readers might be familiar with on the GO buses. First of all, the handle you have to squeeze to bring down the rack is quite finicky. On my return trip, the driver advised me to jiggle it around before squeezing the handle. Secondly, when loading your bike, rather than twist a handle to bring around a fixed metal bar to lock in your front wheel, there’s a spring-loaded bar you have to pull out to secure it. For a video on the procedure, check NFTA’s website.

Also on their website, NFTA states that about two-thirds of their buses are equipped with bike racks, but throughout my extensive travels in WNY, I have yet to see a Metro bus without one.

I then purchased a day pass for $5, but if you’re just going one way, the regular fare is $2. Note that they only accept U.S. currency. Sorry, no Canadian dollarettes.

daypass
Note that even when standing and waiting at a bus stop, you need to be attentive. If you show the slightest bit of disinterest, the driver will pass you by. NFTA operators are not in the business of reading your mind.

After taking my seat, the driver sped south across Grand Island and through Tonawanda, and I was quickly in downtown Buffalo. I swear they must recruit from the ranks of retired race car drivers. This isn’t Winnipeg Transit, where they often dawdle along.

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One of my first targets was the First Niagara Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres. Outside the arena was the Tops Alumni Plaza, where they honor Sabres greats from the past. The statue out front honors the French Connection line, but I was disappointed to see no mention of former Jets goaltender Joe Daley, who once played in Buffalo.

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Nearby, on the site of the former Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, more commonly referred to as “the Aud,” was a statue of Tim Horton. Though today, he is noted for the wildly successful chain of coffee and donut shops bearing his name, he was a former NHL defenseman who last played for the Sabres before his death in 1974 right here in St. Catharines. Drunk as a skunk, he died in a one-vehicle accident on the QEW near the Lake Street exit.

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The Tim Hortons location just across the street from the statue.

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Shots around the Canalside park. This is site of the former Aud and the concrete jungle in the background is the Buffalo Skyway and the adjacent interchange with I-190.

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Across Main Street. In the distance to the right is the building which houses the offices of The Buffalo News.

As you would expect, it wouldn’t be a bike trip for me without getting shots of some highways, so I went for a short ride around the downtown area. One of the spots I ended up at was Niagara Square, right in front of City Hall.

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I can still picture Scott Norwood, the former Birmingham Stallions kicker who also played for the Bills, who tearfully dedicated the entire 1991 season to the city of Buffalo at this very spot. Little could I have imagined that one day I would actually be standing here.

With still much ground to cover, I returned to the Erie Canal Harbor Station to catch a Metro train.

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At the station, I noticed this bike-sharing service, similar to what they have in Minneapolis, Hamilton and Toronto. Of late, I have been reading about Winnipeg’s thriving bike-sharing service, where nowadays, even one lock isn’t enough to keep your bike from being involuntarily shared with a scumbag. No, I don’t miss Winnipeg, if there are any readers left who still possess a shred of doubt.

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I wheeled my bike aboard at the wheelchair platform and went to the back to one of the two spots in each car designated for wheelchairs. Unlike the trains in Minneapolis, there are no racks, and you do have to hold on to your bike as it speeds through the tunnel between downtown and the University station.

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Inside the train.

The fare is the same as it is on Metro buses and there are machines where you can purchase tickets. It is free to ride above ground, but a paid fare is required farther north when it goes underground. As is the case with GO and in Minneapolis, it is policed largely on the honor system, though NFTA officers can ask to see your proof of payment. I still laugh when I think of how such a system would fail so miserably in Winnipeg.

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After a short ride, I took my bike into the spacious elevator and returned to street level. From there, I proceeded north along US 62 to NY 324/Sheridan Drive, stopping for many highway pictures en route. Following a brief break at the Walmart in Amherst, I continued west along Sheridan Drive towards the South Grand Island Bridge, where I planned to reconnect with the #40 bus.

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I had to stop here for a shot of the Amigone Funeral Home in the Town of Tonawanda. Not to be confused with the City of Tonawanda. Or the City of North Tonawanda.

I suspect it’s an Italian family name pronounced something like “am-eh-go-nee,” but it can be interpreted very differently when preceding a funeral home. If you’re the guest of honor, you don’t need to ask. You’re gone.

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These giraffes tower over Adventure Landing, an amusement center.

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I stopped for another breather here outside the Town of Tonawanda Aquatic and Fitness Center. For the record, I really don’t care who the town supervisor is.

From there, I continued west and didn’t have long to wait before the #40 bus came and took me back to Niagara Falls. I got off near the Rainbow Bridge, paid my 50-cent toll and waited in a long line with all the other tourist traffic.

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The hour-long delay allowed me to get this shot from the bridge.

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After clearing customs, I made it back home without incident, having packed a long and intensive experience into a few hours.

10 Aug

Geek Humor from the Past

For starters, if you’re not a techie, you probably won’t find much in the way of entertainment in this post. You’re certainly welcome to read on, but you’re not likely to get it.

Many years ago, while sitting at my desk one day, a colleague came to me and asked for my help. For the sake of discussion, let’s just call her Maria.

I followed her to her desk, where she showed me her screen. Flustered and deeply distraught over something that had clearly been troubling her for some time, she insisted that “something was wrong with the operating system.” On her screen, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw user32.dll, a Windows system file, open in Notepad.

Instead of sarcastically asking her what she could possibly hope to accomplish by editing this binary file, assuming Windows would even let her do it, I calmly asked her to take me through what she was doing. She said it all started when she ran some module in a Microsoft Access database, so I asked her to run the code.

She seemed a little reluctant, as if she was scared of causing further damage to her apparently fouled-up Windows installation, but she acceded to my request. The code ran until the debugger stopped at a function, where it gave her an error message. Not being familiar with the specific function, I asked her if she checked the help manual for the function.

Little could I have imagined that the concept of online help was quite the revelation to poor Maria, whose eyes lit up like Christmas trees when I pressed F1. Imagine. Product help. Hey, you learn something new every day. Googling the function also hadn’t entered her mind at all either.

A 15-second investigation revealed that one of the parameters was wrong, so after a simple fix, the code miraculously began to work. The operating system wasn’t corrupt after all.

You don’t say.

Now you might be thinking that big, bad Curtis is just being too hard on poor Maria. She’s probably a recent graduate, and who among us hasn’t made a silly mistake or two at that point of our careers? Everyone has to start somewhere.

And you might be right.

Except that Maria wasn’t a recent graduate. She was actually older and more experienced than I was, and I had more than a decade under my belt at the time. A recent graduate probably wouldn’t even have had enough knowledge to head for the Windows directory and open up user32.dll.

I’ve seen a lot during my multi-decade career in IT. Few top this one. The thought process that led an experienced developer from a misbehaving Access function to editing user32.dll in Notepad is probably something I don’t ever want to know.

29 Jun

Thoughts on Niagara GO

Yesterday, I was among the handful of non-politicians present as our MPP, Jim Bradley, and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca made the “historic” announcement that GO train service will be coming to Niagara.

That was the good news.

The bad news?

St. Catharines and Niagara Falls won’t be seeing the trains until 2023. That’s seven years from now.

Yawn.

Despite the massive letdown, in an understatement of epic proportions, that leaves plenty of time for our local elected officials to lay out the necessary groundwork to make this new service a win instead of a setback.

First, there must be vastly improved transit service to the St. Catharines train station from both St. Catharines Transit and Niagara Region Transit. As things stand, it would probably take me longer to get to the train station than it does for the GO bus to take me from Fairview Mall to Burlington.

In a recent chat with the Standard, I posed the question to Mayor Sendzik as to when we could expect such plans to be announced if the much-anticipated GO service came. All I got was a politician’s non-answer. This is the time when the planning needs to get done, not two years after the trains start rolling.

Secondly, a full Presto rollout throughout the region’s many transit systems should be considered a must, along with a discounted co-fare for those coming from or transferring to the GO service. This is commonplace throughout the GTHA and it should be no different here.

Finally, lift the restrictions on taking bicycles on the train during peak times. I know this is more of a personal issue, but cycling is a lot more popular in this part of the world than it was in the SPRM. It is not just a much more accepted mode of transportation with the locals, but people come from all over the world to explore the region on two wheels. They can bring their bikes on the bus today and it should be no less permissible when the train comes, regardless of the time of day or day of the week.

You want to play with the big boys? Act like it.

There’s lots of time to get this right.

No excuses.

13 Jun

Return to Tiger Town

For the second year in a row, I made the trek to Hamilton for the open house at the Tiger-Cats’ new stadium.

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As soon as I boarded the Barton bus after getting off the GO, I knew I wasn’t going to be alone as it was filled with fans, young and old, decked out in Ticats gear. CFL football may not have that strong of a following in this part of the world, but those who do follow the league are mighty passionate about it.

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Outside, there was a table where they were clearing out some of last year’s merchandise at heavily discounted prices. Evidently, Hamiltonians like their bargains as much as Winnipeggers do, as there was a mad rush to get in line for first crack at the goodies. Having a strong aversion to crowds, as they say in Texas, El Paso.

As was the case last year, there was no charge to get in, but this time around, they forced attendees to register and show their ticket at the gate. The lines moved agonizingly slow, and I’ve made it through the pat-down security at NFL games in Minneapolis faster than it took me to get through the gate on Sunday. I don’t know what the hold-up was, but I hope they clear up the problems if they do this again.

Once I was eventually let in, I took some shots around the south end before going up to the club level.

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The “Champions Club” is an impressive restaurant/bar where VIPs can sit and watch the game while enjoying their food and drink.

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Outside, I spotted the flags representing the Ticats’ two retired numbers. At left is Bernie Faloney’s #10 and at right is Angelo Mosca’s #68. After a Google search, I learned that Mosca lives right here in St. Catharines.

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I was also pleased to see more recognition of their proud past with the names of those on the Wall of Honor displayed inside the Champions Club.

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Nearby was a dedicated “No Alcohol” section, and I would later spot another such section at the opposite corner of the stadium. Having been treated to some horrid experiences at Winnipeg Stadium back in the 1980s, I would be curious to see if there was the same rowdy, out-of-control atmosphere here as there was in Winnipeg. Maybe one of these days, I’ll actually go to a game and find out.

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I spotted this guy on the west side concourse. You think he’s a fan?

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Later, once we were allowed on the field, he went to see quarterback Zach Collaros.

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On the east side is the steam whistle they blow before every game.

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There’s undoubtedly some history behind it that I’ll have to look into one of these days.

At noon, they let us on the field and we were free to roam at will for the next hour.

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I wasn’t aware Brantford was in line for a CFL franchise.

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Many players were stationed along the sidelines and fans could line up for the chance to meet them. Not surprisingly, the line to see Collaros was the longest.

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I continued on over towards the alumni table. I would have been quite interested in meeting some of the greats of years past were I a long-tenured fan of the franchise. But I’m not.

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Jeremiah Masoli, who eventually became the starting quarterback after the midseason injury to Collaros.

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Chad Owens, who came over from C.U. during the off-season. “Argos Suck” was a familiar line I saw and heard during the day.

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One of the mascots.

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Luke Tasker, the son of Buffalo Bills’ great Steve Tasker.

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Mike Filer, the team’s starting center, takes the stage for an interview.

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Having covered the field several times, it was time to return home. I’m not sure I’ll go if they have an open house next year, but it was nice of the team to offer us the opportunity to look around and I was glad I made the trip.

23 May

Cycling Across the Niagara Bridges – A Reference Guide

Since coming to St. Catharines almost two years ago, I have acquired a significant amount of first-hand experience crossing the border on two wheels. Having even been asked by CBSA officers and tourism officials on both sides of the border on the procedures to cross on a bike, I have put together a guide for your reference:

Queenston-Lewiston Bridge (known by Americans as the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge)

With the non-intuitive process, I already did a little write-up on crossing this bridge, and I’ll point you to that blog entry here.

Given the heavy truck traffic on this bridge, I would highly recommend not using this bridge during the week and waiting until the weekend when the traffic is lighter.

When crossing from Canada to the U.S., there is a sign instructing cyclists to report to the toll captain before proceeding, but when I was last across, I asked the toll captain if I had to wait for him if no one was around. He said you don’t have to wait for anyone, and as long as you know the procedure, you can proceed.

Whirlpool Bridge

This bridge, connecting the downtown areas of Niagara Falls, Ontario and New York, is only for NEXUS card holders. I had to tell the CBSA officer who interviewed me for my NEXUS card the other day that, as per the NFBC’s website, cyclists are prohibited on this bridge, though there are no signs at the bridge expressly saying so.

Rainbow Bridge

This bridge at Niagara Falls is by far the best for a cyclist to use due to the fact that commercial trucks are prohibited and that it connects residential streets rather than Interstate-equivalent freeways. There are no longer any NEXUS lanes, but simply proceed with the cars and pay your 50-cent toll upon leaving the U.S.

For those looking for an extended journey, there is a stop for the #40 NFTA bus, which links Niagara Falls to Buffalo, at the first light past customs. Most NFTA buses have bike racks, and for $2 US, you can extend your range substantially. For more information, consult NFTA’s website.

Peace Bridge

On this bridge, connecting Fort Erie to Buffalo, cyclists must walk across in either direction. Unlike the NFBC, the bridge authority provides details and maps on their website, and I urge anyone crossing there to visit the site or watch the following video from the bridge authority:



I personally have not crossed into Canada on this bridge on two wheels, but I have walked over in the opposite direction. Do not proceed with the cars and instead approach the building on foot, press the buzzer and wait. Leave your bike outside at the rack provided and enter the building when prompted by a CBP officer. Inside, you will be processed and the officer will wave a handheld radiation detector around you as part of the inspection.

Once cleared, proceed through the parking lot, under the bridge and onto Busti Avenue. Downtown Buffalo will be to the south, and to the north, you can head toward the Shoreline Trail that follows the river north into Tonawanda, going under the South Grand Island Bridge and through Nia-Wanda Park.

18 May

Voyage Under the Center of the Universe

Yesterday, I made another trip to Toronto, spending the bulk of the day in the universe’s center.

I left the house bright and early and walked to Fairview Mall to catch the #12 GO bus. Waiting nearby at the bus stop was a scruffy character madly gorging himself on a large box of Sugar Crisp as if someone was about to take it away from him.


Just can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp!

Just after St. Catharines’ answer to the Sugar Bear got to the bottom of the box, the bus pulled up and I joined about 15-20 others in getting on board.

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Traffic was moving slowly as we got past Burlington Street in Hamilton, but we eventually made it to the Burlington GO station, where I joined most of the others in heading to the platform to wait for the train.

While waiting, I spotted someone standing close by who had her eyes closed and was gently nodding her head up and down. No, she was not wearing headphones.

Watching her reminded me of a scene in Slap Shot, when “Killer” Carlson was recanting “One with the universe,” a line from the recordings of the Swami Baha, while his teammates were getting the tar beat out of them by Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken’s Syracuse Bulldogs. If you recall, McCracken was the head coach and chief punk on that Syracuse team, known for his ability to carve out a man’s eye with the flick of a wrist. But I digress.

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The train came shortly enough and we soon began making our way east toward Union Station. As the seats began filling up, I noticed what looked to be a small, semi-permanent gathering place for the homeless right by the tracks. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw three of them seated on plastic chairs tapping away on their cell phones. I’ve heard about texting and driving, but texting and homeless? And again, I’m supposed to feel sorry for them. I’ve worked hard to pay my own way through life and I’ve never had a cell phone.

Closer to Union Station, I spotted a billboard for Krave Gourmet Jerky. How anyone could categorize ground-up testicles and hooves as “gourmet” is beyond me.

Just before pulling into the station, we got another introduction from our “customer service ambassador.” GO runs a fantastic service, but these self-serving introductions that are now coming a rate of twice per trip are growing increasingly annoying.

Following a bathroom break, I then followed the signs for the subway for what would be my first underground rail experience. Having just paid for my GO train ride, I kept my Presto card at hand and used it at the subway entrance to get through the turnstile. TTC is in the process of rolling out Presto throughout their system and not every station is Presto-enabled as yet, but luckily, Union is one of them.

As I would discover later, for those paying cash, you can either purchase a magnetic-striped ticket at the counter or put $3.25 into a machine and get a token smaller than a penny. To get through the non-Presto turnstiles, you swipe your ticket or deposit the pin-size token, assuming you didn’t drop it on your way from the vending machine.

When I got through the turnstile, I was glad I prepared ahead, since the #1 line serving Union Station runs northbound, but in two different directions. You need to know if you’re going north via University Avenue or Yonge Street, but I knew I was going via Yonge, so I quickly hopped aboard the waiting train headed that way. Even if I had missed it, however, they run about every three to four minutes.

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Seconds after I sat down, the doors closed and we began heading north underneath Yonge Street. Once again, just like on the GO train and buses, the subway cars were clean and the vomit, graffiti, condom wrappers and beer bottles frequently found aboard Winnipeg Transit buses were conspicuously absent.

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A handy feature was the subway system map above the doors where it not only shows the routes, but an amber light flashes at the next stop, while stops already covered are in green and those to come are in red. When approaching a connecting line, the entire line flashes on the map and a special announcement is made to that effect.

As you would expect, verbal announcements are also made at each stop, telling passengers not only the name of the station, but whether the doors will open on the left or right.

Near every seat is a yellow strip to press in the event of an emergency, and according to the posted signs, misusing it is a $500 fine. I can’t imagine the fun the hoodlums and bums would have it if they put such a thing aboard Winnipeg Transit buses. There, it would be more fitting to put in a yellow strip to press if there wasn’t an emergency.

When passing the College station, I couldn’t help but notice the mural depicting Montreal Canadiens players. Maybe one of these days, Toronto will get its own NHL team.

I got off at the Sheppard-Yonge station, where I had to go up an escalator to transfer to the eastbound #4 line. It was then I realized there are two levels of this underground rail system. All this, while Winnipeg is still farting around with Rapid Transit. But again, I digress.

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My subway ride came to an end at the Don Mills station, where I followed the crowd up to street level right by, oddly enough, Fairview Mall. I then proceeded east on Sheppard, stopping for pictures of 404, before turning south on Victoria Park Avenue.

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This is a shot I couldn’t resist. NBCUniversal just had to have a presence in the Center of the Universe.

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Crossing the 401, the world’s busiest highway, I continued south to Lawrence, west across the DVP to Don Mills Road, then south to Eglinton, where I again proceeded west.

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There are a lot of people in Toronto, but also a lot of raccoons, giving rise to new entrepreneurial opportunities.

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On Eglinton, there were times when I was getting farther on foot than the cars were on account of the multiple lane closures as GO puts in the Eglinton Crosstown line. More superior transit service, while, again, Winnipeg still farts around with Rapid Transit at great expense with nothing but ridicule to show for it.

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Farther down Eglinton, I ran into our esteemed premier’s constituency office.

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Across the street, not by coincidence, is a nice, big “in your face” billboard from The Rebel aimed squarely at Canada’s most unpopular premier. Of course, that distinction used to belong to Greasy Greg Selinger until he and his gang were unceremoniously thrown out of office. I posted this picture on Twitter today and it is quickly making the rounds in Twitterverse.

I was hoping to cover more ground, but growing tired and weary after putting on so many miles on foot, I decided instead to continue west to the Eglinton-Yonge subway station and return to Union. Oddly, one of the more popular stations on the route was not well-signed on street level, but I eventually found it and went below to catch a train.

Sadly, this was not a Presto-enabled station, so I had fork over the cash for a token. It also cost me a little extra, since the fare when paying with Presto is 40 cents cheaper. For those who are not aware, not only is paying with Presto more convenient, but cheaper. Each round trip to Toronto saves approximately $3.00, the TTC and OC Transpo fares are also cheaper with Presto, and the Hamilton Street Railway fare is only 50 cents when transferring from the GO bus. The card itself costs $6.00, but it more than pays for itself, even in the short term.

On board, the southbound train was packed, and I was lucky to get a seat after someone got off at the next stop. As in the northbound direction, the train moved swiftly, and I was soon back at Union.

Before getting on a Lakeshore West train, I wanted to make one last stop at the gift shop of the nearby NHL Hall of Political Correctness, known to most of you as the so-called Hockey Hall of Fame. Just for the heck of it, I wanted to browse around and to see if they had any small trinkets from the late Atlanta Thrashers, and I shouldn’t have been surprised when I didn’t find anything. On my way in, however, I could have sworn that I spotted Craig Ramsay, the last coach of the Thrashers, talking on his cell phone. Now that would have been an interesting encounter.

Following that diversionary trip, I returned to Union, where a Lakeshore West train was minutes from departing, so I went right up to the platform and found an empty seat. The train soon took off and I watched the familiar sights go by while recovering from a long day.

Everything seemed to be going normally until we got to the Oakville station. There, passengers who were disembarking got off, then the rest of us waited for the train to continue on.

But it didn’t.

Minutes later, our customer service ambassador, who again needlessly introduced himself as we were leaving Union, got on the intercom and told us this train was no longer in service because of “an emergency farther west.” He then instructed us to disembark and proceed to the bus loop, where buses would be waiting to take us farther west.

Great. GO suddenly turns into Rapid Transit.

I followed the rest of the crowd to the one waiting bus and was lucky to get on board. With no more room left, the bus took off, leaving countless numbers left to wait for another bus. We then proceeded through stop-and-go rush-hour traffic from station to station along the QEW. It was only on board that I heard from other passengers that there was a fire near the tracks, which forced the temporary closure of the Lakeshore West line.

When we got to Appleby, rather than take us one more stop to the Burlington station, we were told to get off the bus and wait for the next westbound train. No signs were posted as to which track it would be on or when it would be coming, so I just followed the crowd and asked a few people who I recognized from the bus.

Seemingly almost by accident, I ended up in the right place and ended up as part of an interesting conversation with three 20-somethings named Abby, Maria and Constantine.

Though soft-spoken, Maria was by far the most talkative of the three, and we listened as she espoused her theories on government conspiracies. According to her, the government wants to legalize marijuana to keep the people from thinking for themselves, briefly touching on how smoking weed opens up some part of the brain that normally doesn’t get used. I didn’t quite follow her thought process, but then she went on to talk about how the government might have started the fires in Fort McMurray because of the oil.

As Maria was treating us to her pseudoscientific thoughts, Abby grabbed onto the guard rail behind us and started doing some stretching exercises. I was again reminded of a former colleague who used to get up during meetings and go through all sorts of weird gyrations and contorting himself into varied and unimaginable positions. One loyal reader and former colleague will remember and no doubt laugh heartily at this reference.

After claiming to be able to read people’s minds and proudly stating “I am everything,” Maria then started talking about how to save money by peeing in the shower. I listened patiently as she and Abby exchanged their thoughts on this riveting topic. I just know I can use this stuff somewhere in a future writing project and conveniently left the fact that I was a writer with an off-beat sense of humor out of the conversation.

With so much writing fodder in the air, I was almost disappointed when the train showed up. We all got on and, minutes later, we pulled up to the Burlington station. After saying our goodbyes, I got in line for the #12 bus to St. Catharines and an hour later, I was back at Fairview Mall, again having squeezed full value from my travel dollars.

It ended up as a much different kind of adventure than I had planned, but no less interesting and one I won’t soon forget.

12 May

IceDogs Last Stand

This week, I attended Games 3 and 4 of the OHL finals between the IceDogs and the visiting London Knights, as I managed to get a seat for both games during the mad rush for tickets.

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For Monday night’s Game 3, I made sure to leave early to take in the Dog Run, the portion of St. Paul Street between the two pedestrian bridges closed to traffic for a street party in honor of the Eastern Conference champions.

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Maybe I just got there too early, but the atmosphere was oddly subdued. Meridian had a tent where they were giving out free popcorn, CKTB had a tent where they had just finished an interview with the Burkes, and they had some games for kids, but there wasn’t a whole lot else going on.

The bars and restaurants, however, were packed, and on Wednesday night, there was a line outside waiting to get into one of the bars. No doubt, those bar and restaurant owners are the most passionate supporters the IceDogs have.

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Chalk was available for kids to draw on the street. Here, some wrote names of their favorite players.

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Naturally, the best mascot on the continent was making the rounds, stopping for photos with adoring fans. The last shot is taken with Julia D’Amico, arguably the most passionate fan of them all. Judging from her getup alone, it is not difficult to see why she was named the ultimate fan of the game on Wednesday night. As she so proudly belted on the microphone on Wednesday night, “This is our house, our team, our time.”

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Here, Bones takes a seat under the CKTB tent. Having their mascot decked out in black despite the “Make Them See Red” playoff promotion in which the players were covered from head to toe in red was a major faux pas.

Before the stands began filling up, I went into the seating area to get some shots of the ice with the “OHL Championship Series” logo at each end, but not before nearly being chased down the aisle by yet another pushy usher who was evidently put out by the fact that I neither asked for nor wanted his services.

As I posted in a tweet, I am convinced there is a secret clause in the terms on the back of the tickets requiring all fans to accept the services of an usher. I keep hearing fans boast about how friendly the ushers are, yet I keep running into the ones who must have been recruited off used car lots.

Being badgered by these ushers, however, does provide me with plenty of writing fodder. I’m probably going to have enough for a full chapter on them by the time I’m ready to pen a book on my fan experiences with the IceDogs.

Speaking of the ushers, each of them were carrying buckets, collecting donations for the Canadian Red Cross as part of the Fort McMurray relief efforts. Fans contributed a total of $3,162.45 on Monday night.

As game time grew closer, I was expecting more of a raucous atmosphere, and instead, it felt more like a regular-season game than the third game of the league championship series.

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I couldn’t help but notice that the IceDogs couldn’t even spell Nick Pastorious’ name correctly. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on them. After all, he’s just one of the players.

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After the IceDogs were greeted with about three-quarters of a standing ovation, the two teams received their customary introductions. To my surprise, former NHL enforcer Basil McRae was London’s general manager. The last time I saw his name was 16 years ago when I spotted something from his company’s letterhead in Ken Wregget’s locker during a tour of the Fighting Moose dressing room. Oh, how times have changed.

As expected, given what had taken place during the first two games of the series, Matthew Tkachuk, a.k.a Captain Weasel, Jr., got the loudest chorus of boos from the crowd.

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Following the introductions, the IceDogs brought out a number of players from their 2012 Eastern Conference championship team for the ceremonial faceoff. That team, which also lost to London in the finals, actually got a bigger ovation than the 2016 team received.

Captain Weasel, Jr. opened the scoring in the first minute, but the IceDogs came right back with a quick marker of their own and controlled the first half of the game. They took a 5-2 lead in the second period and with Alex Nedeljkovic on top of his game once again, it looked as though the IceDogs were well on their way to picking up their first win of the series.

Or so it seemed.

Despite being down by three goals, London never lost their composure and eventually turned the game around completely, eventually tying the score in the third period. They had the IceDogs on the ropes and Nedeljkovic’s stellar goaltending was the only reason the game even went to overtime.

Even “Ned” couldn’t save the IceDogs, however, and the shellshocked crowd was anything but surprised when London scored three minutes into the extra period to all but extinguish the IceDogs’ title hopes.

As Dandy Don Meredith used to sing on Monday Night Football, “Turn out the lights. The party’s over.”

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Two nights later, some fans had clearly not lost their spirit, but few others had any realistic hopes that the IceDogs could extend the series to a fifth game. There was almost an expectation of pending defeat in the air that I would also sense inside the Meridian Center, both before and during the game.

On the bright side, I was able to sneak into the seating area without being badgered by an usher. There apparently is an art form to this and I think I’m getting the hang of it. Having not been to a game in a while before Monday night, I was caught off-guard.

Sadly, there was another band that filled the air with gratuitous noise that I could have lived without. Thankfully, even their enthusiasm waned as the game wore on.

The IceDogs got only a half-hearted standing ovation as they came out to start the game as Julia waved her sign, which stated “We Believe.” Judging by the lack of energy in the stands, the crowd believed the series was already over.

London silenced what little buzz there was in the stands with a late first-period goal and the 1-0 score held up. Nedeljkovic was easily the IceDogs’ best player and the game’s first star was the only reason his team was able to stay within a goal. Many others noted that the officiating was pro-London and they were probably right, but London won because they were a much better team.

The best chance the IceDogs had came with 7:50 left in the third when the prime minister was robbed at point-blank range. It was then I knew, once and for all, that the jig was up.

While the London players celebrated after the game, I turned my attention towards the disconsolate IceDogs, most of whom were playing their last game of junior hockey. I felt so badly for the kids who had given it their all. After coming so far, it would have been nice to see them win at least one game.

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The two teams shaking hands.

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The IceDogs salute the remaining fans.

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Bill Burke was there at ice level to hug the players on their way off the ice, most of whom were probably going through an emotional roller-coaster.

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OHL Commissioner David Branch then came out to present both the Wayne Gretzky “99” Award to the playoff MVP as well as the J. Ross Robertson Cup, the OHL’s championship trophy. Oddly, Branch was booed when introduced to the crowd. There might be some history there that I’m not aware of.

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Mitchell Marner accepts the Gretzky Award.

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Finally, the London players gathered around as their co-captains accepted the Robertson Cup. I never thought I would live to see the day that someone wearing a #7 Tkachuk jersey would hoist a championship trophy.

The IceDogs had a nice run and defied all the odds in advancing this far. Next year, with so many players leaving, it will be a brand new, younger team that will likely struggle just to make the playoffs. London, meanwhile, advances to the Memorial Cup once again and I wish them well in Red Deer.

07 May

Rallying Your Pep for the IceDogs

On Friday, still sleep-deprived after getting home so late the previous night, I was one of a crowd estimated by the sub-Standard at around 500 in a pep rally at Montebello Park in downtown St. Catharines in support of the IceDogs’ improbable playoff run. The event was organized, not by the team, but by Alex Digenis, owner of Henley Honda in St. Catharines.

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For once, I was far from the first on the scene of the noon-hour event.

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As the population of Montebello Park began to swell, an honor guard from Ridley College lined the route to the stage where the players and coaches would be introduced.

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The first order of business, besides the region’s biggest self-promoter introducing himself for the umpteenth time, was to tape a knight, a symbolic representative of the IceDogs’ opponents, the London Knights, to a tree.

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As someone said, he was being fed to the dogs.

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First, the coaches were introduced, led by head coach and general manager Marty Williamson. Later, while up on stage, Williamson would sing the praises of his charges who might very well have saved his job with this playoff run following an uninspiring regular season.

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Vince Dunn.

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The prime minister.

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Josh Ho-Sang, St. Catharines’ answer to Bengt Lundholm who has done his best to shake that label of late. When he gets to the next level, we’ll see if a leopard really can change his stripes.

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Last, and most importantly, goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. I don’t think too many in the crowd miss his predecessor, Brent Moran. One fan in particular comes to mind.

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The team assembled inside the bandstand.

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Williamson addresses the gathering.

Team captain Anthony DiFruscia then spoke, followed by Alex Digenis, who joined many others of late in proudly proclaiming the IceDogs as “Niagara’s” team. Such proclamations are not without merit, but I don’t see any rush from any of the other municipalities throughout the region who have been raising the IceDogs flag to contribute to the repayment of the debt on the Meridian Center. Put your money where your mouth is before calling it “your team.” But again, I digress.

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After the formal part of the proceedings ended, fans dispersed to mingle with the players or get in line for the free hot dogs. Having enough of crowds for a while and with no desire for a hot dog at any price, I did neither and returned home, having been part of an important community event with many fellow fans.

07 May

London Calling

On Thursday evening, I was one of a busload of fans who went to see the IceDogs take on the Knights in London in the opening game of the OHL’s championship series. It would mark the first time I had been at a championship series of any league in person since the Jets were in the WHA. Yes, it’s been a long time.

As those of you who know me would expect, I was one of the first to arrive at the Jack, where I spotted this woman passed out on the front steps of the IceDogs’ former home rink.

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From the looks of her, she was probably homeless, and someone who our mayor, Walter L. Sendzik (the “L” stands for Liberal), would no doubt like the city to reach out to as part of his “compassionate city model.”

Though apparently lacking the wherewithal to put a roof over her head, she did, however, have the resources to care and feed for the animal in the pink cage. She also dug out a cigarette and lit up before leaving to make way for the gathering crowd.

And I’m supposed to feel sorry for her. Those who are big believers in the social determinants of health obviously conveniently overlook cases like this.

But I digress.

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Before the bus came, I chatted briefly with the other early birds who were waiting. One couple had been on every single road trip since the team moved to St. Catharines in 2007 and a couple of others told stories about how they had been treated in other cities. By and large, it seemed to be an older crowd and it would prove to be a significantly less rowdy bunch than the group who went to Brown’s Town, undoubtedly due to the fact that it was a weekday. I strongly suspect that Saturday’s road trip for Game 2 will be much different and it was probably a blessing in disguise that it was sold out before I could get my name on the list.

Once the bus pulled up to the curb, we all piled on and once again, many brought their coolers full of beer. Since getting highway pictures is more important to me than the game, I undoubtedly get chastised for my ulterior motives when going on these road trips, but the many who gorge themselves on beer have no room to talk. For them, IceDogs hockey is but one of many convenient excuses to get drunk.

One of the more than 50 passengers on board was the owner of Pete’s Pizza, a local chain with many locations in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. He brought five boxes of pizza on board for the group and on the way, someone walked up and down the aisle offering free pizza. As I was busy taking pictures during the two-hour ride to London, I declined, but it was a nice gesture and worthy of a free plug.

With everyone present and accounted for, we took off just after 3:30 into the thick of rush-hour traffic.

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It was stop and go on the Red Hill Valley Parkway and the Linc, but once we got onto the 403 and left the Hamilton area, traffic moved pretty smoothly.

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Of the many highway pictures I got en route to London, this one in Brantford stood out. As a five-year Winnipeg Jets season ticket holder who saw the Jets roll over so often for Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers, I somehow resisted the urge to blurt out, “Gretzky Sucks!” Old grudges die hard.

Moving on, when we got to Woodstock and merged onto the 401, perhaps the biggest surprise of the ride for me was seeing how much busier the 401 was in this area as compared to the stretch between C.U. and Kingston when we went to Ottawa last year.

Upon reaching London, we exited the 401 at Highbury Avenue and proceeded north for a long tour of the city of over 360,000.

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I spotted these signs along Hamilton Road. Details of this tree trunk tour are left as an exercise to the reader, as I didn’t care enough to check as to what this was all about.

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Making our way through downtown, we pulled up to the Budweiser Gardens and walked across the street as Nick Williams of the IceDogs went to get our tickets.

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Outside Budweiser Gardens.

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Nick was nice enough to give me a seat on the aisle and when they opened the doors, I made a little tour of the rink.

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In the stands. I noted with considerable interest that in a facility named for a popular brand of beer, they had an alcohol-free section, one that I would be a regular in if I lived in London.

To my astonishment, the glass behind the goaltender was even in worse shape that it is at the Meridian Center. I didn’t think that was possible. Then again, the Budweiser Gardens has been around a lot longer than the Meridian Center has.

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Though I had snuck in some food of my own, I paid attention to the offerings and prices at the concessions, as I am always fascinated by the exorbitant prices people are willing to pay for food at sporting events. A hot dog would set you back $4.75, as would a slice of pizza, and even a chocolate bar could not be had for less than $4.25. There were some other options that I could have availed myself of, such as chicken fingers and fries for $7.75, but didn’t.

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Looking outside toward downtown from the 300 level.

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I then headed to my seat high up in the upper deck. The term “nosebleed section” doesn’t do it justice as I had to make the steep climb up to row J. For the benefit of readers in the SPRM, the only rink I’ve been in with a steeper incline was the upper deck at the old Winnipeg Arena.

Interestingly, row J was located one row behind row H. I’m still not sure what happened to row I. Perhaps they’re using a special London alphabet. In any event, this was probably the highest elevation in southwestern Ontario. To say the least, anyone who has a problem with heights needs to avoid the upper deck at the Budweiser Gardens.

Despite the mild temperatures outside, the area where we were sitting was downright cold and even though I had a light jacket on, I was freezing all night long.

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Moments before the pregame introductions, a gentleman from our bus took the seat next to me. He would provide me with more fodder for a future book than the game itself. For the sake of discussion, let’s just call him Jack.

Jack likes beer and I suspect he was well on his way to becoming inebriated even before stepping inside the building. He brought a cooler on board when we went to Brown’s Town and though I didn’t notice this time around, he undoubtedly did likewise on this trip.

Before they even dropped the puck, Jack had made two beer runs, getting his limit of two beers each time. Later in the game, he made another trip and picked up two more cans of his favorite beverage. All told, at $9 a pop, the six beers at the game set him back $54, to say nothing of the beer he probably brought on board what would be termed the “booze bus.”

For the record, after checking their website, a six-pack would have run him $13.95 at LCBO. Plus KST, of course.

In the understatement of the month, Jack is not a careful shopper.

Later in the game, Jack would visit the concessions and both purchase and eat a plate of poutine. From the looks of it, he spent another $6.50 for fries that had been held underneath the back end of a cow with diarrhea.

Jack also has a booming voice. His often-repeated lines of “Come on boys,” “Let’s go boys,” and “Get ‘er done,” resonated in my eardrums during and long after the game. I have no doubt that, despite our distance from the ice and the noise from the other 9,000 screaming fans, some of the players could actually hear him.

No player could move a muscle without a comment from Jack. He was, if nothing else, on top of the action.

Evidently needing some exercise to go along with his beer runs and subsequent trips to the washroom to unload his rented beer, he stood up at one point during the game and did some light calisthenics, swinging his arms around, barely missing me. One loyal reader will understand the reference to a former colleague whose first name rhymes with “truce” who used to do this with regularity during meetings before leaving our place of employment under a cloud.

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Moving on from our friend Jack, I noticed there was a second IceDogs rooting section at the other end of the ice. Seated in the front row were the Burkes along with Wayne Gates, the Communist MPP for Niagara Falls, and the ghost of Jim Bradley. There are unconfirmed rumors circulating around town that he’s still our MPP. But again, I digress.

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Following the pregame introductions, the anthem singer took the microphone. He was good, fully clothed and performed O Canada entirely in the Canadian language. He even paused midway through to allow the crowd to take over for a few verses.

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After the opening faceoff, I noticed how Josh Ho-Sang was booed each time he touched the puck. No doubt, there was some past history dating back to the days when he played for Windsor. There was also a chant for London’s Cliff Pu every time he touched the puck. There was something odd, however, about having 9,000 or so people yelling “poo.”

As I looked around the rink during the play, at the entrance to the ramps in the lower bowl were ads for several real estate agents, one of them being George Georgopolous. All I can say is that it must have been a difficult pregnancy for his mother.

During the first period, London’s Matthew Tkachuk, son of Captain Weasel, the ever-disgruntled ex-captain of the real Jets, was involved in a little fracas. From what I saw, he’s a chip off the old block. He took and doled out plenty of abuse in front of the IceDogs’ net, was certain to be at the center of any display of hostility and took a couple of dives. For his sake, I hope he didn’t inherit his father’s legendary immaturity.

As for the game, which was almost a secondary concern, following a scoreless first period, the IceDogs scored first on somewhat of a fluky goal just after Alex Nedeljkovic stopped Captain Weasel, Jr. on a breakaway. From there, however, it was all downhill. London scored twice before the end of the second and added two more in the third.

As the third period was winding down and the fans were chanting “warm up the bus,” it reminded me of the opening game against Oshawa last season. In that series, the IceDogs lost in five games to a vastly superior team who outclassed them in every respect. I can only hope it doesn’t turn out that way in this series.

Needless to say, it was a rather subdued bunch who reboarded the bus after the game for the ride back to St. Catharines. Nonetheless, as always, it was an interesting and enjoyable experience.

26 Apr

IceDogs Road Trip to Brown’s Town

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On Saturday, I was one of a busload of fans who headed north to watch the IceDogs take on the hometown Barrie Colts in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. It would mark my fourth road trip with the IceDogs and second to Barrie, having gone there on the trip last January.

Despite the fact that the team did not publish the trip on its website, Facebook page or Twitter account, they had a full bus of 56 fans and even had to turn some people away. I only heard about it by accident, but I was glad I did. Maybe it’s one of those “you’re just supposed to know”™ things I’ve seen so frequently since coming to this part of the world.

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As loyal readers who know me would expect, I was among the first to arrive at the Jack, where we were scheduled to leave at 4:00.

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As I was talking to a couple of the early arrivers, a couple of pillars of society passed us by.

While we continued chatting about the IceDogs’ improbable run in the playoffs, conversation elsewhere turned to beer. One fan wondered whether or not it would be allowed on the bus and after finding out that they turn a blind eye to it, debated making a run to the nearest beer store on Welland Avenue. I know I’m in the minority, but I’m proud of the fact that I don’t get the attraction to alcoholic beverages.

Nick Williams of the IceDogs arrived around 3:20 to take our money, then the bus pulled up around 3:30. While the others were drawn to the back, I climbed on board and dropped anchor in the front seat so I could get some good highway pictures of 400 between C.U. and Barrie. All told, I would collect more than 130 quality shots, soon to appear on a website near you.

Before we took off, a gentleman seated right behind me asked if I knew where we were sitting. As we began talking, it turns out that not only was he born in the degenerate capital of the SPRM, but he was also born at the same hospital I was. What are the odds?

With everyone on board, we left just before 4:00. As there were no empty seats on the bus, Nick had to bum a ride up to Barrie with one of the many others who were driving up on their own, leaving Matt Johnston in charge of the group. Fans may recall it was Matt who was married at center ice during the second intermission of a game at the Meridian Center earlier this season.

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The late Saturday afternoon traffic in and around the Center of the Universe failed to dampen the enthusiasm on the bus as “Go Dogs Go” chants broke out at regular intervals.

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In spite of the traffic, we still made good time and pulled into Barrie around 6:00. Matt went and got our tickets and we had time to kill before they opened the doors at 6:30.

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After the doors opened, I first went through the team store. Prices, if anything, were even higher than the outrageous amounts the IceDogs charge for their merchandise. For example, a youth hoodie was priced at $89.99. Junior hockey operators seem blissfully unaware that they are not catering to a champagne and caviar crowd wearing suits and ties.

On this night, I would have loved to have been showing my hometown team’s colors, but I flatly refuse to give the IceDogs $120+ for a jersey.

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Moving on, I toured the concourse and got some shots in the stands. Rally towels were on the backs of every seat in the rink, except for those in our section. It was an awfully petty gesture, but IceDogs fans would have the last laugh in the end.

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In the concourse, I spotted several IceDogs players kicking around a soccer ball.

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I was not the only one to stop for some pictures.

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During the warmup, I noticed the ad on the boards for Patrick Brown, leader of the opposition and the next premier of Ontario. Brown hails from this area and was the MP for Barrie before seeking the leadership of the Ontario PC Party. I had the pleasure of meeting him when he came through St. Catharines and did ultimately vote for him when it came time to cast my ballot as a party member.

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Just before the start of the game, Charlie Horse, the Colts’ mascot, paid us a visit. As I observed last year, he doesn’t nearly have the same engaging personality Bones does and for as little as he contributes to the fan experience, they might as well not even bother with a mascot.

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Once the game began, the IceDogs controlled much of the first period, but they weren’t able to get on the board until early in the second when the prime minister scored to send section 118 into a frenzy.

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The lead became 2-0 after Anthony DiFruscia scored from in front of the net, displaying a dexterity with the puck he hasn’t shown in the last two years.

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There were IceDogs fans throughout the rink, but most of us were concentrated in one section, where chants of “Let’s Go IceDogs” and “Ned … Ned … Ned” were raging. After each goal, the “Yes … Yes … Yes” chant also filled the air.

Barrie narrowed the gap with an early third-period goal, but Graham Knott’s marker at the 6:32 mark restored the two-goal lead.

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Brendan Perlini’s goal later in the third all but put the game away, and the IceDogs fans began serenading the Barrie fans on their way to the exits.

Late in the game, acting every bit the part of sore losers, one of the Barrie players took a run at Josh Ho-Sang and was lucky only to get a two-minute penalty on the play. As Ho-Sang was getting to his feet, I can only wonder what might have been if their coach, Dale Hawerchuk, had shown that kind of fire when he played with the Jets, a team that rolled over far too often for Edmonton when I was a Jets season ticket holder.

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In any event, the IceDogs cruised to a 4-1 victory, and after the game, just as they did in Ottawa a year earlier, they came by and saluted us on their way off the ice in a classy gesture.

Fans were in high spirits as they made their way out toward the bus, but things quietened down soon after we started rolling and it was a rather uneventful ride under a full moon back to St. Catharines. We pulled into the Jack at 12:20, and I was back home just after 1:00. It was another winning experience in more ways than one.