11 Apr

IceDogs Road Trip to Oshawa

Last night, I was one of 32 fans who made the trip to Oshawa to see the IceDogs open their second-round best-of-seven series against the Generals at the General Motors Center.

While waiting between the double doors at the Jack for our bus to arrive, many others including me were amazed at what a beehive of activity the IceDogs’ former home was on this late Friday afternoon. We could only presume there was a tournament going on as endless streams of kids and their parents kept shuttling back and forth. Space inside was evidently at such a premium that one of the teams had to go to the parking lot across the street to do their pregame stretching.

Among the many parents with their kids was one gentleman who was wearing a jersey from the Mark Chipman Personal Hockey Club. Yuck! Double yuck! As a good friend and loyal reader would say, “Loser!”

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I was relieved when our bus came so we could get out of the way of all the hustle and bustle. Thinking they had been hired to pick up the team, the dispatcher sent the driver to the Meridian Center and only after inquiring inside did he then come to meet us at the Jack. Our driver was excellent once again, but I knew he wasn’t much of a fan when he asked me what league this was.

The group consisted of a few who had made the trek to Ottawa along with some mothers and their children who brought along some sign-making materials that kept them occupied on the way. Without the photographer and Captain Ammonia to provide their unique brand of entertainment, much to my relief, it would be by far the quietest of the three IceDogs road trips I had been on this year.

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Not unexpectedly, we ran into a fair bit of traffic, but we got to Oshawa in plenty of time.

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While waiting for the doors to open, I got some shots out front of the building and of our group.

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IceDogs owner Bill Burke stopped to shake hands with a few of us on his way in and the Generals mascot, Deke, was having a little fun with us.

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Deke didn’t quite measure up to Bones, but he was one of the better mascots I have seen.

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Despite the long line forming on the street and with the high winds making it miserable outside, arena staff defiantly refused to let us in even a minute before 6:35, one hour before puck drop. Season ticket holders were allowed early entry, but not the rest of us common folk. It’s not any different at the Meridian Center, but at least we get to wait indoors.

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After finally being allowed in, I made a point of circling the concourse and my first target was the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, a dedicated room displaying artifacts of the area’s sporting history.

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Among the many displays was a game-worn jersey from former Manitoba Fighting Moose John MacLean.

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The view from center ice.

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Walking through the concourse, I noticed banners like this honoring past Generals players, such as this one for Scott McCrory, another former Fighting Moose. It is nice to see teams do this and I hope the IceDogs follow suit with something similar once they get enough history of their own.

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On the opposite side of the rink was the “Canadian Hockey House,” a popular restaurant/bar where patrons could sit and watch the game while getting plastered. Unfortunately, this was probably the best choice for anyone looking for food as the offerings at the concessions were most disappointing. All that was on the menu was pizza, hotdogs, nachos and a $10 “carve of the day,” but luckily, I wasn’t in need on this trip as I snuck in some food of my own.

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After taking my seat in section B, so named because it was squarely behind the netting, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s unfortunate gift to the world, I noted with interest that, just as they did in Barrie and Ottawa, they introduced the timekeeper, scorekeeper and goal judges in addition to the on-ice officials. As IceDogs fans say after the announcement of an opponent’s goal, who cares? The announcer didn’t introduce himself before the game, but he made sure to after the game. It’s one less time than what the IceDogs announcer does, but it’s still one time too many.

Looking down at ice level, the glass looked a little hacked up, but it was still reasonably clean and, unlike the case at the Meridian Center, a patron would not have cause to plead for a lower price because of an obstructed view. I couldn’t believe my eyes when someone came out with a squeegee during the second intermission to clean a spot where it had been sprayed earlier in the game. That is one shot I should have taken to send to SMG, who manages the Meridian Center, to prove that it is indeed possible.

I paid special attention when they announced a fan bus trip to the Meridian Center in “Niagara.” Not that I am not proud to be a resident of the region, but team’s and my home is St. Catharines. This is another case highlighting how the previous mayor and council seriously erred in not insisting the team take the name of its home city when making the investment to build the rink. Interestingly, one of the late arrivals two rows in front of me was none other than Dawn Dodge, the recently defeated councillor for my ward, who was adorned in a red IceDogs sweatshirt.

The game itself was controlled by the home team and was much more one-sided than the 5-3 final score would indicate. It was only Brandon Hope’s solid goaltending that kept Oshawa from running up the score. At times, it seemed like the ice was tilted.

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Not helping the visitors’ cause was Vince Dunn’s early ejection for slewfooting as well as the mediocre play of Brendan Perlini and Carter Verhaeghe, two of their top offensive threats. Too many nights have gone by where I’ve barely noticed those two and as I’ve said before, it’s hard to win when your best players aren’t your best players. Those two have the skill to be dominant at this level and both seem content to get by because they are better than their contemporaries. As Kurt Warner once said to Larry Fitzgerald, “Why just be good when you can be great?” Hopefully they’ll learn that lesson once they get to the next level.

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Aside from the game, the two intermissions featured some fun and games including this first-period event with a couple of would-be sumo wrestlers. The last time I saw something like this was at a Fighting Moose game more than a dozen years ago.

After the game, Oshawa fans were eager to rub our noses in it. In addition to some comments outside, a couple of guys came aboard our bus, blew their bullhorn and yelled, “Better luck next year.” Even though one of the guys on the bus didn’t care for it all, it was all good-natured and perhaps later in the series, we’ll be able to return the favor.

As part of a promotion, since the Generals scored four goals, every fan was entitled to a free medium order of fries at McDonald’s, so on our way out, Wade Graham of the IceDogs suggested we go through the drive thru and order 34 medium fries, “just to stick it to them.” It was a good idea and it’s too bad we didn’t go through with it.

Even though the game didn’t go well, it was still a good experience and getting home at 1:00 sure beats getting back at 5:00 as I did after the Ottawa trip. Thanks to everyone at the IceDogs for making the arrangements and I look forward to future trips.

06 Apr

Good Friday in Ottawa

On Good Friday, I was among the group of 28 fans who made the long trek from St. Catharines to Ottawa to see the IceDogs take on the 67’s at TD Place, formerly known as the Ottawa Civic Center, the one-time home of the WHA’s Ottawa Nationals and Civics.

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Not unexpectedly, I was the first of the contingent to arrive at the Jack Gatecliff Arena, where our bus was scheduled to depart at noon for the six-hour drive.

It didn’t take long before I was joined by a few others who also came well ahead of time. One thing I have noticed is that people in this part of the world, very much to their credit and unlike those in my former home city, are chronic early birds.

Also along for the ride was Nino Bourikas and Wade Graham of the IceDogs staff and Nino collected the $100 fare from each of us while waiting for the bus to arrive. Nick Williams normally handles those duties but he was reportedly helping someone move.

Not surprisingly, also among the contingent was Natasa Djermanovic and her family who would take up seats beside and behind me. The sometimes vulgar banter between the team’s official photographer and David, a fan from Welland seated near the back, would certainly liven up the ride.

David was an interesting character and he was so loud that not only could everyone on the bus hear him, but I think passing cars on the 401 could hear him as well. On our way, he was hung up on Belleville and kept asking how far we were from the city that just lost its OHL team. He also made sure to tell us that he had recently recovered from a bout with “ammonia.” I presume he meant pneumonia, but he insisted it was ammonia.

Before leaving, Natasa was proudly showing off the $15,000 400 mm lens she had rented for this weekend and mentioned out loud, “Don’t have fun, don’t do anything because you’re going to be blogged about.” Whether or not that missive was intended for me, my presence certainly didn’t cramp her style.

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Badder Bus Services provided the transportation and according to Nino, their rate was half of what Coach Canada wanted. The discounted price, however, didn’t mean any less comfort or safety for us. Not only was the bus good but both drivers were excellent, in sharp contrast to many I’ve had when living in the SPRM. As an aside, it still feels so good to refer to the SPRM in past tense.

We left at noon and Ron took us to the car pool lot at Burlington, where Lyle took over for the rest of the trip. In Ontario, drivers are only allowed 13 hours on the road and a total of 16 hours on the clock before a rest period and because of the long distance, they needed two drivers to split the job.

Even though we were only going for the day, one older couple brought a trunkful of stuff with them including blankets, pillows, a cooler, a case of Rolling Rock beer and hefty order that cleaned out a nearby Tim Hortons. I was surprised to hear from Lyle that though it is in the contract that no alcohol is allowed on board, they and other carriers willfully turn a blind eye to it.

Not long after we got on the road, I spotted someone who had parked his motorcycle on the side of the QEW and perched himself on a guard rail so he could use his cell phone. Give it a rest. Nino then went to put on a DVD, but thankfully, the audio wasn’t working. Natasa and Captain Ammonia would provide more than enough audio for the trip.

Sitting in the front seat, as loyal readers would expect, I was able to grab many more highway pictures, soon to appear on a Web site near you. Among the new shots came from the 407 ETR, the toll route the dispatcher had given Lyle permission to use.

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In order for large vehicles such as these buses to use the 407, they must have a transponder that gates like these will read upon entry and exit to calculate the charge.

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Traffic was quite heavy headed in the opposite direction, but things moved smoothly for us most of the way.

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It was my first time east of Toronto and as much as I was paying attention to the highway in front of us, I was equally interested in hearing Lyle’s stories from his two tours of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy Seebees between 1969 and 1972. A native of Hamilton, he drove across the border to Buffalo to meet with a recruiting officer hoping to learn a trade in the service and instead, unexpectedly got shipped off to Vietnam.

I was particularly fascinated by his near-death experiences that he kindly shared with me. On one occasion, a young Viet Cong soldier no more than 14 years old had an AK-47 to his head. Not wanting to see the end, Lyle closed his eyes, “made peace with God” and waited for what seemed like an hour before opening his eyes to find that the young man had gone and let him live.

On another occasion when he was out in the field, he had tied something too tight and needed fixing as a result. He offered to stay to make the repair, but his lieutenant said the next crew would come and take care of it. That crew never came back, leaving him with an understandable case of survivors’ guilt.

There was also another time when a booby trap went off, sending out sharp metal shards, one of which would have sliced through his throat and killed him were it not for his dog tag that fell down around his neck as he was diving out of the way.

Though it bothered him at one time to talk about these incidents, he said it helps him now and today, he speaks to soldiers returning from Iraq, just as World War II and Korea veterans spoke to him after his return from Southeast Asia.

He also mentioned that he and his buddies would always have an annual reunion the week after July 4, but he’s the only survivor of the bunch as the rest have since succumbed to cancer as a direct result of Agent Orange.

Following his discharge, he was given American citizenship and went on to enjoy a 42-year career as an electrician. Today, he drives a bus part time “just for something to do.”

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As we rolled on into Eastern Ontario, the banter between Natasa and Captain Ammonia began to heat up. While passing some farms, they wondered what would happen if a horse and cow were ever to be mated. Captain Ammonia then yelled, “I want to hear some music,” to which Natasa replied, “Plug your ears!”

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Roughly halfway to Ottawa, we stopped for a much-needed break at the Trenton ONRoute, one of many such rest areas along the 401. As I mentioned when I first saw them on the 400 on the way to Barrie, it sure beats the SPRM’s equivalent of a weather-beaten outhouse.

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Past Trenton, we saw the first sign giving the distance to Ottawa.

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We passed this exit that leads a bridge connecting to I-81 in the U.S. As I mentioned to Lyle, it’s one of the few places where you see an Interstate highway sign in Canada.

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At last, we reached the exit for 416 that took us north towards Ottawa.

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After taking the exit off the 417 in Ottawa, I noted with interest that the stop signs read “STOP” and not “ARRET,” as they do in St. Boniface, a suburb of Winnipeg. If the Canadian-language wording is good enough for a city on the shores of the Evil Empire, it ought to be good enough for St. Boniface.

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The IceDogs’ bus was already in the loading dock by the time we got to TD Place, over an hour before game time.

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When we were going in, I paid special attention to the security procedures. Unlike the case at the Meridian Center, there was no one rifling through bags and purses and security staff were friendly. After making a bee-line for the washroom, with plenty of time to spare, I took the opportunity to stroll through the concourse and get some shots inside the seating area.

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Having not eaten for about nine hours, I also needed to scout around for food. There was a little more choice than I found in Barrie and I eventually settled on the $6.50 “Smokin’ Hot 67’s Pizza” with the $5 hot beef sandwich coming in a close second. Consisting of a BBQ sauce base, the pizza had chicken and onions and the taste stayed with me well into the next day, not to mention the fact that I got my monthly supply of grease in the process.

Elsewhere in the concourse, I noticed free charging stations for cell phones, much like I found at Eaton Center in Toronto. Browsing through their souvenir shop, I noticed that they sell 67’s jerseys for $140, $20 more than the IceDogs ask for one of theirs. I consider a $120 price too steep, let alone $140.

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I joined several others in stepping outside to check out the attached football stadium whose grandstands back the arena before the security guards ushered us back inside.

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I nearly fainted when I spotted none other than Kevin Cheveldayoff, assistant general manager of the Mark Chipman Personal Hockey Club, busy on his cell phone, undoubtedly getting marching orders from his boss. What are the odds of running into him here?

After taking my seat, I noticed there was little leg room, but the seats were thickly padded and clean. I also noticed the glass was clean. If they can do it here, in Barrie, at the Xcel Energy Center and at the old Winnipeg Arena, they can do it at the Meridian Center.

We were seated in the parents’ section and Anthony DiFruscia’s mother was directly behind us. To my immediate left was Natasa’s son and on the other side was Captain Ammonia and his brother, who lives in Ottawa. Captain Ammonia’s lungs were still in high gear and he spent much of the night getting into it with a 67’s fan behind him from Gatineau. Even if I had a radio, there would have been no need to listen to the broadcast as I got all the play-by-play I needed from Captain Ammonia.

The game itself that almost seemed anticlimactic after such a long and eventful voyage turned out very well. The IceDogs jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the second period and after the 67’s narrowed the gap to 4-3 before intermission, the visitors broke it open in the third for an eventual 8-3 win. Yours truly was very pleased to be among the Niagara rooting contingent yelling “Go Dogs Go” and supporting our home team.

None of the three mascots, those from the 67’s, the REDBLACKS and the soccer Fury could hold a candle to Bones and I mentioned how nice it would have been for Bones to make the trip.

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During the second period, the mascot for the REDBLACKS, not to be confused with the Redblacks, paid us a visit and used the throat-slash gesture to us. Needless to say, that was in exceptionally bad taste and I hope the person underneath the costume realized it.

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Once the game was over, the IceDogs skated over to our section and saluted us on their way off the ice. It was an awfully nice gesture that I think all of us who had made the trek appreciated greatly.

With all of us on board, we took off around 10:10 for the long trip back to St. Catharines. Many of us were snoozing and I was able to get a little shut-eye, but not very much. What little I had was rudely interrupted by Captain Ammonia, who, unable to sleep, decided to come up front and talk to Lyle to spread his misery among those of us who were able to doze a little.

We stopped at the Napanee ONRoute at 12:30, where I went to the washroom while others loaded up at Tim Hortons. Inside the washroom, there was a man at the urinal doing his business while chatting on his cell phone. As I said before, give it a rest.

Lyle was alert and attentive throughout the entire trip, but he made the mistake of using his GPS as a brain substitute once we got to the eastern edge of the GTA. With permission to use the 407, instead of following the clearly marked signs to follow 404, he listened to the GPS that told him to go in the opposite direction. Even after getting back on the correct path, he followed the GPS’s incorrect instructions to get off on a side street. I hope he learned his lesson.

We got back to the Jack at 4:25 in the morning and 50 minutes later, I was walking through my front door. It was a long, exhausting journey that I don’t want to repeat any time soon, but I was still glad I went.

Go Dogs Go!