Last night, I was among the sellout crowd of 5,300 as the Niagara IceDogs played their first game at the Meridian Center. Not only was it my first IceDogs game, but it was the first time I had been at a junior hockey game since 2002 when the Brandon Wheat Kings played the Prince Albert Raiders in a playoff game at the Winnipeg Arena. My experiences with the junior ranks dates back to the 1980s with the Winnipeg Warriors, but I’m not sure sitting among 1,500 loosely interested spectators scattered throughout a cavernous 15,000-seat arena to watch a bad team go through it paces really counts. It would also be the first hockey game I’ve seen in person since the Devils battled the Wild at the Xcel Energy Center in downtown Saint Paul in December 2009. Yes, it’s been a while.
Adorned in my Manitoba Fighting Moose jersey, I made my way to the bus stop, where a car with an SPRM plate soon passed by. That may have been a bad omen for what was to come on the bus. The offer of free bus fare with an IceDogs ticket was well publicized by both the IceDogs and St. Catharines Transit, but when I showed my ticket to the driver, he acted like I was flashing a three-dollar bill at him. “What’s that,” he snapped in a very un-St. Catharines-like fashion as I boarded the #7 bus. Only when I explained that it was an IceDogs ticket did he recoil and take off. I hope that, in future, St. Catharines Transit does a better job of publicizing such offers internally.
After I sat down, the driver sped down Niagara Street like he was on the QEW and I got downtown in record time where I waited on one of the two pedestrian bridges leading from St. Paul Street to the Meridian Center.
I was hardly the first one to arrive and there was a real buzz around the area. In the understatement of the year, IceDogs hockey is a really big deal here. There certainly wasn’t anything close to this kind of atmosphere during the eight years I attended Fighting Moose games and it even exceeded anything I saw during my five years as a Winnipeg Jets season ticket holder in the 1980s. As I’ve said before, I could get used to this.
While waiting in line, I noticed someone standing nearby with a hat bearing the logo of the Mark Chipman Hockey Club and his seat was only a stone’s throw from mine. I hope that is not another bad omen.
When the doors opened shortly after 6:00, one hour before game time, a security guard was at a table assigned to rifle through bags and purses, much to the dismay of my fellow attendees. After the slow procession of anxious fans down two flights of stairs, I made my way through the entrance to the concourse.
It seemed spacious enough during Saturday’s grand opening, but the concourse was jam-packed during the intermissions. It was particularly bad near the washrooms and concession stands.
Not that I wanted to buy anything, since I don’t go to hockey games to eat, but I paid attention to the menu and prices. $8.50 for a regular beer and $9.50 for a premium beer. Don’t ask me what the difference is. Since we are in the heart of wine country, wine is available for $7.50. Coffee was $2.00, bottled Coke products were $3.50, hot dogs were $4.50 and popcorn was $5.50. I was disappointed that in today’s day and age, healthier alternatives were not available.
As regular readers may be aware, I am quite proud of never having purchased a food product at the Winnipeg Arena in over 300 games that I saw there. I suspect I will have a similar track record at the Meridian Center.
Just before the warmup started, the two linesmen skated out and took their positions opposite each other at the red line. As I noticed in those Wheat Kings playoff games many years ago, the two teams cannot be trusted to be on the ice together at any time without adult supervision.
In a nice touch, the IceDogs were wearing special jerseys with the design of a tuxedo out front in honor of the special occasion. They would keep those jerseys on through the pre-game introductions before donning their new third jersey that looks like a Chicago Blackhawks knockoff. I liked the new addition of the interlaced “STC” on the shoulder atop the crossed bones to recognize their and my home city.
The visitors on this night were the Belleville Bulls, who came in sporting a 6-1 record. The last time I had seen a team known as the Bulls was in 1979 when the Birmingham Bulls came into Winnipeg to play the Jets.
While checking out the Bulls’ roster, I noticed the name of Jake Marchment, the nephew of former Jets defenseman Bryan Marchment, one of the dirtiest players to ever lace up a pair of skates.
Prior to the start of the game, I was puzzled by the announcement that all SLR and DSLR cameras had to be registered and any unauthorized cameras would be removed. Beyond the issue of blocking another patron’s view of the play, I can’t understand the rationale behind this policy. They should be happy that you care enough to be there and take pictures of the action.
Leading up to the historic home opener, there was much ado about attracting “Andee” to sing the anthem. I was among many who had never heard of her and her performance was nothing spectacular. In addition, her choice to sing partially in Quebecese was both unnecessary and disrespectful. Having the organist play O Canada would have been a much better choice. To her credit, however, “Andee” was fully dressed, unlike what I had seen so often during the Fighting Moose era were the singer would parade around half-naked in front of a crowd of mostly 8-12-year-old boys.
Once the puck dropped for real, it would be the most fascinating game-night experience I had ever seen. The building largely lived up to its lofty advance billing, my seat was comfortable and the sight lines were excellent.
The IceDogs got on the board with two quick goals and I got an early indoctrination into the fans’ tradition of howling for each goal after the cheering had died down. By contrast, the announcement of each Bulls goal was met with a collective “WHO CARES!”
I noticed a smattering of empty seats throughout the building, but the place was mostly full and officially a sellout. The sound system worked well. Too well, in fact. It would be nice if they turned the volume down. I found it a little unsettling watching my home team not knowing any of the players, but I found the level of play to be quite good, full of end-to-end action. The kids make plenty of mistakes, but this is a developmental league and that’s to be expected at this level.
I was particularly interested in the demographic of the crowd. For the most part, it seemed to be a combination of seniors and middle-aged couples along with a smattering of children. Almost without exception, they were dedicated fans who were there to watch a game and not just because they had nothing better to do.
I noted with considerable interest the lack of zany promotions that I came to expect from the Fighting Moose. There were no rat cannons or “hurling of dead, frozen poultry carcasses,”™ just more garden-variety stuff like this score-to-win contest during the intermission.
I was impressed that, during the game, they only allowed people to return to their seats during stoppages in play and announcements to this effect were made regularly. I noticed that the ushers were eager to help direct fans to their seats, but they were also often in the way. Instead of standing off to the side, many were standing in the middle of aisle and I had to contort myself around one of them who was standing between me and my seat.
During a break in the action, I laughed when I saw an IBEW ad on the video board in which they boasted about taking care of the whole country while showing the Toronto skyline. Those of you who have spent your entire life within the inner orbit of the Center of the Universe won’t get it.
It wouldn’t be a hockey game without a 50/50 draw and this would be no exception. Unlike the case with the Fighting Moose where aggressive kids ran after you halfway across the rink, the tickets here are sold by adults who wait on the sidelines and make themselves available to you – the way it should be.
Of course, there was a fight, but little did I know about recent rule changes at this level that will make this spectacle increasingly uncommon. Players with more than 10 fights are automatically suspended for two games and the team will be fined if the player exceeds 15. In the IHL, I more expected a player who didn’t reach double figures to be disciplined. The Fighting Moose once traded for a player who had a bonus clause in his contract based on the number of penalty minutes he racked up.
During the third period, there was a lengthy delay as they consulted video review for a disputed non-goal. I was shocked that they used any form of replay at this level and it was more proof as to what a big deal OHL hockey is in this part of the world.
Oh, by the way, there was a game going on. After the quick start, I had a feeling the IceDogs were going to let the game get away, but they held on and a late empty-net goal sealed the eventual 7-4 win. Their record improved to 1-6. Memorial Cup, here we come.
Denmark native Mikkel Aagaard, with two goals and an assist, including the first goal at the Meridian Center, was named first star. The announcer dubbed him the “Danish Delight,” a moniker I hope does not stick.
After the game, during the mass crush of humanity leading to the exits, it was a nice gesture for them to give out commemorative pucks to mark the historic occasion of the first game at the Meridian Center. I was able to get one and it will soon be prominently displayed on my mantle.
I expect the Meridian Center will be seeing my shadow again in the not-too-distant future and I look forward to more equally memorable games.