Tag Archives: St. Catharines

31 Jul

One Year Later

It’s hard to believe a full year has passed, but tomorrow will mark the one-year anniversary of the day I left Winnipeg for the last time and came to settle in St. Catharines. In some ways, it feels like it was yesterday and in others, it feels like it happened more than a decade ago.

The hassle involved in the long-distance move certainly took an emotional toll, but it has paid off in spades. My only regret is that I did not come here sooner. I miss my friends, as I expected to, but I long for little else in the SPRM.

I suppose there’s a part of me that will always be linked to Manitoba. As Sylvester Stallone said about Vietnam in one of the Rambo movies, “As long as we’re alive, it’s alive.” Many positive memories from that part of the world do remain with me, and I try to focus on those instead of the many negative ones that helped fuel my desire to leave.

Today, I am better for having made the move, and I look forward to many more years to come in my new home city.

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.

01 Feb

IceDogs Road Trip to Barrie

Oh the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen.

This Bugs Bunny quote was dancing in my head after returning from Barrie on Saturday night, where I saw the IceDogs go down 6-3 to the Colts at the Barrie Molson Center, otherwise known as the BMC. I went as part of a group of 20-odd passengers and passengerettes who signed up for the IceDogs’ first and perhaps only fan road trip of the season.

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With everyone present and accounted for, we took off from the Jack Gatecliff Arena, the IceDogs’ former home rink, and headed out onto the 406 to begin the two-hour drive north. While most of the others started clanging beer bottles, I was glued to the window from my vantage point in the front seat and the drive alone would have been worth the cost. The game that followed was almost an added bonus.

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We were delayed on the 401 as curious rubberneckers slowed traffic to a crawl to see the post-mortem of an accident that had blocked two collector lanes past Islington Avenue. Crews were finishing up just as we passed by.

Because of the setting sun, I couldn’t get too many good pictures of the highway, but I still enjoyed my first trip up the 400. It reminded me so much of I-94 through the Twin Cities in Minnesota and brought back many of the pleasant memories I have of those trips.

I noted with particular interest the ONRoute service centers they have on both sides of the highway. These are souped-up rest stops that offer gasoline, tourist information, sit-down restaurants along with a host of other conveniences for travellers. Readers who have never lived outside of southern Ontario may take things like this for granted, but for someone who only six months ago still resided in the SPRM, where a rest area consists of a covered pit off the side of the highway, it’s a real eye-opener.

I laughed as we passed a sign indicating a bump in the road ahead. When we got to the alleged bump, I didn’t feel a thing. If this is their idea of a bump, I can’t imagine what they would say about the roads in the SPRM, where it would be more appropriate to put up signs to alert drivers if there is any portion of a highway that isn’t bumpy enough to cause you to bring up your most recent meal.

Despite the delay on the 401, we still got to the BMC in plenty of time and once Nick Williams of the IceDogs got our tickets, I had time to take a tour before the start of the warmup.

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I might have been in the market for something to eat after the bus ride, so I checked out what the offerings were at the concessions.

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I had no interest in anything at the bar, but I show the prices just for comparison with those at the Meridian Center. Elsewhere, nothing else struck my fancy.

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The only thing I found that could be called something other than junk food was a $5 mystery mixture at this Jugo Juice stand. There was a table where they were selling pigwiches for $10, but for those who know me, that’s not an option.

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Unlike the Meridian Center, they do have a full-service restaurant where I could have found something and they do have seating where you can eat and watch the action, but I didn’t come all this way to sit in a restaurant. I wanted to be out among the crowd to take in full the game-day experience.

I was impressed by how the Colts were celebrating their 20-year history throughout the rink. In addition to the banners honoring past team accomplishments, there were banners for the top individual scorers and those who had been on championship teams in some major league.

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There were also banners like this featuring alumni who had gone on to play in a major league. This poor soul was obviously unfortunate in having been picked up by the Chipman franchise.

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Even their coach, Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk, was honored, but Colts management erred in using the logo of the Chipman franchise instead of that of the Jets. The astute Jets fan may recognize this photo as the cover image of a 1980s vintage calendar. When the IceDogs get more history of their own, I hope they use what the Colts have done as a model to honor their past.

After going through the concourse, I toured the seating area and got a few shots.

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Having 11 games under my belt at the Meridian Center, I was anxious to see what it was like in another OHL building. The rows were steeper, the seats were smaller and there was less leg room, but the seats and floors were at least clean as were the washrooms. The lighting wasn’t as good and the sound coming through on the P.A. system was loud and garbled, but I can’t say my experience was in any way diminished by not knowing who the announcer was. It is unfortunate that the announcer at the IceDogs games feels the need to try and make himself the star of the show.

I then went down to ice level to take a few shots of the IceDogs during the warmup.

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To my amazement, the glass was actually reasonably clean. If they can do it in the decrepit old Winnipeg Arena and this 20-year-old building, then they can do it in the brand-new Meridian Center. No excuses. Instead of a “Go Dogs Go” chant, I propose a “Clean The Glass” chant.

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While down at ice level, I noticed this ad from Barrie MP Patrick Brown, who is running for the leadership of the Ontario PC Party. He will most likely be getting my full support for reasons I may detail in a future blog entry. I look forward to 2018 when he takes on Kathleen Wynne head to head.

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Not long after the opening faceoff, Dale Hawerchuk’s son, Ben, opened the scoring, followed by a classic bout between Aaron Haydon and Nick Pastorious of the Colts. The fight drew the biggest cheers of the night and, to paraphrase a line from Slap Shot, Simcoe County was not visibly upset by this display. David Branch, eat your heart out.

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Those of us in the upper reaches of section 117 saw the IceDogs keep plugging away and they would eventually rally to tie the score. Even though there was a delayed reaction to the IceDogs’ first goal in the visitors’ rooting section, the group was right on top of the action for the rest of the way when they weren’t marching off to the concessions for more beer.

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I noted there was a break in the action with exactly 6:42 left in the first and second periods. In addition, the address of the BMC is 555 Bayview Drive. Longtime readers will understand the references.

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These people obviously weren’t in the IceDogs’ rooting section.

The Colts’ mascot, Charlie Horse, made the odd appearance and was anything but awe-inspiring. This mascot doesn’t have half the energy or showmanship that Bones does and with what little Charlie contributes, it hardly seems worthwhile for the team to even have a mascot. The kilt that Charlie was wearing seemed out of place and I wasn’t the only one in our group to notice it. I also thought it was in poor taste to name a mascot after an injury, particularly given the stigma athletes attach to being injured.

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Unfortunately, the IceDogs fell behind in the second period and this time, they weren’t able to come back. Particularly maddening was yet another silly Anthony DiFruscia penalty that gave Barrie a power play on which they took a commanding 6-3 lead. The IceDogs had a pair of two-man advantages late in the game, but they frittered them away and lost in regulation for the first time since that excruciatingly painful defeat to Peterborough on New Year’s Eve.

On their way out, a group of Barrie fans wished us a safe trip home and everything went smoothly on the road, though I think the driver and I were the only teetotalers on the bus. With the cooler two of the guys brought on board, the beer was flowing before and after the game, not to mention during it. Those of us up front were regaled by the Budweiser Tabernacle Choir and the only thing that kept Natasa Djermanovic, the IceDogs’ official photographer, from snapping more pictures of them was that the bus driver was getting blinded by the flashes. I also learned that Natasa apparently likes to have people scream her name and I’m probably lucky to have missed her joke about the Italian and the French man on the bus.

The juvenile lines emanating from the other young women on the bus made it seem like they thought they were in Las Vegas. What goes on inside the bus stays inside the bus. But there was a writer on board and nothing goes unnoticed. It is disappointing to see how many people still think that fun comes in a bottle, but I doubt any of them enjoyed this outing more than I did.

I would like to thank Nick Williams of the IceDogs for making the arrangements for the trip and the team for taking the financial loss since they didn’t get enough participants to break even. Go Dogs Go.

26 Jan

Winnipeg Jets Day at the Meridian Center

Yesterday afternoon, I went to see the IceDogs again as they took on the Barrie Colts at the Meridian Center. This was a date I’ve had circled on my calendar for some time because of the opportunity to see Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk behind the Barrie bench. I saw the greatest player in Jets NHL history so often during my five years as a season ticket holder and this was my chance to see him once again.

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As soon as I walked into the building, I was befuddled when one of the security guards asked, “Are you here for the game?” What else would I be there for?

While waiting to get in, someone who noticed the Jets gear I was decked out in approached me and said, “Winnipeg, they’ve been winning.” He apparently was one of those who still do not distinguish between the Winnipeg Jets, a team that no longer exists, and the Mark Chipman Personal Hockey Club. I assumed he meant the Chipman team instead of the Jets, so I responded, “Don’t worry, it won’t last.” He seemed surprisingly taken aback as he went on to talk about Chipman’s team before asking, “Your goalie, is he stopping the puck?” I told him I had no idea and I don’t even know who his goalie is, even though, as a former Manitoba taxpayer, I was helping to pay his salary. A surprising number of fans remain wilfully blind to the fact that the Chipman franchise has been on artificial life support before they ever dropped the puck. This so-called “inevitable” return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg has been made possible only by generous government handouts.

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When I got to my seat, I noticed once again that it, along with many others in the area, was dirty. Not only that, the floor hadn’t been cleaned and as you can see from the picture, there were some leftover cheezies on the ground. I wasn’t the only one to flag down the girl who was going around cleaning off the seats and she claimed that they do get wiped. It is a claim I find hard to believe. Once she finished in my section, she continued around the rink and as late as ten minutes before the start of the game, they were still wiping down seats. SMG is supposed to be a world-renowned arena management company, but they’re not exactly doing a bang-up job at the Meridian Center. I shudder to think what this jewel of a building is going to look like in five years time under their stewardship.

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To my surprise, seated opposite me on the other side of the rink were a couple of season ticket holders who were also dressed in Jets gear. The woman on the left was wearing a 1980s vintage jersey like the one I was wearing, but unlike me, she also had Hawerchuk’s name and number on the back.

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Interestingly, Mike Rosati, a former Manitoba Fighting Moose goaltender, was also behind the bench as one of Hawerchuk’s assistants. Rosati will be one of the players featured in my next book, View from Section 26: A fan’s look at the minor leagues featuring pro hockey’s most unwanted team, which I expect to have available sometime this year.

Though Hawerchuk’s appearance was the headline attraction for me, this was the IceDogs’ annual Pink in the Rink event, with the players and even the officials dressed in pink to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer.

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Bones at center ice prior to the chuck-a-puck in the second intermission.

I continue to be amazed by the how well patronized the concessions seem to be. For example, three seats to my left was a young couple who arranged the financing to pay for a bowl of fries swimming in gravy and some pizza that came fresh from the kitchen of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. There’s virtually nothing on their menu that I would want at any price.

Cody Payne’s cousin sang O Canada and, well, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all. At least she sang it entirely in the Canadian language.

Sitting right behind the bench, I didn’t expect to be able to see much of the action, but I got a surprisingly good view of what turned out to be a wild game. Barrie got on the board early and following a fight, the lights suddenly went out. Fans were kept in the dark, figuratively and literally, as they just played annoyingly loud music and didn’t make an announcement until sending both teams to their respective dressing rooms more than 15 minutes later. After the 24-minute delay, the IceDogs came out like gangbusters and scored five times before the intermission. One fan behind me yelled, “Get ready, you’re next,” at backup goaltender Daniel Gibl, but for better or for worse, Hawerchuk stuck with his starter the whole way.

The IceDogs went on to cruise to a 7-4 victory as Josh Ho-Sang exploded for three goals and Brendan Perlini showed some flashes of the brilliance he needs to show more often.

Hawerchuk’s former boss with the Jets, the late John Ferguson, would have been proud as Barrie seemed intent on starting a fracas once the score got out of hand. There was some stickwork that would have brought a smile to the face of Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken and, late in the third, a number of their players wanted a scrap in the worst way. Nothing came of it, but that didn’t stop Hawerchuk from unloading his full repertoire of profanity at any official who would lend him an ear. I’m surprised he wasn’t penalized or ejected.

I was happy with the IceDogs’ victory, but I admit to having had some split loyalties during the day because of Hawerchuk. Nonetheless, for someone who lived and died with the Jets during most of Hawerchuk’s tenure with the team, it was a thrill just to be on the other side of the glass from him and the final score was almost immaterial. I have so many unpleasant memories of my former home city, but Hawerchuk represented a number of the good memories I brought with me that I continue to build upon here in St. Catharines.

24 Jan

IceDogs vs. Plymouth

Last night, I saw the IceDogs battle the Plymouth Whalers
The visitors played like a bunch of drunken sailors

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The Whalers are bound for Flint next year
Perhaps that’s why they showed so much fear

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A couple of their players were out stretching in the concourse before the game
Since there’s ample room outside their dressing room, maybe they’re looking for extra fame

Elsewhere, kids were dancing to music as loud as a speeding train
Unlike what would happen in my former home city, someone actually stopped to complain

I stopped in and browsed through the IceDogs souvenir store
Compared to the NHL, for their merchandise they charge so much more

A man sat next to me with so much ketchup on his fries it was unreal
He didn’t understand it’s meant to be a condiment, not a meal

The self-promoting P.A. announcer introduced himself right from the get-go
Apparently he thinks he’s the star of the show

The moment of silence was a nice touch of class while we stood shoulder to shoulder
To honor Ho-Sang’s grandmother and a longtime season ticket holder

A group of school children performed the anthems from the northeast location
Unfortunately, they sang O Canada in the language of a foreign nation

There were no shortage of opinions coming from the peanut gallery during the play
As the home team continues to make headway

They put a whooping on a downtrodden team
No doubt, the Plymouth coach wanted to scream

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Goaltending has been quite a problem, but there’s no reason to mope
Because now, at least the IceDogs have some Hope

Midway through the first, a family of four came and sat in front of me
Why anyone would bring such young children to a hockey game isn’t easy to see

They spent half the night texting and sharing photos on their phone
All I could do was watch and groan

Security personnel missed something when searching them with a fine tooth comb
As they were able to sneak in a juice box from home

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After the game, the announcer again tells us who he is, giving himself more time on the air
I don’t know why he would think any of us would care

18 Jan

IceDogs vs. Kingston

Last night, I was in attendance as the IceDogs took on the Kingston Frontenacs at the Meridian Center. It seemed like just yesterday that I went to my first game and now I’ve been to nine. Given that the IceDogs stole a point from a strong North Bay team the previous night, the old Jets (1979-1996 vintage) fan in me was expecting a major letdown with Kingston languishing near the bottom of the standings. I’m not happy to have been right.

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I was privileged enough to be allowed entry without going through the latex glove treatment, though many still are having their bags rifled through, the targets seemingly chosen at random. I understand many are complaining about this treatment and I hope those complaints continue until this practice stops. Despite what they might claim, the bag searches have nothing to do with security. It’s about concession revenue. Nothing more.

The people seated around me certainly did their part to increase that revenue. I continue to be amazed as to how many people go to sporting events to eat and pay exorbitant prices for the privilege.

When going through the concourse, I passed by our most capable organist, who was bringing in his equipment on a two-wheeler. I was surprised there wasn’t some quasi-permanent installation and that he would have to unbox and box up all his gear for each game. I was equally surprised that he would be doing it instead of arena staff, but I guess wearing many hats is par for the course at this level.

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GreatClips was set up in the south end giving free haircuts. As they announced before the game, it was something to do with Big Brothers.

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The sight of this young woman sitting on the concrete floor behind the last row of seats presumably doing her homework was one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen at a hockey game.

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After taking my seat, I noticed this guy going through a spirited workout in the visitors’ penalty box. I would later find out that it was Kingston coach Paul McFarland. Evidently there was no space available in the dressing room or in the spacious hallway that runs behind both benches.

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Once again, I noticed how badly smudged the glass in front of me was and it was no different anywhere else around the rink. SMG is a world-renowned facility management company, but I can only surmise that it’s not in their contract that they have to clean the glass. Ever.

Singing the anthem was LauraLeigh Groppo, who also handles the in-game promotions. P.A. announcer Rod Mawhood introduced her before her performance. And after her performance. And after the game. He also introduces himself before the game. And after the game. Every game. Announcers who draw attention to themselves this way is a pet peeve of one loyal reader and it’s quickly becoming one of mine. He is well-spoken and good at his job, but I go to games to watch the players, not hear him announce. I’ve been to hundreds of games in many other venues and I’ve never known or cared who the P.A. announcer was at any of them.

Incidentally, I encourage any reader who might be interested to check out LauraLeigh’s Twitter feed (@LauraLeigh19) and note in particular what she was doing on the night of January 12. Six times. Maybe that might explain why she was so oddly unsure of herself as she sang O Canada. I’m baffled as to why anyone would post such a thing for public consumption.

Before the opening faceoff, the IceDogs also presented awards to the hardest working forward and “decenceman.” Unfortunately, I was too slow on the draw to get a picture as they flashed the misspelled details on the scoreboard.

The first two and a half periods featured some lackluster play, which drew the ire of the would-be Howie Meekers seated around me. “What are you thinking!” shouted one when Anthony DiFruscia, the IceDogs’ resident agitator, took another of his signature foolish penalties as his team was in the process of frittering away a two-man advantage.

Despite the sluggish pace, the goaltending at both ends was surprisingly good. In my limited experience, I have found it to be the weakest position across the league. Graham Knott looked good and he’s certainly setting himself up nicely to be a high draft pick this summer, but I think there might be some buyer’s remorse coming from the teams who picked Brandon Perlini, Carter Verhaeghe and Josh Ho-Sang. The three members of the IceDogs’ top line has been anything but dominant and it’s awfully tough to win when your best players aren’t your best players.

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Off the ice, Bones came down to visit with some fans near me.

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During the first intermission, he was being his usual playful self.

Trailing 3-1 in the third, the IceDogs rose from the ashes and scored twice to tie the score. They had Kingston on the ropes and looked primed for the kill until they pulled one out of the Jets’ playbook and lost in overtime. At least they got a point out of it, but it was a point I’m not sure they deserved. Playing half a period isn’t going to get it done.

Go Jets, er, Dogs Go.

26 Oct

Ode to the IceDogs

Here is a tale that will rhyme
About when I saw the IceDogs for the second time

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I found little buzz on the street on this day
There was only this mascot from the local Subway

Under the auspices of security, a guard rifles through your bags and devices
They just want you to pay the high concession prices

Never bought food at a hockey game, that’s a fact
It’s a streak I intend to keep intact

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I really don’t want to be mean
But is it asking too much for the seat to be clean?

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New banners were hung from the rafters
Honoring the team that was the Eastern Conference masters

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Before the game, Bones posed for a picture for me
There would be not many others in the stands for the mascot to see

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The IceDogs played their backup goaltender, giving him a fling
We found out why he’s second-string

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Battalion shooters found him easy to strafe
Don’t worry Brent, your job is safe

The work of the officials was not a delight
“I’m blind, I’m deaf, I want to be a ref,” was easily the line of the night

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An altercation caused many to scoff
One man near me yelled, “Rip his head off!”

The biggest cheers came from a third-period fight
The guy to my left pounded on the glass with all his might

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After the game, dejection was written all over their faces
It hardly seemed worth tying up their skate laces

The light crowd was not happy, to say the least
As their team crept closer to the bottom of the East

Looks like a long year ahead for fans like me and you
They’ve played a dozen games and only won two

17 Oct

My First IceDogs Game

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Bones” out on the ice before the pre-game introductions.

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.

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The opening ceremonies featuring Mayor Bryan McMullan, MPP Jim Bradley, Tom Rankin, Jason Ball, Bill and Denise Burke among others.

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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!”

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Along with the band clanging their cymbals and banging their drums to exhort the crowd on, I had the feeling I was at a college football game.

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First period action.

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.

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The IceDogs bench during the second period.

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.

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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.

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The most off-the-wall promotion was “Kiss Cam” during the third period when they focused on a couple and tried to shame them into kissing on camera for all of St. Catharines to see.

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.

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The IceDogs salute the crowd after their first victory of the season.

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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.

12 Oct

Grand Opening at the Meridian Center

Yesterday, I was one of many who attended the grand opening of the new Meridian Center in downtown St. Catharines. IceDogs season ticket holders and the politicians each had their own sneak preview in the preceding days, but this was the first time the general public had a chance to tour the facility.

I was among the first to arrive and I wasted no time in touring the seating area, as I would again after the ribbon-cutting ceremonies when they mercifully turned the lights on.

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The concourses seem spacious enough, though a better judgment on this point will come on Thursday night at the IceDogs home opener.

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Once again, I knew I was not alone.

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Many of you may take things like this for granted, but as a veteran of the venerable Winnipeg Arena, I was impressed that there were individual urinals and not a trough. In addition, the sinks and soap dispensers actually worked.

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I was pleased to see the city honoring its sporting past.

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I was shocked that the IceDogs’ store was not open. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to sell some merchandise to a captive and awestruck audience.

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This automated ticket machine was the team’s only presence.

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Interestingly, right after taking this shot, mayoral candidate Walter Sendzik passed by and recognized me from a recent debate I attended. I am getting around.

Before heading down to ice level for the ceremonies, I poked my head and camera into one of the private boxes.

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Mayor Bryan McMullan and MPP Jim Bradley were among the dignitaries to address the crowd. I was surprised when the mayor mentioned that the facility was located on the site where the original canal went through.

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IceDogs’ owner Bill Burke.

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Following the speeches, three young women in strange garb walked up on stage and climbed up these bands of cloth hanging from the rafters. They clearly possess an uncanny talent for contorting themselves around cloth at high altitude, but their purpose here was unclear.

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The official ribbon cutting. It was a nice gesture for them to provide cuttings from the ribbon for attendees to take home as a keepsake and I was lucky enough to get one.

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The mayor and a few council members posed for a shot after the ceremonies concluded.

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I continued my self-guided tour with a look at the dressing rooms at ice level. First was the visitors’ room.

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Next was the IceDogs’ room.

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The IceDogs’ workout room.

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Even the Zamboni was on full display.

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The retractable seats behind the goal. The row of orange seats reminded me of the Winnipeg Arena and its infamous ice-level orange chairs that sat atop creaky plywood floors loosely separating paying customers from the hordes of four-legged vermin that lived quite comfortably not far below the surface.

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The view from behind the net.

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The officials’ room.

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The penalty boxes and the timekeeper’s box. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during a heated contest.

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Looking behind the stage along the ice.

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And, of course, my home city is recognized on the ice.

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As impressed as I was with the facility, I was equally impressed with the friendliness of the staff who on hand to answer questions. It was another pleasant change for me coming from Winnipeg, where the Mark Chipman organization expects gratitude for the privilege of doing business with them. That is why, even though I no longer live there, my favorite NHL team is whoever the Chipman franchise is playing.

There is a part of me that laments leaving the history and tradition of older rinks behind, but the Meridian Center looks like a wonderful place to build new memories. I look forward to seeing my first game there on Thursday night at the IceDogs’ home opener.

14 Sep

Terry Fox Run in St. Catharines

This morning, for the first time in my new home city, I participated in the annual Terry Fox Run.

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I was one of the early birds.

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Sponsor tents.

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The registration desk.

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As those of you who know me would expect, I added the name of the late Carli Ward to the list of dedications. Long before her cancer diagnosis, Carli made the Terry Fox Run a habit and I’ve since continued the tradition in her memory.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that, unlike what happens in Winnipeg, the ceremonies were kept rather understated.

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Local volunteers.

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This speaker was from Café Amoré, one of the sponsors.

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Dawn Dodge, one of my councillors and the deputy mayor, read a prepared statement on behalf of the city. She should have finished it with the line, “This has been a recording.”

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Another of the speakers, this one from Brock University.

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The warmup.

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At the starting line. I was impressed that they thought enough to stagger the departure times. In order to avoid the unruly free-for-all that normally takes place in Winnipeg, the cyclists went first, followed by the rollerbladers, runners and walkers. As they explained, it makes sense to have the faster participants leave ahead of the slower ones.

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A scene along the route. Again, I was impressed that they had police blocking traffic. In Winnipeg, there is no traffic control and participants have to be on the lookout for passing vehicles.

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There were people cheering the participants all along the route. It was a very nice touch that is unsurprisingly absent in Winnipeg.

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Once again, cheers greeted participants at the finish line. It was another welcome reminder that I no longer live in the SPRM.

I heard runners who passed me boast about their times and the pace they were able to keep, but the Terry Fox Run is one event where the times are not important. What is important is that the run Terry was not able to finish continues year after year in city after city to raise funds and awareness for cancer research. There have been so many advances in detection and treatment, but the battle against cancer is far from over. That struggle that touches nearly every one of us is the reason so many dedicated volunteers work so hard to put the run together and why so many of us set aside time to be part of it.