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Why I’m a fan of junior hockey

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This is probably the only good thing Eugene Melnyk has done hockey wise.

The Niagara IceDogs celebrate their 2012 Eastern Conference Championship win over the Ottawa 67’s.
CHL Images

Welcome to the refreshed Pension Plan Puppets! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams. If you’d like to do the same, head over to the FanPosts to begin. We’re collecting all of the stories here. Come Fan With Us!

This isn’t a twelve step meeting, despite how much that opening sounded like one. Well, actually, maybe it is a bit.

Hello, my name is elseldo and I’m a fan of junior hockey.

It all began back in 2008, when I packed up my growing family and moved home, back to Niagara and away from the wasteland that is North York.

I grew up in the north end of town, on the lake, and that was my preferred destination. However it became a haven for retirees and commuters from Toronto, driving up the prices while destroying what made that community special. Most of the storefronts and restaurants are gone, and there’s now a pit at the beach where someday maybe condos will be built.

We went south, to downtown, and settled in a neighbourhood just ready to be gentrified (it worked, we drove out the Brock students and now it’s a nice, quiet street). The plus was that it’s also within walking distance of the hockey arena.

When I was a kid, the biggest game in town was the Junior ‘B’ St. Catharines Falcons, the best team in the region and they still regularly dominate their division in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. They’d give Jr ‘A’ teams a run for their money but the OJHL won’t let them in. Those games were fun for a kid who wasn’t super into hockey, the ancient Jack Gatecliff Arena was as big as the ACC to me back then. The Falcons played a large role in shaping my future, as I fell in love with TV production while doing a co-op with the local TVCogeco channel and learning the ropes at Friday night Falcons games.

When we moved back, the Falcons weren't the big name in town anymore. The year before, the Mississauga IceDogs had been kicked out of the Hershey Centre by Eugene Melnyk, who wanted a nicer arena for his St. Michaels Majors OHL team and was blocked from buying Maple Leaf Gardens by MLSE.

The IceDogs were sold to the Burke family, who first tried to negotiate with the city of Niagara Falls, and after being rebuffed they made a deal with St. Catharines and signed a lease to play in the even more ancient Jack Gatecliff Arena.

It didn’t take long for me to find myself at an IceDogs game. We moved in to our house the week before Thanksgiving, and weeks later we were in the Jack, and I was falling in love with hockey all over again.

Living in Toronto, we were down the street from the ACC before we ventured north into the wilderness of the suburbs to get that extra bedroom for the kid and not have to sell a kidney. I didn’t go to many games. Yeah, the Leafs were there, but I was living off entry level wages so a Leafs game was way out of my league. I could have gone to a Majors game at St. Mike’s, but ugh, it was so far away and not on a subway line. TV was my hockey fix, aside from one pre-season Leafs / Canadiens game where we watched from standing room.

When we walked into the small, cramped arena that permanently smells like a post-game change room, it felt like home. This is where I learned to skate, not in hockey, but in figure skating classes. Two years of that was all I had in me, but I knew every inch of that arena, even though I hadn’t set foot in it for almost 10 years.

One of the advantages that Junior hockey had over the big, mega corporate arenas was that the rinks those games were played on were also ones that kids learned to play on. The Jack, the old Windsor Arena, the London Ice House, Kitchener Square Gardens, St. Michael's College, these were all centers of their hockey communities. They’re all gone from the league now, except for KSG, but it keeps getting renovated and is now a mega arena for the OHL.

This old, dank, smelly arena was key for me falling for the IceDogs, and the league, and level of play in general. It made an immediate connection between me and the team. It had it’s faults — the old wood benches we had for seats were made for a much smaller population in the 1930’s and 70 years later they had a tendency to fall apart when you touched them — but it was MY rink this team was playing in.

We were there as a group purchase by the local fire fighters union, so we got to have a pre-game skate and then pizza in one of the community change rooms in the hall between The Jack and the smaller Rex Stimers arena.

The one thing I loved about The Jack was that it was too small to give proper warm up spots for the opposing team. The IceDogs had a small hallway under the stands they could block off from the public, but the visitors, well, they had to share space with skating parties and local CYO teams. We were eating pizza while some Erie Otters warmed up on their exercise bikes next to us that day. At other games, kids would run around in their hockey gear while the visiting teams lined up in the same hall waiting to make their entrance to the ice. During the playoffs the visitors would be kicking a soccer ball around in the same parking lot that was hosting a pre-game tailgate party for the home fans. This wasn’t great for the visitors, but who cares, put the visiting team in as much of a disadvantage as possible.

The advantage junior hockey teams and fans have when it comes to building a fan base over pro leagues is that they’re such a huge part of each other’s communities. The players to go school with the fans; the fans know that the team is there for them whenever they have a question or an issue. You can talk to the owners when you see them in the rink; there’s very little hierarchy in a lot of these places.

When I started going to games regularly, it really felt like this was my team. Not a team that I cheer for, but that I had ownership over this logo, that jersey, these players. One day, tired and bored at my job, waiting for the broadcasting layoff monster to take me into his buyout bayou, I looked at the IceDogs website and they had a posting for an intern position for the Game Day Operations group. I gave them a call, said I’m working full time but would like to try something new. After that, I was in.

Like I said, these teams are usually open for anything.

I was there at ice level for the entire 2011-12 season. I was part of the team, and saw almost all of the home games of that season, plus the run to the finals against the London Knights. I got to see how games are run, the chaos a Sportsnet brings to town, and how it’s doubled when the league shows up to do drugs tests unannounced in the middle of this. I was on the bench pre-games, I glued board ads up, I got yelled at by the team owner and equipment manager, you know, really part of the team.

I also got to see some things not many get to see, like how David Pacan’s sticks were labelled:

After I started writing for PPP, I called them again and asked if I could interview Carter Verhaeghe. Sure, come on down. I walked around the brand new Meridan Centre, spoke with anyone I came across about him, and then watched the game from the press box. After the game I had my time with Carter, and caught up with some people in the front office, and wrote my first piece for PPP.

Being here at the Memorial Cup I’ve met fans from all over the CHL who travel all over Canada every year to attend this tournament. I’ve been invited to tailgates, and to help with interviews with the CHL president. Everyone in this community has been outgoing and welcoming. Getting to know the other beat reporters here, meeting and talking to the most prominent junior hockey reporters in the country, and no one has said no once, aside from security.

You can see this community bond being made with the young fans as well, when the teams make school visits. My son got to play some ball hockey with the IceDogs, and when we were at a game later that season he was cheering hardest for for the players he met and played with. He has a framed set of 2011-12 team cards hanging in his bedroom, each one signed by the players. When we were watching the Blackhawks play the Lightning in the 2015 cup final, he got mad when former IceDog Andrew Shaw was cut, but was happy to see him win. As we watched the cup be present, and Shaw - a player from that team that took the time to play some ball hockey with him - raised the cup he watched with eyes wide open, and whispered “I want to do that” to himself.

A couple years later and he’s on the ice of the Meridian Centre, skating under the old Tee Pees memorial cup banners, the IceDogs conference champion banners, determined to make it to the big time.