Erie, PA I can still picture it in my head – the way I had envisioned my first trip to Erie as a 16 year old innocent, in love with a certain Brad Boyes. At that point in my life I had basically been to three OHL arenas: Kitchener, Toronto, and the old London Ice House, where I had witnessed the Otters eliminate Rick Nash and the Knights on their road to the 2002 Memorial Cup. So, really, going to see an Otters game in their home barn was not much more than a pie in the sky fantasy. I mean, I just got my G2 licence at the end of that OHL season, and was, therefore, only JUST barely allowed to operate a motor vehicle unsupervised. Sure, a trip across the border with my partner-in-crime seemed thrilling, but deep down we knew it was not a trip we were ever going to take.
I can still see it, though, the Erie I had imagined all those years ago. I had imagined Erie to be a bit like Guelph, with nice parts, and then other parts that were more or less Hamilton. I can still see it now. My trusted first car, Boysie (ahem), was descending upon the darkened Guelphiltonesque ghost town of Erie, as street lights swayed, and I dare say a tumbleweed or two blew by. Erie represented the unknown other. Erie was one of only two OHL teams that was located on the other side of the tracks (Saginaw joined the league the following year), and this up and coming puck bunny anthropologist couldn’t help but wonder how those poor boys in Erie and Plymouth were getting on without puck horny Canadian women. I mean, it was hard to imagine Americans liking junior hockey since NHL hockey was having such a hard time. Hockey in America seemed like it might not be at all unlike a horrible science experiment performed by Dr. Frankenstein.
The dream of experiencing Erie died not long after that 01-02 OHL season. I consider the moment the Otters phase of my life passed was when the Brad Boyes jersey that I ordered never arrived in the mail! Back then online ordering technology wasn’t so great in the OHL, and was not unlike Mrs. Carrier ordering her son, Roch, a new hockey sweater from Eaton’s. Plus, I suppose there was that whole being robbed of my innocence by a Kitchener Ranger to distract me, too. My motivation to experience OHL hockey over the border was dormant for many years, until the day I decided to begin my hockey explorations all over the world. Eleven years later, I would finally go to Erie.
My journey to Erie seemed doomed from the start. I hit a nasty patch of weather on my way to Buffalo that afternoon, and I was beginning to wonder if it was a wise decision to jump back in the car for a 90 minute commute to Erie, Pennsylvania. I call this, ‘maturity.’ I decided to set up shop in Buffalo, as I was planning to see the Sabres game the following afternoon. As I checked in, the woman working the front desk informed me that the snowstorm was heading north, and that I probably wouldn’t have much to worry about. WRONG.
Oh, and speaking of checking in. I had clearly made the mistake of wearing a Leafs shirt to Buffalo that day. The shirt had a purpose, as did the hockey paraphernalia I randomly sprinkled around the backseat of my car, Lynxie, and that was for a smoother confrontation at the border. Luckily, no problems this time. However, the problems came when I drove up to my hotel and the Toronto Rock NLL team was checking in at the same time. Yeah, they each had no less than four team logos plastered all over themselves, and most of them were carrying around their LAX sticks, so they were kind of hard to miss. However, they saw me waltz in with my Leafs shirt and there was immediate silence as all eyes were fixed on me with puppy dog desperation. I’m not sure what they wanted me to do… Ask for an autograph on my boob? A friendly fellating? What?!?!
Anyway, the road to Erie was a treacherous one, and by the time I had descended upon the strangely Guelphiltonesque town, it was clear that they had already been severely ravaged by old man winter. I thought the worst must have been over, but it was yet to come. As I left Erie Insurance Arena after the Otters 7-2 loss to the Sudbury Wolves, there was a full on blizzard happening. I drove all the way back to Buffalo in whiteout conditions, and there were long stretches of highway that were essentially three inch thick sheets of unblemished snow. I also almost died when a snow plow changed lanes unannounced as I was about to pass him. Burned rubber surviving that one…
Sadly, I didn’t pick a very good time to finally make my trip to Erie. Sure, Connor McDavid and the future of hockey is alive and well, but the arena itself is undergoing a major (much needed) facelift. Whole sections of seats were hidden behind tarp, and other areas were totally gutted. So, it was hard for me to get a sense of what the place was like back in the sellout days of Brad Boyes and Memorial Cup dreams, or what it will be like next season when the renovations are complete. I suppose I will have to come back to Erie someday, if the Otters are still around. Rumour around the rink is that the Otters might be on the move… TO HAMILTON?!
What I can say for certain about Erie is that the fans are definitely different than they are in the Canadian OHL markets. They remind me of AHL fans, but since OHL rinks are smaller, the numbers make for a better and more powerful dynamic. I’ve never seen so much banging on the glass in my entire life. In fact, the entire row behind the visitors bench has been barred off due to fans constantly harassing the opposition. My section was particularly rowdy (in a good way), and I found that these people might even be more dedicated to the team than the fans in the Canadian cities. When they weren’t discussing the presence of Bobby Orr at the game the night before, I heard people talking about altering their work schedules to sync with the Otters schedule. Quite frankly, that’s Psycho Lady-esque fandom right there.
I feel like I should stop there since I really believe that another trip to Erie is necessary to do the team and the rink justice. That said, can I make a suggestion, Erie Otters? Please put in a nice big mural to honour Thebradboyes so that I might stroke it… I mean, take a picture in front of it upon my return. Thanks in advance. The end.
Top Photo: Shooter and the tarp…