Been a pleasure, but the pleasure’s been mine, all mine…
Sault Ste. Marie, ON Well, I’ve finally done it. I have visited every rink in the Ontario Hockey League and lived to tell the tale. In the 12 years since I began getting my big O’s on the road (and by that, I mean, OHL games, of course) I have met the fans, eaten the poutines, and been molested by the mascots (among other things)! It feels so good to be able to comment with total certainty on the ins and outs of each and every rink and fan base in my favourite juniour league. Yes, hockey world, I am now an expert on the total OHL fan experience!
OK… Now, please don’t be THAT guy. You know, that asshole who can’t help but point out that next season North Bay will make their long awaited return to the O, and will, therefore, blemish my nice set (of rinks). Or the fact that Ottawa will be moving out of their temporary home at Scotiabank Place in a couple years, and that Erie may or may not be on the move to Hamilton! Yeah, guy, I know all of this, but right now, and in this moment, I have a perfect 20/20 OHL arena record, and you WILL NOT ruin my damn party! Got it? Thanks.
I’m not going to lie, Essar Centre (home of the Soo Greyhounds) was not my absolute favourite OHL arena, but I gotta tell ya – it’s definitely up there. Essar Centre lost points with me over the fact that the arena wasn’t THAT big for a newer facility, which is kind of odd because people go crazy for their Greyhounds up in those parts. In Sault Ste. Marie there isn’t one specific NHL team that the majority of the people worship. You walk into the Station Mall and it is a rainbow of NHL merchandise being sold in their shops, which, to me, was pretty striking. Despite the obvious passion for hockey in this Northern Ontario town, their passion for their local OHL team is only rivaled by a few other demographics in this league. Surely, they could fill a larger barn if they tried. Preferably one that serves poutine! I gave a -1 for that concessions omission, by the way!
Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect on my trip to the Soo. The 8 hour drive from Toronto and very cold winter temperatures ensured that Sault Ste. Marie was the last OHL town I ended up visiting. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find up there, if anything, but I ended up having one of the best times since, hmm, Anaheim, if you know what I mean. The Essar Centre was across from the mall and down the road from a casino, so basically it was fun central! The only unpleasantness was that my phone kept trying to flip into roaming – border town problems, right? Oh, and I also made the mistake of finally trying the coconut flavoured Rockstar energy drink. Blahhh! Easily the worst thing I had in my mouth on this trip. Yeah, you’re welcome.
As for the game itself it was pretty intense. Technically, the game, which was also the last game of the regular season, didn’t matter, since playoff spots had been finalized. I noticed all weekend in Saginaw and Plymouth that the teams weren’t dressing their best players in preparation for the second season. It was no different in the Soo, but the boys were playing like everything they had was riding on that game. It was one of the most heavily penalized games I had seen in a LONG time, with a total of 64 minutes being served. I don’t know how many times throughout the night that there were 3 young men inside my box at the same time… Oh, I guess I should have mentioned that I was sitting next to the penalty box, eh? Anyway, there was definitely a lot of passion and emotion flying that night… On the ice, that is… Yep, I thoroughly enjoyed my Sault Ste. Marie experience, and I made sure to go out and celebrate my OHL completion that night in the only way I know how…
So, anyway, you’re probably wondering what my favourite OHL rink is, now that I have officially been to all of them, and can make an informed decision. Maybe I’m biased. Maybe my hometown Kitchener Aud will always hold more meaning for me than it does for anyone else. It was the rink that both corrupted me and turned me on to this game more than my Toronto Maple Leafs ever could, after all. Kitchener is one of those rare OHL cities that is large enough to, you know, have a life outside of jr. hockey, and yet that town has worshipped their Rangers for 50 years! The arena is large and pretty, since it undergoes a facelift regularly every couple of seasons. Yet, no matter how many renovations the Aud undergoes, that distinct smell of beer nuts and my threatened virginity always manages to linger in the air. If I ever had any doubt about Kitchener being my favourite rink, those doubts flew out the window Friday night during Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. The Aud was rockin’! Seriously, I think it was louder than MTS Centre on a good night, which only proves that Kitchener fans are some of the most intense in our beloved sport. I guess now you know where I get my crazy from, huh? And I guess it’s true what they say. You can travel around the world, but you may find that you were always better off right where you started.