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My first OHL game: Niagara at Erie

September 10, 2011

Right on the glass next to the IceDogs’ bench. This is Dougie. 

This is a much-delayed post. Between travel, moving, work and the tragedy in Yaroslavl on Wednesday, I haven’t had too much time to write. But, I did attend my very first ever Ontario Hockey League game on Saturday night. It was a preseason game, and sure it’s not such a big deal if you’re Canadian. But for an American like me, it was a big deal. Even bigger was getting to see Dougie Hamilton and his brother Freddie, along with Ryan Strome and their IceDogs. They thrashed the Erie Otters. Dog on otter violence, yes. 2-0 was the final score. But I want to talk about Erie, Tullio Arena, and the experience itself. As an avid reader and new follower of junior, the experience was one I had looked forward to.

We raced east from Chicago for the game. Finally, Erie. It was nightfall. The town had the look of some post-industrial cities on its periphery: large empty warehouses and factories, wide boulevards nearly empty. I’d seen it before, in Ohio, in Holyoke. This was Erie, PA. As we approached the downtown, there were more people, more lights, more businesses. It had a quaint feel. Rather annoying was the fact all the street names were for fruits: plum, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, etc. It was rather confusing after awhile, to be frank. Following a trusty Android phone, we found our way to the arena. Ample parking in the lot and in surrounding garages. We pulled into a lot space, popped two quarters into the machine (bought us two hours) and proceeded inside. Tickets were $10 for all seats. We said we’d liked to sit on the glass, and that is what the kind ticket lady provided us with. We were on our way.

The arena itself was older, clearly in need of renovation. But then again, having never attended an OHL game, my basis for comparison is non-existent. Perhaps I shouldn’t comment on that. But what was clear was just how enthusiastic the fans in attendance were. There were perhaps 1,000 or so of them, and the arena was sparsely populated. But young and old, they were eager. There were scores of Otters jerseys, and lots of Penguins apparel. It was then I realized I was in Pittsburgh territory. Crosby is king. But children were everywhere.

We sat down on the glass, beside an older man and his son, who was donning a Leafs Komisarek sweater. I laughed silently, on the inside. The pounding and banging was fantastic; I’ve never sat on the glass before. The flow of the game was fast, but choppy. It was clear the first game of the preseason was not the time for precise line changes and swift action. There were a lot of sluggish summer feet on the ice. Still, the stars we were there for, Dougie and Ryan, were outstanding. Dougie Hamilton is the smoothest of the skaters–his lateral and backward movement are both fantastic. He reminded me a lot of Dennis Seidenberg. He was gliding effortlessly. The Otters were out to get him, clearly he was a target. But guys just bounced off him like rubber. There was one gratuitous knee-t0-knee hit, but Dougie only wobbled and moved on. He had an extra edge too, one that I wasn’t aware of. He doesn’t shy away from open-ice hits, or shoving. He did a few sessions in the box, too.

But it was his brother, Freddie Hamilton was simply fantastic. He’s a late round, 2010 pick of the San Jose Sharks. Maybe the extra size and time caused him to appear superior to so many other players on the ice. Or maybe his draft number belies his actual skill. Either way, Freddie was a dominant force throughout the game, calling the shots on the powerplay. He drove to the net with aplomb. The goaltending, especially for junior, was superb. Both sets of goalies (they used two) were solid and technically sound.Ryan Strome had great speed and agility, but he didn’t stand out.

What did stand out? The potentially drunk Otter mascot that appeared in the third period (where was he for the first two?) began climbing the side of the glass, encouraging small children to do the same. He pounded it with his fists, as game continued. At one point, he reached his arm over the glass and started hacking at it from the other side. Then, he headed up into the balcony with a small child in tow. Not sure what happened after that.

In other arena action, the bathrooms were sufficient, nothing special. I was excited to indulge in true Canadian fashion with a Molson Canadian. But as the bartender at the concession stand reported, the repairman expected to arrive to fix the beer refrigeration for the start of the season had not yet shown himself. Alas, only lukewarm Molson Canadian was available. I declined. The music between plays was alright, free of advertisements. Other than the wild Otter, it was a wholesome sort of affair. Everyone seemed happy. As we departed into the night, there was a late summer glow in Erie, PA. Hockey season begins in earnest in a couple of weeks. I bet the Tullio will be rocking–with far more people, and just as much vigor–as I saw it on September 3rd.

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