What will be hopefully the first of a few parts, Elliott Stanley describes his hockey experiences on a recent trip to Canada.

Although our trip to the land of the free was not solely to take in hockey games I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a huge attraction in heading on a 3 week ‘road trip’ over the pond. A Leafs fan since school it was a lifelong dream to see them in live action, for all that is good about ESPN, especially their new HD offering, nothing can quite match attending a game in person. However, whilst in Canada, I was keen to take a look at more than just NHL hockey and was fortunate enough to do so. Rather than a review of the games or anything as formal I’ve put down a few thoughts on paper, in separate ‘articles’ and hopefully it proves interesting reading for a few people. The first one……

The Ontario Hockey League experience…

The OHL, one of three ‘junior’ hockey leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is the centre (and indeed the pinnacle) of junior hockey in Ontario; seventeen of the leagues twenty teams are based in Ontario, with a further two in Michigan and one in Pennsylvania. Whilst the operation is defined as a ‘development’ league, for players aged 15-20, the standard of arenas and attendances at the vast majority of games are both of the level that many EIHL clubs would dearly love to call their own.
We made the relatively short trip from downtown Toronto to Oshawa, a blue collar city around 25 minutes journey from Union Station, for a Sunday evening game against the Ottawa 67s. Oshawa is home to General Motors Canadian HQ and the company have several assembly plants in the city. The Generals home ice is named the GM Centre as a result of a sponsorship agreement with the car manufacturing giant.
GM Centre is a brand new arena, opened only 3 years ago in 2006, and it shows. The ‘bowl’ has a concourse which runs the full way around the seating, with standing places available throughout. Pizza Pizza outlets, bars and other refreshment kiosks are plentiful and there is a superb ‘Oshawa sports hall of fame’ on one side of the rink paying tribute to sports men and women from a range of sports. The seating surrounds the ice with no ‘stage end’, when full you can only imagine the atmosphere in this building as 5500 fans surround the ice. This facility was built with one thing in mind – hockey.
Something that stood out for me when attending the game at GM Centre was how professional the entire offering is, from the arena and its facilities to the rink announcer the game night experience is superb. The fans of the Generals, the OHLs most successful franchise with 12 championships, seemed knowledgeable types and the attendance was quite noticeably made up of a number of families. Over the years these fans have had the pleasure of watching the likes of Bobby Orr, Eric Lindros and, more recently, John Tavares begin their hockey careers.
Throughout the feisty encounter the refereeing appeared, to me, to be of a very high standard compared to that which we encounter (endure?) in the EIHL. The quality of the hockey was good; however this game seemed to have a high number of unforced turnovers in the neutral zone, perhaps a reflection of the maturing process some of the players still have to go through. Twice during the first 8 minutes of the clash the gloves were dropped and both bouts were toe to toe battles and far from the hug fests so many brawls seem to descend into on these shores. A tight game throughout the teams exchanged goals with Ottawa firing in a game tying effort with less than ninety seconds remaining in the final period. Overtime and penalties ensued before the Generals, including Christian Thomas (son of former Maple Leaf, Steve) in their line up, sent the majority of the 3,112 crowd home happy, by winning the shootout 3-2.
There are a number of things that I believe UK clubs can learn from seeing how the likes of the Generals operate a hockey franchise. It’s naive to expect we could instantly create the type of interest that stems from over 70 years of junior hockey however the professional manner in which Oshawa operate their game night is something which is sadly lacking at many EIHL games. Tickets purchased and printed at home, a well stocked merchandise store and clear, impartial rink announcements made this a trip I’d gladly pay to experience again.

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