Do you have a hole in your hockey heart? Watching junior and AHL games on television just doesn't cut it for you?
Can we make a suggestion? Take a hockey pilgrimage. There must be some team or teams at another level you have a passing interest in. Come on, we all do, whether you live out East, in the West, in Quebec or the mid-west provinces.
Even though we moved to Toronto to go to school 26 years ago, we still follow the hockey teams of my youth - the University of Waterloo Warriors, Waterloo Siskins and Kitchener Rangers - from afar.
Last weekend, we went home to the Twin Cities to take in three games in 26 hours, and the excursion was well worth the time.
Game 1: Windsor Lancers at Waterloo Warriors, Saturday 7:30 p.m.
The University of Waterloo's rink on the north side of campus reflects its name, the Columbia IceField. The 29-year-old arena is a frigid facility. Except for a few students who dropped by on their way to a Halloween bash and were in shorts, the regular visitors to Warriors games know to bundle themselves in blankets.
The rink only holds 700 people and it was half full for the Warriors' 7-5 empty-net loss to the Lancers, in which Waterloo blew a 3-1 lead it snatched 12 minutes into the game. The defeat halted a three-game Warriors win streak, but still the Waterloo players are excited about their 4-2-0 start that has them near the top of the standings in the OUA's tight West division.
The Canadian university game is one of the most underrated levels of hockey in the country, and despite the cold environment inside the IceField, the rink-side seats give you an intimate, up-close and personal feel for the speed and physicality of the game.
The Warriors are a young team, comprised mostly of first- and second-year players, including Waterloo native and former Barrie Colts forward Colin Behenna, a freshman math and business student who has five goals and 12 points in six games.
The future of this club is bright. The Warriors are 10 years removed from an embarrassing one-victory season. Waterloo hasn't won a Queen's Cup (provincial title) since 1995-96 and a University Cup since 1973-74, when U of W interrupted Toronto's eight-year run as national champs.
Warriors head coach Brian Bourque, in his eighth season, just happens to hail from Sidney Crosby's hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S. Bourque and his recruiting coordinator Dave Schlitt have built the program into a contender, and a good alternative with the NHL in limbo this fall.
Waterloo captain Kirt Hill, a relentless penalty killer who scored a third-period goal on Saturday to make the score 5-4, hails from Winnipeg. Bourque lured the forward to Waterloo after four seasons in the WHL with the Kelowna Rockets and Regina Pats and another in the USHL with the Lincoln (Nebraska) Stars.
The 24-year-old Hill does not regret the decision, especially with the possibilities for success in this, his final year at U of W. Because he is older, Hill is one of the few Warriors who has a perspective on how the program has grown. We wanted to know if he has noticed any increased interest in the Warriors because of the NHL lockout.
"I've noticed the crowds have been a bit better this year, but we're also a better team," said Hill, a fourth-year recreation and business student. "There have been a few times, however, where some of my fellow students in class have come up to me and promised they will come out now that the NHL is in a lockout."
Game 2: Listowel Cyclones at Waterloo Siskins, Sunday 1:30 p.m.
Where have you gone, Mike Yosurack and Marc Thiel, my two favourite Siskins from days gone by?
The historic and tradition-laden Waterloo Siskins almost ceased operations in June 2011. The community-owned team was $86,000 in debt to the city. But a six-person white knight group, led by local businessmen Nelson Leite and Curtis Clairmont, rode in to save the day.
They pledged to infuse the not-for-profit junior B team with $130,000 and worked out an interest-free 15-year payment plan to pay off the debt with the city. Times were tough. Siskin players had to buy their own sticks, but the team broke even financially last year.
This season, with an increased budget through bigger and better corporate support, the Siskins are, once again, supplying their players with sticks. And despite a three-game losing streak, including a 5-2 defeat to Listowel on Sunday, the immediate future looks better for the 9-8-0 Siskins, who are only six points back of the league-leading Cambridge Winter Hawks.
But the team's success and the NHL lockout have yet to translate into bigger crowds at the Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex. Only 350 fans were at the Listowel game on Sunday.
There was a time the fire marshal had to stop by to make sure the capacity succeeded for a Siskins game at the old torn-down Waterloo barn. Between 1940 and 1994, the Siskins won 11 Sutherland Cups (provincial titles), more than any other team. Between 1978 and 1994 the Siskins made 11 trips to the league final, winning seven times.
But they haven't advanced to a league final since 1994, and while the OHL's Kitchener Rangers down the street have flourished, hockey fans have stayed away from Siskin games for while now.
Clairmont, the Siskins president and director of hockey operations (Leite is out of the picture now), is bullish that better times are around the corner. He has visited with different neighbourhood associations around town, and offered free tickets in the hopes that families will show up and become smitten with the Siskins.
"This is good family entertainment," said Clairmont, a former Cornell University backup goalie to Bryan Hayward in the late 1970s.
"We haven't seen a spike in attendance because of the lockout, and we have a better team this year. But hopefully as we go along and grow a new fan base, things will change."
For the diehard Siskin fanatics, they're simply happy that the franchise is alive and kicking and looks like it will reach its 80th season in 2013-14.
Game 3: Plymouth Whalers at Kitchener Rangers, Sunday 7 p.m.
The Rangers are a month into their 50th OHL season. To celebrate the milestone, their 61-year-old home, the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, underwent a mammoth, six-month, $10-million renovation. The building's roof was lifted to enable a 1,000-seat expansion on the Aud's south side. The team also has new offices and a dressing room that would rival any NHL one we've been in.
Joe McDonnell has been coming to the old Aud for four decades. The Kitchener native sat in the seats as a young fan. He idolized Dave Maloney in the early 1970s and later patrolled the Rangers' blue line for five seasons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning a Memorial Cup in 1981-82.
The next time the Rangers went to the national junior championship McDonnell was their coach in 1989-90. They lost the hard-fought final in double overtime to the Oshawa Generals. He now frequents the Aud as a scout.
"This building has always had character and a great atmosphere," said McDonnell, who has four Stanley Cup rings as the Detroit Red Wings' director of amateur scouting.
"They've done a good job in keeping it up with the times: new seats, improvements to keep the dressing room up to date, the two pads added [to the east end of the building] and the addition of private suites. But the improvements they've made to the old Aud are wonderful and have added to the atmosphere."
The atmosphere was somewhat subdued on Sunday evening. The Rangers and Whalers were playing their third game in three nights and their play reflected the mood in the stands. The building also held about 1,000 less fans than the 7,639 capacity.
But the crowd did come alive when Kitchener defenceman Ryan Murphy, who had a good shot at cracking the Carolina Hurricanes lineup if not for the lockout, set up rookie Justin Bailey for the go-ahead goal early in the third period of the Rangers' 2-1 win.
Bailey's first career OHL winner improved Kitchener's record to 5-0-1 (4-0-0 at the Aud) since they re-opened the building on Oct. 19. It has the locals excited about what is to come this season, with or without the NHL.
Photographs by Kathy Broderick
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