The Best Game on Ice is in Your Junior Arena and Fueled by Your Dreams

By Jason Menard

Hockey, at its heart, is a game that’s rooted in community. From backyard rinks to frozen ponds, it’s a game that we don’t so much play as we do experience. It’s that soulful connection that defines hockey fans – and it’s why junior hockey is the best game on ice.

The NHL may have the best players and represent the elite; Olympic and other international hockey has its cachet as well. But junior hockey combines the best of both worlds – superior-level competition between elite athletes combined with the passion of youth and community support.

I’m reminded of that every week. I have the luxury of attending games regularly in, what I feel, is the crown jewel of junior hockey arenas – the John Labatt Centre in London, ON. With a seating capacity of just over 9,100, it’s one of the larger arenas with junior hockey as its primary tenant.

It’s a beautiful arena with many of the amenities of professional venues. And while it doesn’t have the same charm that the old barns of OHL lore – including the venerable London Gardens/Ice House which preceded it – the community remains a part of the event.

As a fan, the venue’s beautiful. But it’s some of the things that fans don’t get to see that make it – and the junior game itself – special.

Recently, I was waiting outside the visitor’s dressing room for an interview when I was reminded of the subtle beauty of the game. In the back corridors of the arena, players will stretch, kick around a soccer ball, and prepare for the upcoming game. And it brings a smile to my face when I watch the first-timers take those first strides towards the ice level.

Walking through that corridor is impressive. In talking to several players, they’ve likened it to playing at the pro ranks in terms of scale and spectacle. For some of these kids, the OHL represents the first time they’ve played in venues with four-digit seating. Time after time, I’ve seen these young men drop their carefully crafted cool facade, their faces betraying a sense of awe and wonderment. “If you think this is cool, wait until you step on the ice,” the older vets say.

And in that moment you remember that these are boys playing a man’s game. All of them have dreams of playing at the next level, but the reality is that for many junior hockey will be the end of the line. Their competitive fires exceeding the fuel that their talent provides.

It’s that sense of finality combined with hope that makes junior hockey so compelling. Money is an object, but not yet an obstacle. Every night you get a maximum level of performance fueled by the power of dreams. There are no nights off. There is no room for taking it easy – you never know who’s in the stands, which teams are scouting, and who’s eyes are watching you. These kids are auditioning for their future each and every night – and the fans reap the benefit of these efforts.

The fans are an integral part of the experience as well. Whereas NHL-related conversations frequently devolve into a discussion of one’s worth – are they playing up to their contract? – the currency that drives junior-level games is passion.

In Canada, the World Junior Hockey Championship is one of the highlights of the sporting calendar. It combines the best of international play – and the pride that comes from wearing your nation’s colors – with this dream-filled, youthful passion. It makes for compelling viewing and memories that last a lifetime.

Junior teams are inextricably linked to their communities. There are billet families that have hosted generations of future stars and fan favorites; there are community businesses that support the organization; and there are the people in the stands that enjoy a closeness to the team that’s not possible with mega salaries and the trappings of professionalism.

Although many of us can’t relate to these young men as it relates to talent, we can all relate to the power of their dreams. Whether it was on the local pond or playing road hockey in front of our houses, we all dreamed of playing this game – the junior ranks represent our exploits on those backyard rinks on a grander stage.

Yes, the best of the best play in the NHL. But when it comes to watching the best of the game, then your local junior hockey rink is the place to be.