A View from the Other Side

By Jeff Bromley
The CHL being what it is, a massive umbrella organization covering three leagues containing fifty-five teams operating from coast to coast, it is not often a small town sports writer from the west gets to see clubs from one of the other leagues. Having the chance to see how one of the other thirds of the CHL operates, naturally I jumped at it.

The North Bay Centennials operate out of the Ontario Hockey League’s, Eastern Conference Central Division and on this night I had the pleasure to take in a game between the hometown Centennials and the storied Peterborough Petes. The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors to Memorial Gardens (Capacity – 3523 plus 500 more for standing room) in North Bay is it’s age. Built in 1954, it’s a far cry from the state of the art facility we enjoy in Cranbrook but it’s not inadequate in the manner that the old Memorial Arena was for housing a major junior club. This old girl had a lot of character and history to it. From its high, sloped bleachers that seemed to go on forever, the sizeable picture of the Queen on one end and a big blue curtain at the other. To its trophy cases and historical hockey and building pictures that adorned the corridors in its wooden innards, it was clearly evident that building had seen some true hockey memories over the years.

The game between the Cents and the Petes was as entertaining they come. The Peterborough squad did seem to have the jump in their skating for most of the night as they clearly dominated the Centennials who were coming off their third game in as many nights. A hard-fought physical affair that, interestingly enough, to the many Western Hockey League fans in attendance with me that night thought that might have boiled down into a penalty-filled, whistle-happy affair had that style of game been played in the West. Firmly entrenched in our belief that the refereeing in the East was far superior our certainty was quickly dispelled by more than one local who had unanimously stated, “Nah, this one’s just having a decent night for a change. They’re usually worse.” Believing the dedicated hometown fan judging on his assorted Centennial attire, I wondered aloud how amazing the common theme of bad refereeing knows no boundaries.

Obviously limiting myself to only one OHL game cannot formulate an opinion of an entire league but on this night, the game was more of the physical, less retaliatory style of play as opposed to the more speed and finesse style game witnessed on a lot of nights in the Western Hockey League.

Nevertheless, the Petes dominant play couldn’t push over the Cents opportunistic goal-scoring and stellar play of Centennials goaltender Andrew Penner as North Bay held on for a hard-fought 3-2 win. In the process the game held stars of the future in usual starting goaltender and Canadian WJC club backup Alex Auld for the Cents who was rested after playing the preceding two nights. Locks for the upcoming CHL Top Prospects game in Calgary included Chris Thorburn for the Cents and Lukas Krajicek for the Petes. Calgary Flames 2nd round NHL Draft pick Kurtis Foster of the Petes was a towering force on the blueline, all 6’5″ of him. For the Centennials, one of the most dominating players on the night, and indeed the season was Swift Current Bronco Igor Valeev. Currently tied for the team league in points, it is beyond me how this pit bull of a European slipped through the grasp of the seventeen other WHL clubs who would have had to pass on the bulky right-winger in order for him to play in the OHL. Disappointingly enough, Fernie product and former Ghostrider Charlie Mattersdorfer had been released from the team only days before in order for the club to pare down its roster to the league-imposed limit of twenty-two. Mattersdorder is currently playing with a Tier 1 junior club in Chicago.

With names like that in the line-up and the Centennials hovering around the ..500 mark, I was disheartened to discover that the hard-working team is having trouble drawing fans and is at a critical juncture in its history. “This club is on about one and half legs in North Bay,” said Andrew Christensen, a budding sportswriter who covers the club for his college newspaper and the team’s website. “That half a leg can either grow and blossom or die and fall off. More fans half to start coming.” The attendance that night was 2712. Not great for a city of 56,000 people but certainly not bad. It was then I learned that this night was something called ‘Ticket Redemption Night’, which in plain English means unused tickets are valid and lots of freebies. Unofficial average attendance figures are pegged at anywhere between 1800-2200 per game. Alarmingly low numbers for a city of that size. Throw in that fact that the big news of the week was that city council had recently turned down a proposal to build a new arena complex to replace the aging Memorial Gardens and future starts to look somewhat shaky for the club.

Entering its nineteenth season in North Bay, the Centennials have a long, winning tradition in the city with one OHL banner and only missing the playoffs a paltry three times. NHL stalwarts that have worn a Cents jersey include both Hatcher brothers Darian and Kevin, Nick Kypreos, who believe it or not holds the team record for goals in a season with 62, among many others. Now they have future NHLer’s in Alex Auld and Chris Thorburn and a Head Coach who was selected as an assistant to the Canada’s World Junior entry last month in Mike Kelly.

From a visitor’s point of view I saw many positives for this franchise but also the negatives of low attendance. Here’s hoping the pluses outweigh the minuses and the major junior hockey tradition in North Bay continues.