There are 60 teams across the three leagues that make up the CHL. There are 16 more teams that make up the USHL and between the two leagues, they span across Canada and into 13 American states. Depending on where you live, you’re probably a lot closer to a major junior team than you think.
From Great Skate’s driveway you could make it to St. Catharines to see the Ice Dogs in 30 minutes or less. The Erie Otters are just about 90 minutes door-to-door while many of the OHL’s other clubs aren’t much further away.
I was able to make three separate road trips to see junior hockey played this season, making two trips to Erie and another to St. Catharines.
The trip to see the Ice Dogs was particularly interesting as Niagara was playing their final season at Jack Gatecliff arena, which was originally built in 1938. The Ice Dogs will be moving to a new, state-of-the-art arena for the 2014-15 season and having the opportunity to see one of junior hockey’s last great barns was a special treat.
The intrigue of seeing a game played at the junior level is multifaceted. Young players, competing not only for their team’s success but their own futures adds to the narrative on a nightly basis. Each team has at least one established draft prospect who is often playing at another level as compared to his teammates and opponents. The fans a passionate and informed and the atmosphere is different than many professional games you may have seen.
Jack Gatecliff Arena has a small ice surface with no more than 10 rows of seating in the stands. Standing room fans pack in the tiny concourses and the low rafters and press box overhangs add to the intimate atmosphere. Only a handful of these smaller, “old school” buildings are left as more and more teams are moving into shiny, modern buildings with better amenities and a more professional set up.
If you’re looking to track down some of the older, more intimate arenas that are left, Stadium Journey has documented the homes of all 20 teams with full reviews of each building.
The trip to St. Catharines was mainly motivated by the chance to see hockey in a building that had maintained for so long. It was also motivated by the fact that the Ice Dogs are the closest franchise to Buffalo and if there was any team I’d latch onto each season, their proximity would play a major role.
My two trips to Erie were similarly motivated (proximity) but the Otters boast another highly marketable feature in the form of a 17 year-old phenom named Connor McDavid.
As many hockey fans are already aware, McDavid is expected to be the crown jewel of next year’s NHL Entry Draft and he’s already dazzled in his first two years of junior hockey. Seats are increasingly hard to come by in Erie as the local fanbase is augmented by visitors from cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and more coming to see McDavid play. He’s worth the price of admission.
My first jaunt to the Erie Insurance Arena resulted in having to buy standing room only tickets for $17 each. The arena’s procedure for standing room landed us about seven rows behind the bench on the blueline, not a bad deal.
Instead of missing out on a seat the second time down, our group used the box office to buy tickets ahead of time in the section of our choice. We pad $16 to sit on the glass. Even without McDavid, the level of play far surpasses the price to get in the door at any arena, let along Erie.
What’s even better is that these trips are a piece of cake to plan. Many teams run cool promotional giveaways – we happened to be too late for the McDavid player posters they were giving away – and the tickets aren’t hard to come by if you buy them ahead of time. Another fun fact regarding those promotions, the player or players featured often sign autographs after the game to add to the unique souvenir.
You’re not going to be disappointed with your choice of a junior hockey road trip. The atmosphere is different than that of an NHL game, there’s rarely a bad seat in the house as the arenas are all right-sized for the crowd and the level of play is high. Maybe put together one or two for next season and grow from there.