To paraphrase from Mark Twain, the reports of the death of hockey in Canada have been greatly exaggerated.
After all, there are just seven locked out NHL arenas across the country, while there are 52 Canadian Hockey League venues from coast to coast where the sport never skipped a beat in the nation's smaller communities.
So instead of lamenting the absence of the NHL game as the labour dispute continues, I took on the task of seeing as much live hockey as possible in just over 24 hours. And I can assure you that the game is absolutely alive and well.
And it's not necessarily that the fans don't miss NHL hockey. The truth is, they have found other things to do with their hockey dollars.
The first stop on the tour: Belleville, Ontario.
BELLEVILLE - It's Saturday night and a sea of red, gold, and black-clad Bulls fans fill up Yardmen Arena. Capacity at the building is just over 3,200 and on this night, it will be mostly full for a battle against the visiting Saginaw Spirit.
The City of Belleville, population 49,000, has had a franchise in the Ontario Hockey League for over three decades. And the truth is, the hometown Bulls play in an arena that is mostly a well-kept secret to all but the most knowledgeable of CHL fans. Built in 1978, "The Yardmen," as it's called by fans, has one of the most unique features of any arena in North America - the team plays on an Olympic-sized ice surface.
Indeed, the 200-by-100 foot ice dimensions are only slightly larger than the standard 200-by-85 foot North American sheet. But in person, the additional space looks like an awful lot of extra real estate. The Bulls are known historically to stock their roster with speedy skaters to take full advantage of the unusual dimensions.
It wasn't easy to figure out why, exactly, the arena features the large ice. The reason isn't commonly known, so I was directed to Bulls radio voice Jack Miller who has called games for the team since its inaugural 1981-82 season.
"When they were planning the arena in the late '70's, Calgary was the only city in Canada that had an Olympic-sized rink," explained Miller. "The planners here wanted to draw attention to the city by offering Team Canada entries a place to train before heading overseas for European tournaments."
Miller went on to explain that the plan only worked out halfway. While the ice was sized correctly, the rest of the building and facilities ultimately proved to be too small to handle the demands of national programs, and that part of the plan never really took off. But the big ice was there to stay.
In the arena concourse, fans congregate under huge banners that list the Bulls' NHL graduates. Marty McSorley, Al Iafrate, Bryan Marchment, Jonathan Cheechoo, Darren McCarty and Jason Spezza are just a few of the better-known players who used to call the building home.
Likely to be added to that list soon enough is Boston Bruins first-round draft pick Malcolm Subban, who is tending goal for the Bulls on this night.
For one season-ticket holder, the chance to come to games every week more than makes up for the absence of the NHL game.
"People want hockey," explained Jeff Thompson of Belleville. "They want to come out and see a game and not have to worry about some guy wanting $20 million instead of $10 million.
"The (NHL and the players) are all fighting over a piece of a really big pie that everyone already has a good piece of. I think it's silly."
Clad in Bulls jerseys, John Bourne of nearby Trenton is attending the game with his wife and daughter. For him, the NHL lockout has some simple undertones.
"We kind of see it as millionaires fighting with millionaires," explains Bourne. "When they settle, we just hope we don't have to do this again in six years."
The Saturday-night crowd is clearly enjoying themselves as the game continues and the Bulls hold a 2-1 lead through two periods. A train whistle sounds every time the Bulls score. Many fans carry Bulls cowbells to rattle at every big hit and home team goal.
The game itself is fast-paced and entertaining. Things look good for the Bulls until Saginaw manages to tie the game with less than a minute to play. In the end, the crowd goes home disappointed when Saginaw wins in overtime.
Fans file out of the building while the Saginaw team bus warms up beside the arena. With a huge Spirit logo on the side, the Saginaw motor coach will be making the 80-kilometre trek to Kingston for a Sunday afternoon tilt against the Frontenacs.
Luckily, so will I.
- With special thanks to Josh Sweetland and Jack Miller in Belleville, and photographer Ajay Mirchandani.
Check back Thursday for Part 2 as the tour goes to Kingston, Ontario.