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 second stop on the tour: Kingston, Ontario.
KINGSTON - Eighty kilometres east of Belleville sits Kingston, the home of Queen's University and Royal Military College. The city has a youthful feel and a bustling downtown area where the K-Rock Centre was built to replace the Memorial Centre as home of the OHL's Frontenacs in 2008.
Located on the banks of Kingston Harbour, where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River, the arena has a superb view of the waterfront, the La Salle Causeway, and across the river, the main RMC campus.
In fact, the dock for the Kingston-Wolfe Island Ferry is just a few hundred metres from Gate 3 of the arena.
As for the building itself, it's a gem. Kingston is known as the "Limestone City" and the exterior of the arena is built with it. Inside, the concourse is wide and there is a bar, team store, and K-Rock radio broadcast booth.
Kingston, with a population of nearly 160,000, is uniquely situated between three Canadian NHL cities. Located a two-to-three hour drive from Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, many in the city are bilingual and you can find fans of the Senators, Canadiens, and Maple Leafs without much trouble.
But with NHL teams idle this fall, all eyes in town are squarely on the OHL's Frontenacs. With Kingston resident Doug Gilmour as general manager and his former Toronto Maple Leaf teammate Todd Gill as head coach, the team has plenty of name power from which to market their club.
Ironically, Gilmour is absent from the team on this particular day. He is back in Toronto to be a captain in the Hockey Hall of Fame Legends Game.
It's a sunny Sunday afternoon and black and gold are everywhere as Frontenac fans arrive at the arena. The address of the building is "1 Tragically Hip Way", a nice touch for the band that calls Kingston home and still performs there on a regular basis.
There is still a buzz in the K-Rock Centre after the Frontenacs beat their arch-rivals, the Belleville Bulls, in a tight affair on Friday night. The Saginaw Spirit are in town for a Sunday matinee.
With three NHL buildings so relatively close by, is the pro product out of sight, out of mind?
"I don't frankly miss the NHL all that much," says Frontenacs fan Stan Sadinsky. "I watch the playoffs, I'm interested in what's going on, but this is local, and it's fun. And you can't have that kind of fun watching on TV."
Fans are happy to have the local product on the ice but at least one observer is predicting an end to the NHL lockout sooner rather than later.
"I think they're going to scramble to get something together because I think the fans may not come back as quickly as they did last time," explains Kingston resident and Frontenac season ticket holder Bram Fisher. "What bothers me the most about it is how many other people it hurts - bars, just the number of people involved in hockey. It's not just millionaires and billionaires, it's hurting a lot of people who are involved in the hockey industry."
The regulars at Frontenacs games say they have seen a boost in attendance this season that may be attributed in part to the NHL labour stoppage. At the same time, they acknowledge that a better record from the team is probably also contributing to the increased traffic through the gates.
"The attendance all in all has got to be up 400-500 people per game this year, and I think more in general because there's no NHL hockey," explains Kingston resident Tyler MacArthur. "People still want to see hockey."
And indeed, the K-Rock Centre is a great place to watch the game. According to Frontenacs director of marketing and communications Jeff Stilwell, several OHL observers place the Kingston arena alongside the John Labatt Centre in London as two of the league's best venues.
On this afternoon, the fans get their money's worth and then some. The Frontenacs take a 4-2 lead midway through the third period but the Spirit fight back with two late goals and the game ends up in a five-round shootout. Sam Bennett scores the only goal and Kingston earns the extra point.
My tour has now covered two games and there are a couple of hours left to drive to the final stop on the trip, the General Motors Centre in Oshawa. Boone Jenner, one of the OHL's top scorers, will face off against Carolina Hurricanes prospect Ryan Murphy and the Kitchener Rangers.
- With special thanks to Jeff Stilwell and Freda Coyle in Kingston, and photographer Ajay Mirchandani.
Check back on Friday for Part 3 as the tour ends in Oshawa, Ontario.