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 third and final stop on the tour: Oshawa, Ontario.
OSHAWA – It's game night at the General Motors Centre and there is undoubtedly a buzz in the building with the visiting Kitchener Rangers in town. The Generals are off to a good start this season, paced by one of the OHL's leading scorers, Boone Jenner. On this night the Blue Jackets' prospect is matching up with Rangers' star defenceman Ryan Murphy, a first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Long a passionate hockey town, the arena itself contains various reminders of the rich history of the Oshawa franchise. The three retired numbers hanging from the rafters – 2-9-88 - are for Bobby Orr, Red Tilson, and Eric Lindros. Junior hockey aficionados in Oshawa are quick to remind visitors that Orr wore number 2 as a General, and not the number 4 that he made famous with the Boston Bruins.
Those same three honoured players are featured on a wall mural just outside the Generals' dressing room to inspire the current players when they make their way to the ice.
The inscription on the mural? "Once a General, Always a General."
The Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame and Museum is located behind Section 119 of the arena concourse and contains memorabilia that looks back at the history of the game in the city. It's an amazing assortment, ranging from game-worn jerseys to trophies and Olympic items.
One more look to the rafters above the ice shows the proud history of the franchise itself. Dating back to its founding in 1938, the Generals have captured 12 Ontario Hockey League titles and four Memorial Cups. Their most recent national title came courtesy of the Lindros-led powerhouse team of 1990.
Generals fans are a passionate bunch, and with the city located some 60 kilometres from downtown Toronto, the trials and tribulations of the NHL Maple Leafs are never far from people's minds.
But with the lockout now in its third month, the Leafs have not been heard from since early April.
Still, increased attendance in the absence of the NHL is not guaranteed in the Greater Toronto area. Junior hockey has been a notoriously tough sell, with team owners of the Mississauga IceDogs (to St. Catherines) and recently the Brampton Battalion (to North Bay) trying to make the OHL work in those cities before eventually leaving the area. But with so many hockey choices in Greater Toronto, including the American Hockey League Marlies downtown, the Generals continue to hold their own.
"We draw 3,500 a game here on average," said Generals season ticket holder Jim Bruce. "In Toronto, when the Marlies went to the AHL final (last season), they still couldn't sell out the place."
Bruce thinks the NHL's extended work stoppage is going to take a huge toll on the league.
"I think they're going to lose. The NHL, the players, everybody," explains Bruce. "It's going to be like baseball, the only tickets that will be sold will be corporate tickets; the general public won't be interested."
Standing not far from Bruce are a group of blue-clad Kitchener fans who have made the 140-kilometre trek to see their team play on the road. Like Oshawa, the Rangers have a long tradition of success on the ice and big crowds in the stands. Two of their most recent graduates, Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes and Gabriel Landeskog of the Avalanche, are representing the Kitchener program well in the NHL.
And one fan isn't shy to express his feelings about the NHL labour stoppage.
"I hope the NHL never goes back," says Kitchener resident Greg Giesler. "We've got better hockey here then you'll ever see in the NHL. I just feel sorry for the little guys, the vendors, the guys that sell the beer - they're all losing. It's a livelihood, let's face it.
Back on the ice, Murphy's Rangers have managed to keep the high-scoring Jenner in check. Jenner assists on Oshawa's only goal but is minus-2 by the end of the night. Murphy matches with an assist of his own and John Gibson makes 35 saves as Kitchener hangs on for a 2-1 victory.
The knowledgeable fans of the General Motors Centre are disappointed, but they take it in stride. They know they have just seen a spirited battle between two of the league's better teams. The fans say their goodbyes and know they will meet again in just a few days when a division rival, the Belleville Bulls, come calling.
- With special thanks to Megan Gould and Rick Radovski in Oshawa, and photographer Ajay Mirchandani.