If you have interest in hockey or sports, or Canada, or North American life, you owe it to yourself to take a trip to Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, and see a Jr. A Game at the Peterborough Memorial Centre, the home of the Peterborough Petes.
With a population around seventy-five thousand, Peterborough is a small city. It's the capital of the Kawarthas, which is cottage country, on the Trent-Severn Waterway that links Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. It's only 125 clicks or about 80 miles from Toronto, but it has the feel of a more isolated place, as it's surrounded by the Ganaraska Forest.
Your first thought, inside the arena, after walking up to your seat and looking around, is that you want to live your life over again and play hockey here.
The 'Petes' were established in 1956 and have become the longest continuously operating team in the Ontario Hockey League, which is the best at this level in the entire world.
The team has participated in the Memorial Cup tournament nine times in their history and they won it once. More importantly, the Petes have produced a record number of National Hockey League players, including stars and superstars. Some of the living legends are Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Mike Fisher, Cory Stillman, Chris Pronger, Steve Yzerman, Bob Gainey, Mike Ricci, Tie Domi, Larry Murphy, and The Great One, Wayne Gretzky.
Corey Perry came from Peterborough, too, but played junior elsewhere. They have sent a hundred players to the NHL who have played 100 or more games in the big league.
The Petes also produced some legendary coaches, including Scotty Bowman, Roger Neilson, and Mike Keenan.
Jim Balsillie, the BlackBerry billionaire who keeps trying to buy and NHL team for Ontario, came from Peterborough.
Two Canadian authors who should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Margaret Laurence and Robertson Davies, were also Peterborough people. So was Catherine Parr Trail, who wrote an early CanLit classic called "The Backwoods Of Canada."
The first game I saw at the Peterborough Memorial Centre was the Saturday of the Santa Claus Parade, early in December, and shortly after their play-by-play guy did his one thousandth game in a row.
It was 30 degrees outside, or a little below zero and freezing, and thousands of people were standing outside in the dark to watch the parade as it followed Roger Neilson Way from downtown Peterborough to the huge parking lot beside the hockey arena.
It started to get dark around 4:30 p.m. and by 6:30 p.m. it looked like the middle of the night. Santa Claus visited the play-by-play booth at the end of the first period and talked to Pete Dalladay, the voice of the Peterborough Petes, and congratulated him on his 1000th game. By that time, the home team was down 4-0 in a game against the league-leading and championship defending Windsor Spitfires.
The Spits won the Memorial Cup the year before and looked like they were on their way to winning it again. The Petes were in second place in their division of the OHL but they were twenty points behind the Spits. The Petes play against Belleville, Ottawa, Oshawa, and Kingston in the East Division. The Bulls, 67s, Generals, and Frontenacs.
The fans who fill the stands show wild support for the Petes, but don't appear surprised to see the Spits take an early lead.
When you first see the bowl of the Peterborough Memorial Centre full of hockey fans, the sight will take your breath away. The arena itself is very impressive, inside and out. They keep the building dark until game time, traditionally, and between periods, so when the lights come up, so does your energy and the excitement level of the big crowd.
Enormous banners hang from the ceiling and a huge portrait of the Queen smiles down from the far end of the ice, making the big space feel smaller. It is a cozy arena, seating over 4000 people. The Peterborough Petes Junior A hockey team has played here since 1956. It is the oldest continuously operating team in the league. You do the math and check your age to see how you compare.
The big red banners hanging from the ceiling honour past Petes and Hockey Hall of Famers Bob Gainey, Steve Yzerman, Mickey Redmond, Larry Murphy, Dick Todd, Roger Neilson, and Scotty Bowman. That's a lot of hockey history, close to the heart of the game, right there.
There is a lot more hockey history and local sports history downstairs, where the city of Peterborough maintains the Peterborough Sports Hall of Fame. Most cities in the OHL have a "Hall of Fame" with a few portraits of former players who went on to greater glory in the NHL. Peterborough has a full-sized museum.
The Petes' long and proud history is prominently featured in the museum but there are also a lot of souvenirs from lacrosse and other sports, celebrating local athletes. It's the OHL's finest museum. Lots of people get to the game early so they can wander through the museum. It's also open at intermission time, between periods. As you make your way through the exhibits, you do the math, and see where you would have fit in.
I realized that if I played Junior hockey here, after being part of the Jr. C Bracebridge Bears team that won the Ontario Championship in 1973, I would have been coached by Roger Neilson. The trainer would have been Dick Todd, who later became the coach, and kept up the winning tradition started by Scotty Bowman and carried on by Neilson.
In 1974, the Petes went all the way to the OHL's play-off championships. Maybe the needed just one more player to beat the St. Catharines Black Hawks that year. I bet a lot of guys have fantasies like that, sitting in the stands, looking up at all the championship banners.
The Petes have won the OHL Championship nine times, second-most in OHL history, and the most in the postwar period. They won the Memorial Cup once, back in 1979. I could have been on that team.
Neilson led his team to seven consecutive winning seasons from 1968 to 1975, also finishing first overall in 1970–71, winning the J. Ross Robertson Cup in 1972, and were runners-up in 1973 and 1974.
In the 1972 Memorial Cup, the Petes lost a close 2–1 game in the finals to the Cornwall Royals.
The Petes have produced a record number of National Hockey League players and they have graduated the most players to the NHL of all current OHL teams. After winning the Jr. C provincial championship, the Jr. A provincial and national championships, the NHL and the WHA would have been fighting over me.
Why did I want to be a writer? What happened to my desire to be the star of the game on Hockey Night In Canada, playing for or against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Maple Leaf Gardens? A lot of hockey dreams and careers took off from here. The Peterborough hockey rink is like a launching pad for athletes who want to play with the stars and become superstars.