Hockey fan versus an Oiler fan and the U of A Golden Bears- I’ve always described myself as a hockey fan first and an Oiler fan second. If good hockey is being played, I can watch it even though I don’t have an emotional investment in the outcome of the game. However, that claim was challenged last spring when I attended a University of Alberta Golden Bear playoff game. A buddy had invited me to go and I hadn’t been in the Claire Drake Arena in over a decade. What I witnessed was some of the most entertaining hockey (NHL included) I had seen in a long time – I was actually embarrassed I hadn’t been to see the Bears since the Swiss Miss, Michel Riesen, lead the Oilers rookie squad against the Bears in the fall of 1997. I can’t claim to be a hockey fan first if I am letting the second highest level of hockey being played in the city to go unnoticed. That is right- I stated the second highest level of hockey being played in the city. The Bears would have the Oil Kings for a quick supper and then ask what was for dessert.
It is not that I dislike the WHL or Junior Hockey in general. I spent my teen years in Kamloops during the early to mid 90′s and watched that team steamroll their competition. The reason the Golden Bears are a higher level is that almost all the players on the roster, with the exception of two, are Major Junior grads. They are the best of the guys who didn’t turn professional and are playing during the physical peak of their twenties. The hockey is fast and hard hitting. Based on the game we saw in the spring, my buddy and I decided to get seasons tickets for the Bears. It was $126, which works out to $9 a game. An entire season for less than a decent seat at Rexall for one Oilers’ game.
So why don’t the Bears draw better? They are usually the best team in their league and they always seem to be gunning for a national championship. The Oil Kings had their home debut last night, which they won 7-3, and I’m sure they had a few thousand fans in attendance. A short train ride away, two teams full of WHL graduates played in front of less than 1,000 fans, even though the hockey, in my opinion, was a higher level.
The reason is that most of the hockey fans in this town aren’t actually hockey fans- they are Oiler fans. The WHL (and Major Junior in General) is a gateway to the fame and fortune of the NHL. The CIAU is not; generally players from University don’t move on to NHL careers and their draft years are in the rear view mirror. The reality that a small minority of the Oil Kings will end up in the NHL someday gives the team and the WHL its’ drawing power. The Golden Bears can’t make the same association and as a result are the distant third place challenger in the local hockey market. A fact that is really too bad as the product is excellent. If you are a fan of the game of hockey, do yourself a favor and go to a Bear’s game. Its well worth the $15 for a walk up ticket.
The game we watched last night was entertaining. The Golden out shot the University of Saskatchewan 14-1 in the first period on their way to a 6-3 win. The stands were maybe 20% full, but the crowd was exuberant and I have never seen a goalie take more abuse from a crowd than the U of S goaltender last night. Since it is general seating, a group of rowdies would move each period to get in his grill. Watching this unfold was almost as entertaining as the game.
I’m not suggesting being an Oiler fan versus a fan of the sport of hockey is a bad thing. The Oilers have the ability to electrify this community like no other team. It is just too bad that an excellent product like the Golden Bears goes largely unnoticed.
Until next time,
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