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Sherman Says: Minor league sports offer their own level of innocence and charm

ONTARIO — Overpaid athletes ruined the show during the pro football playoff games on Sunday, Jan. 19. It’s a sad reflection on a slice of society that used to be worthy of admiration and respect.

Therefore, it was refreshing to have driven to London, Ontario last week to attend an Ontario Hockey League game and immerse myself in the small-town culture of Canada.

I say “small-town” despite the city of London having a population of more than 366,000. It is quaint and clean, and on Jan. 16, the downtown sector was overflowing with people of all ages, clad in the colors of their hometown team, the London Knights.

One of the best parts of the trip was the drive through southern Ontario. I opted to avoid the major highways and cruised through such non-landmarks as Wainfleet, Haldimand and Dunnville, where I saw yellow curbside signs reading, “Caution. Senior Citizens Area.”

The rural route is dotted with farms and homes from another era. There were also power-producing windmills and, in a few places, large solar panels aimed at the sky. The dichotomy of working the tired soil while taking power from the sun was stunning.

Each small town seemed to have an Esso service station and a staple of the Canadian economy, the tiny “variety” store. Here, life is slower and simpler.

The city sneaks up on you, as single-family homes become common. Streets now have names instead of just route numbers, and many reflect the heritage of Canada’s former connection with the British Empire: Pall Mall Street, Wellington Road, York Street and Oxford Street.

I think it’s charming.

The growing urban landscape suddenly gives way to a sprawling concrete plaza dominated by Budweiser Gardens, home ice of the hockey team. It opened in the autumn of 2002 as the John Labatt Centre. It turns out that Labatt Breweries and Global Spectrum, the company that operates the building, retained the naming rights a couple of years ago, but changed the name to boost the better-known brand.

According to a 2012 article in the London Community News, officials said if they were going to make another 10-year commitment to the arena, the name would have to be linked to their top-selling brand of beer.

I think that’s a shame.

The Knights team was born in 1965 and was known as the London Nationals, an affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. This relationship ended in 1968, when the National Hockey League ended direct sponsorship of junior teams. Renamed the Knights, the team has sent many players to the NHL.

The Gardens is an immaculate sports facility that seats barely 9,000 fans. I had the feeling that many of them, especially those who are old enough to remember the glory days of the Nationals, have a parental love of the team. Keep in mind that many of the players are still in their teens, teetering between blossoming talent and the lofty star of the Stanley Cup.

The Knights’ roster includes Nikita Zadorov, a prospect of the Buffalo Sabres who will not turn 19 until April. Last Thursday’s opponent, the Kitchener Rangers, boasts Williamsville native Justin Bailey. He’ll be 19 in July. My son, Jonathan, made the trip with me. He’ll be 23 next month.

There is innocence to this level of play. The individuals who scrape the ice during time-outs each wear a helmet, and “Oh Canada” was sung by a middle school choir. The team store is named, appropriately, “The Armoury.”

The game? London won 6-2. Zadorov had a pair of assists, and Bailey had the first goal for Kitchener. After absorbing the winter cold and the colorful culture, it really didn’t seem to matter what the final score was.

Merging traffic headed north, past countless people waiting for a bus at 9:30 p.m. The sky looked like a snow globe had been placed above us. The trip home was a reminder of the best things in life, pushing controversy far into the background.

I think it’s charming. I can’t wait to go back.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.


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