The Colorado Avalanche are on the road after Tuesday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres. They will head east to face some of the best teams the NHL has to offer in the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Pittsburgh Penguins (though not necessarily in that order).
I recently took a trip out east, setting my sights on the Ontario Hockey League to take a look at some of the promising young talent of today striving to become the National Hockey League’s stars of tomorrow. Through the span of three days, I covered three OHL matchups; here’s a look back at my first stop in Sarnia, Ontario.
I began today’s excursion in the lovely city of Windsor, Ontario. I have paid a few visits to Windsor in the past, having seen the current Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires in action during their run to the championship last season. Today’s visit to Windsor was more of a chance to take in some of the things that I have sorely missed since my previous visit; specifically, diving into the culinary masterpiece below.
This is one of many variations of poutine. Simply put, poutine is a hallmark of Canadian cuisine, consisting of French fries topped with cheese curds and smothered in gravy. This particular variant was a bacon cheddar poutine, in which a cheese sauce and diced bacon took the place of the traditional style, with green onions added for garnish. Delicious!
With lunch completed, it was time to make the trip out to Sarnia.
One thing that I learned during the trek to Sarnia is that there is no absolute direct route to get to there from Windsor unless one crosses the U.S./Canada border into Detroit and back across the U.S./Canada border again at the Blue Water Bridge spanning between Port Huron, MI, and Sarnia. The thought of multiple border crossings didn’t seem very appealing, so the route to Sarnia was plotted using lesser traveled thoroughfares. The end result was a two-hour drive through rural Ontario, which, despite being directed by Google Maps along a curiously named route, wasn’t as painful as its name indicates.
(Fun fact: Google navigation automatically switches to the metric system in Canada!)
The Sarnia Sting play at Progressive Auto Sales Arena, affectionately referred to as, “The Hive”. This was the site of the very first OHL game I ever attended (it had a different name at the time), so this building holds a special place in my heart. While not a very large arena, the sight lines here are very good from any seat in the building. There are also select areas for standing room only tickets. There is a small selection of suites within the building, and while the concourse can get very congested, I didn’t have much trouble navigating around the building.
While the seating capacity in Progressive Auto Sales Arena tops out at just around 5,000 seats, the arena has an abundance of amenities not unlike what one would see in a typical sports arena. However, there is one arena specialty that is exclusive to Canada: the poutinerie!
The creation pictured here is from Smoke’s Poutinerie in the arena. While I was hopeful that I could get a mouthful of the hamburger poutine I enjoyed during my first visit to Progressive Auto Sales Arena, it was not on their menu this time. Instead, I had to make do with the double pork poutine, which contained French fries topped with tasty pulled pork, shredded bacon, cheese curds, and smothered in gravy.
(Twist my arm. No, harder.)
Tonight’s contest featured the hometown Sting welcoming the aforementioned Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires. Last season saw the Spitfires tear their way through the OHL on their way to their third Memorial Cup championship, but this season has brought on some turbulence as they defend their crown. The Spitfires are still on the good side of .500, as they sport a 12-8-1-0 record coming into tonight’s game. The Sting, however, have enjoyed some early season success to this point in the schedule, boasting a 16-4-1-0 record prior to tonight’s contest.
While the rosters for both clubs boast many names that hockey fans may not be readily familiar with, some NHL clubs already have taken notice of some of the young talent on both rosters. Sarnia Sting center Anthony Salinitri and left wing Jordan Kyrou were selected in the 2016 NHL Draft (Salinitri was a sixth-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Flyers, while Kyrou was a second-round selection of the St. Louis Blues). Windsor Spitfires center Logan Brown and defenseman Sean Day were also part of the 2016 draft class (Brown was a first-round selection of the Ottawa Senators, while Day was a third-round selection of the New York Rangers), while goaltender Michael DiPietro was a third round draft choice this past June for the Vancouver Canucks.
However, there are some Avalanche connections stemming from both clubs: former Avalanche right wing Steve Downie and former head coach (and former Colorado Rockie) Joel Quenneville are Windsor Spitfires alumni, while former defenseman Ryan Wilson is a Sarnia Sting alumn, as is current right wing Nail Yakupov.
To my surprise (and delight), I noticed someone sporting a Yakupov jersey and felt it necessary to share this sighting. While Nail was not an original Avalanche draftee, it is nice to see some representation of the burgundy and blue around these parts.
The first period got off to a quick start, with Brown heading to the penalty box for holding. Sarnia capitalized, striking (stinging?) first with a goal by Salinitri on the ensuing power play. Windsor would rebound, as Brown would make up for his trip to the box, tying the game with a goal of his own minutes later. Left wing William Sirman would give Windsor a 2-1 lead that the Spitfires would take into the first intermission.
I made my way to the Sarnia Sting gift shop during the first intermission to pick up some souvenirs. The gift shop is very small (a theme that would be revisited in the next installment of this journey), but chock full of all things Sting. Inside the gift shop were jerseys sporting names and numbers of Sting alumni currently playing in the NHL, one of which was that of Pavel Zacha of the New Jersey Devils. I was able to see him play in my first visit to Sarnia, and seeing his jersey brought back some fond memories of that trip.
Sarnia regrouped during the second period, as Hugo Leufvenius would tie the game at two goals apiece. Salinitri would give Sarnia a 3-2 lead on his second goal of the night, which they would take into the second intermission.
While many hockey teams utilize the services of a friendly mascot to help fire up the fanbase, the Sting actually employ two of them: Buzz and Honey, aptly named for the franchise. Buzz, of course, is a male “worker” bee and Honey is a female honey bee, as her name suggests. These two can be seen performing their mascot duties on the ice and around the concourse, taking pictures with the fans, and participating in activities during intermissions before the zamboni crew prepares the ice for the upcoming period.
Windsor would come out of the gates swinging for the third period, taking advantage of a hooking penalty by Sarnia defenseman Colton Kammerer and tying the game at three with a power-play goal by Windsor captain Aaron Luchuk. Sarnia responded quickly, with Salinitri scoring his third goal of the night to complete the hat trick and give Sarnia the 4-3 lead, as hats descended to the ice from the fans in attendance.
Windsor defenseman Connor Corcoran would head to the penalty box on a hooking infraction minutes later, and Sarnia would make them pay once again as defenseman Jordan Ernst would score on the power play to extend Sarnia’s lead to 5-3. This spelled the end of the night for Windsor goaltender Brock Baier, who yielded the crease to fellow netminder Lucas Patton for the remainder of the game.
Jordan Kyrou would score on Patton in the closing minutes of the period to increase Sarnia’s lead to 6-3. This would be the final score, as Sarnia controlled the play for the balance of the third period, peppering Patton with multiple shots as the period came to a close. Salinitri and Kyrou would finish as the game’s first and second star, respectively, while Windsor right wing Cole Purboo would finish as the game’s third star.
I was hopeful that my trip to Sarnia would be as enjoyable as the first, and it certainly lived up to my expectations. From the visit to the poutinerie and the gift shop to the action on the ice, it’s hard to top watching these teens push themselves as hard as they do just to catch the eye of a National Hockey League scout that may one day see the potential for greatness in their game. While my exposure to other arena environments in the CHL is certainly limited, the intimacy of Progressive Auto Sales Arena is certainly hard to match. There are other small venues within the CHL that I visited on this trip, and sometimes, that kind of intimacy can create an atmosphere that may not be so intimate (spoilers).
While we have the University of Denver Pioneers as a powerhouse hockey program locally, there’s just an air about being in a Canadian venue that our Magness Arena simply cannot replicate. This is truly one of those “you have to be there” experiences that cannot be fully explained in photos and pictures; immersing oneself in the atmosphere and getting caught up in, for lack of a better term, the “roots” of the game is part of the experience, which I fully recommend any hockey fan partake. Maybe it’s that Progressive Auto Sales Arena was my “first”, and that’s why it feels special in that sense. Besides, where else in the CHL can you see two mascots in action?
A look at blowing sleet, snow, and rain as I set my sights on the city of Flint, Michigan, home of the Flint Firebirds and…the best hamburger in Michigan?
Thanks for reading!
(Thanks to eliteprospects.com and ontariohockeyleague.com for furnishing statistics, draft info, and other game notes used to compile this article!)