Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Arena – a legendary junior hockey home

Medicine Hat Tigers fans celebrate a goal in last year's WHL playoffs at The Arena.

 Tigers play out their final games at the old Ash Avenue barn

    At age 37, The Arena experienced its prime moment.
    Anyone that is a fan of the Medicine Hat Tigers can still see Brennan Bosch's overtime goal. On May 14, 2007, the Tigers were battling the Vancouver Giants in Game 7 of the Western Hockey League championship series, and the teams were locked in a 2-2 tie in double overtime.
    Both clubs were going to the Memorial Cup tournament, because Vancouver was the host team. Even with that in mind, the Tigers and Giants became fierce rivals over that championship series, not giving and inch and playing like everything was on the line.
    If you were at the Tigers legendary home rink that night, you can still see the game's deciding play.
    Bosch had the puck near the blue-line in his own zone, and he was tapped by a swinging stick of a Giants player. The Tigers talented centre went down to his knees, quickly got up and a 3-on-1 break ensued.
Rroary, the Tigers mascot, gets the fans going at The Arena.
    The Martensville, Sask., product skated two to three strides past the Vancouver blue-line and wired home the winner low stick side on Giants goaltender Tyson Sexsmith. The sellout crowd of 4,006 spectators at The Arena exploded like never before with the home side pulling out a 3-2 win and capturing a WHL title.
    In that one moment, you experienced everything that made The Arena special. A storied junior hockey team was winning a league championship in a classic junior hockey rink that had character. The victory came in a city of about 60,000 people that felt special to be a junior hockey town.
    As the Tigers celebrated on the ice, they looked into the stands and saw family members, fans they knew, rink attendants and the team's legendary play-by-play voice Bob Ridley up in the broadcast booth. They occupied the same spots game in and game out.
    Goaltender and local product Matt Keetley was answering questions during a post-game interview on the ice, and out of nowhere, he pointed to the stands and yelled out in joy that he saw his whole family. It wouldn't be that much of an exaggeration to say everyone that was partial to the Tigers cause felt like family for that one night.
    In major junior hockey, the Tigers are a legendary team. They have built a huge staple of memories in their storied home rink. Most can be recalled by Ridley, who has called but one of the team's games as the play-by-play voice.
    For the players, coaches and staff that have passed though the Tigers since they were born in 1970, The Arena is a second home.
    In the 1970s, they used to shoehorn the fans into the barn that contained the "Smartie Box" coloured seats. Stories were often told that fans stood five deep in the walkway that circled the top of the stands to watch games.
    They saw Lanny McDonald and Tom Lysiak lead the Tigers to their first league title in 1973. They also got to see tough as nails characters like defenceman and later 1987 Memorial Cup winning head coach Bryan Maxwell, who always seemed to crack the right joke. Barry Melrose, who was sporting his mullet style haircut, made his first claim to fame at The Arena guiding the Tigers as head coach to a second straight Memorial Cup win in 1988.
A young fan cheers on the Tigers at The Arena.
    It was a building a Gas City youngster named Trevor Linden dreamed of playing in, when he attended games as a boy. He more than made good on that dream helping the Tigers win their back-to-back Memorial Cup titles. The trip to the 1987 title included a Game 7 WHL championship victory over the Portland Winterhawks, which saw fans jumping over the glass to celebrate with the team on the ice.
    It was a place Jason Chimera cried his eyes out over, because he didn't want to leave after being traded in the late 1990s.
    The Arena was where head coach Willie Desjardins brought the Tigers into their current era of success. When the team was at one of its darkest points having missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, Desjardins was the one that preached hockey was one of the best games there is and the rink is one of the best places to beat. He was the man that talked heart and soul character guys like Steve Marr into staying with the game, when there was every reason to walk away.
    Following his first season in 2002-03, the Tigers ended the playoff drought and fell in the second round to the powerhouse Red Deer Rebels in a tough seven-game series. A year later, they won the franchise's fourth league title making that run in what was then known as the loudest barn in the WHL.
    Countless NHL players have graced The Arena ice wearing orange and black. A way larger majority the hit the ice arriving as boys and departing as quality young men. The Arena was the place they grew up in.
    It seems everywhere you walk in the building you will encounter a part of its history.
    Or, if you just want to have a friendly visit with someone, Tigers assistant trainer Ken Stickel, who is a fixture there, always loves to chat.
Cole Sanford and the Tigers celebrate a goal at The Arena.
    However, The Arena's time as the home of the Tigers is coming to a close after 45 seasons. Tonight, the Tigers will play their final regular season game in their long-time home against the Saskatoon Blades at 7:30 p.m. local time.
    Next season, the Tigers will call the brand new Medicine Hat Regional Event Centre home.
    Before they make their move into their new home, the Tigers will embark on one more playoff run playing out of The Arena. The Brandon Wheat Kings and the Kelowna Rockets are the favourites to win the WHL crown, but the Tigers are in the mix.
    If fate would have it, it would almost be fitting if the Tigers could give The Arena one more Ray Lewis type last ride. Being the home of one more WHL championship and Memorial Cup winning team would create a fairy tale ending for the building that sits on Ash Avenue S.E. along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.

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