Monday, 23 March 2015

The Arena will always feel like home, the fans inside will always be family

The Tigers raise a banner to salute the fans at The Arena.
    MEDICINE HAT - Seeing The Arena empty is enough to make you feel happy.
    Walking into the only home rink the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers have known for 45 years makes the mind go on a nostalgia trip for anyone that has spent time in the grand old barn. You look up into the rafters and you see all those championship banners.
    You look down upon the ice and into the stands any they only appear vacant for a short time. Quickly, the memory goes to work and the stands appear full of cheering fans. Willie Desjardins is behind the Medicine Hat bench swaying from side to side guiding the club as head coach.
    The Tigers are on the ice too. Brennan Bosch is once again scoring his double overtime goal to win Game 7 of the 2007 WHL Championship series. Rocky Thompson is out there winning a fight.
    Trevor Linden is no longer a 44-year-old man but a youthful forward aged 17 or 18. He is laying out crowd pleasing hits and wheeling coast to coast to score big goals.
    Kelly Hrudey is there too making big saves in that molded fibreglass mask that has a tiger face painted on it.
    Lanny McDonald and Tom Lysiak are again a magical dynamic duo leading the team to a league championship.
    In a more recent time, Curtis Valk is potting his 100th career regular season goal, and Trevor Cox is diving into the net to save the souvenir for his linemate and friend.
    No one has passed on. Those images are not ghosts, but they are still there. They still seem real, and those moments somehow and someway are still playing themselves out.
    On Saturday, the Tigers lived out one of the final chapters during their time in the building that sits on Ash Avenue S.E. along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. They were playing their final regular season game against the Saskatoon Blades, who are a charter member of the WHL. The Tigers will play in the new Medicine Hat Regional Event Centre next season.
Trevor Cox follows through with a shot on goal for the Tigers.
    About 66 players were back in person from those old Tigers days, along with various former staffers, rink attendants, supporters and long-time fans on a night that just seemed perfect.
    Looking into the stands and despite the passage of time, there was a feeling things stayed the same. The fans were there cheering their hearts out like they always have. What is even better is the fact that in this rink you know them.
    In one corner is Medicine Hat's "Mr. Baseball" Lovell McDonnell. He has been a season ticket holder for what seems like forever. You can picture him walking over from neighbouring Athletic Park after doing some administration functions to watch the Tigers game with his grown up son Rob, who is a teacher and baseball coach in the Gas City.
    In the other corner of the rink is Sandy Morrice. He has volunteered his time at what seems like every sporting function in the Hat, and he has been a fixture at most Tigers games.
    Sporting goods store owner Hal Benson is there too visiting as usual along the walkway on the north side of the building that runs parallel to the South Saskatchewan River.
    You can go on and on naming and picking individuals in the crowd. They were all there in the past, and they were all there again on Saturday night.
Tigers captain Tyler Lewington celebrates a goal with Marek Langhamer.
    For the former players that returned, that made the gathering that much more special and so unique. At times, it would take 15 to 20 minutes to walk from one end of the building to the other.
    The trip was filled with handshakes, hugs and conversations that recalled the old days. Those interactions seemed endless, and at the same time, you didn't want them to end. You could run into someone you hadn't seen for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, but it seems like it was yesterday you saw them.
    For the former players, they wanted to see everyone. Those spectators in the stands were your former billets, teachers or buddies you hung out with away from the game. They all helped add to your life, and in reality, they are like a big extended family.
    Some brought old priceless mementoes in person or showed them on social media. One of those was a picture of late Tigers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who was carrying a young boy at a skate with the Tigers event. You almost couldn't believe that such a picture still existed somewhere.
    You could feel the love and the warm feelings in the air.
Brennan Bosch gives a stirring speech at The Arena.
    On the ice, the current Tigers were doing their part to ensure the night's festivities were complete. They rolled out to an early 3-0 lead and held a 6-0 edge after 40 minutes of play. It was a script that played out in some form many times before for a franchise that has won five league titles and two Memorial Cup championships.
    The team's coaches did their part and call off the dogs a bit. Backup goaltender Nick Schneider came in to relieve starter Marek Langhamer for the final 20 minutes. The third and fourth lines played most of the final 10 minutes.
    It felt like the visiting Blades didn't stand a chance in stopping the host Tigers from posting a 6-2 victory.
    When the final buzzer sounded, Bob Ridley stepped out of the broadcast both after calling his 3,617th game as the Tigers play-by-play voice to be the master of ceremonies for a post-game celebration to commemorate the place. No one from the sellout crowd of 4,006 spectators left the building.
    The old players were brought out one-by-one to grace the ice surface one again to cheers. Bosch gave a stirring speech on behalf of the alumni. 
    Video messages were shown from former Tigers players, who are active in the professional ranks, expressing how much they appreciated their time playing at The Arena for the orange and black. A written message was red from Lysiak mirroring those same sentiments.
The fans at The Arena cheer on the Tigers.
    A video highlight reel was played showing the great moments that have been lived in the rink over the years. A banner thanking the fans was raised to the rafters and a big team picture was taken with all generations of Tigers players past and present on the ice.
    The night was better than anyone could imagine, and it won't be forgotten.
    Anyone that was at The Arena on Saturday night will now see those images when they walk into the hallowed old barn, especially when it is empty.
    Like all the great moments in the history of The Arena, the events from the final regular season game on Saturday night will keep repeating themselves in some way inside that building's walls without end. The memories will live on forever.

    If you have any comments about this blog, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.comCheck out the Twitter handle @stankssports to see more photos from the Tigers final regular season game at The Arena.