By Jason Menard
While London, Ontario has received a black eye thanks to a thrown banana, it’s important to not let the negative obscure the positive that this city – and its hockey fans – have to offer.
Nothing’s ever perfect and beyond the moronic actions of one banana-throwing idiot, there are certain negative things that London is known for. The market is somewhat fair weather, failing to sell out the John Labatt Centre unless the team is amongst the upper echelon. There’s always at least one moron who disrespects the national anthem to shout “Go Knights Go!” before the song is finished. Games are filled with, uhm, “plentiful and opportunistic” advertising. And let’s not even talk about the music – I’m all in favour of a permanent ban of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in any arena.
But there’s so much good about London and its hockey fans that should not go unnoticed.
First off, the fans. There are literally thousands of people who live and breathe the Knights, in good times and bad. Go to the JLC enough and you’ll see many of the same faces in the crowd – many wearing the green and gold of their favourite players, both past and present.
These are the fans that, despite the size of the JLC, make it feel downright homey. You see it in the smiles of fans young and old; you feel it from the nods of recognition, the waves and handshakes; and you hear it in the heartfelt greetings of “Hello” and “How are you?”
Any small to mid-sized town has its characters and London is no different. This is a city that lionized a trainer, for goodness sake! Those in attendance during the pre-game festivities are likely familiar with “Touchdown Tim.” He’s the guy that hangs out in the third level, announcing each and every game to his audience of one. And he takes it seriously. He frequently enlists the aid of CJBK’s Mike Stubbs or the London Free Press’ Ryan Pyette to “count him down” and off he goes, rattling off the lineups and his expectations for the game.
And let’s not take the venue for granted. The JLC will soon be celebrating its 10th year (October 2012) and it remains the elite venue in the OHL. You can see it reflected in the eyes of rookies and newcomers to the league when they step off the team bus and walk down the ramp to ice level. Even empty, the JLC is an impressive venue and it’s one that we may be in danger of taking for granted.
Anyone who has attended junior hockey games outside of London knows that, while there are some good arenas out there, many more are less-than-affectionately referred to as barns. Other teams struggle to fill their venues and play before houses in the low thousands. Even if some fans come to the JLC dressed as seats, you’re still seeing well over 8,000 fans each and every game. It’s safe to say that most CHL cities would give their left arm for that type of community support.
Finally — and while this is not unique to London, the combination of nearly 9,000 fans cheering on consistently good teams make this absolutely palpable – there’s passion. One of the greatest things about junior hockey is the fact that these kids are playing for their livelihood.
From the young 16 and 17 year olds getting their first taste of the big leagues, to the older kids playing to get noticed by scouts and earn their first professional contracts, everyone’s giving it their all. In London, we’ve been blessed with a steady parade of elite talent, many of whom have gone on to star in the NHL. But you also get to see kids playing out their final games at a competitive level. These players, knowing that their time playing the game they’ve played all their lives is coming to an end, wring every last drop of appreciation from every shift.
The fans can feel that. There’s little of the “it’s just a job” attitude that sometimes seeps into the NHL ranks (and which makes players like Alex Ovechkin, who plays with a reckless abandon and passion to which fans can relate, so popular). Instead there’s a symbiosis between the players and the fans, both of whom feel that connection that comes from working towards a shared goal.
In over 40 years, London’s only won one Memorial Cup, but that’s OK. Sure, the cup is the Holy Grail of junior hockey, but junior hockey’s about so much more than that. Both fans and players alike are together for the ride and supportive of each other’s dreams.
At its best, junior hockey can rest at the heart of any city. When it comes to the London Knights and The Forest City, we enjoy the best of the best. No amount of bananas or disrespectful shouters can overshadow that!