Reflecting on Two Years in Canadian College Hockey

I spent two years as the play-by-play voice of the Carleton Ravens men’s hockey team.

I called 39 games over two seasons, ranging from sleepy, Christmas-break exhibition games to double-overtime playoff thrillers. I watched players who spent four-plus seasons playing in front of thousands in major junior make the transition to a league where 250 is considered a bumper crowd. I witnessed incredible displays of officiating, discovered a small but vibrant community of fans, and improved greatly as a broadcaster. Above all, I saw coaches and players functioning at a professional level in surroundings that could often be mistaken for a local Junior B team.

There was the time an OHL official decided he was going to dictate the outcome of a hockey game, handing a team 16 powerplays in one game. Then there was the only game, a memorable pre-season win against the AHL Binghamton Senators, in my two seasons in which Carleton broke 1,000 fans. And of course, the time Carleton took 58 shots in a game and was still taken to double-OT by Lakehead; my voice was fried after that one (along with many others)!

There were plenty of late nights; pre-game research, post-game video recaps, bus rides arriving back on campus well after midnight. I made sacrifices to go above and beyond in my duties as a student employee. I missed classes to produce weekend-preview videos and travel to road games. The professional growth alone made it worth the effort; a handshake and smile from appreciative parents and the occasional fan were bonuses.

You see and hear plenty of things in the college game. A former major junior player led astray by the distractions of college life. A coach that’s thrown in the towel on his own players and program. A mass exodus of players leaving one school for some reason or another.

What’s remarkable about the league is that, by and large, the people reporting these stories are students themselves.

The complete lack of media awareness around the calibre of hockey never ceased to amaze me. When Carleton played (and beat) the AHL-affiliate of its own city’s NHL team, not one media outlet showed up. No TV. No radio. No print. Nothing.

Here was a group of players who had been career major-junior guys, giving it their best, still looking to turn pro. On Carleton’s team alone, the likes of Brett Gustavsen and Ryan Van Stralen had brought Ottawa crowds of thousands to their feet in the recent past as members of the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. The same players who had garnered headlines in the local newspapers and thunderous applause from thousands of local-area fans now played in front of parents and girlfriends at what amounted to a community arena.

At the same time, those who consistently show up to the collegiate rinks know what a bargain they’re enjoying. Take ‘Stan from McGill’ for example; an older guy identifiable by his Russian-style toque and long beige coat, he roams the rinks of the OUA’s East Division. He is to-date the only non-parent, non-scout fan I have seen at more than one arena in the league. I had a conversation with him in mid-January, and he simply chuckled:

“Five dollars for this hockey is a steal! These guys are coming from leagues that charge $15, $20 a night, and we get to watch them in close like this for five bucks!”

At most schools, hockey is the number-two, even number-three sport. On the banks of the Rideau River, Ravens Hockey was a solid no. 3 in the varsity pecking order, behind the dynastic men’s basketball team and the rejuvenated football program under Steve Sumarah.

Aside from playoffs and rivalry games against UQTR and McGill, crowds at the Ice House rarely pushed 200 and, aside from other varsity athletes, few students attended games. It’s truly unfortunate because even a small number of passionate (read: intoxicated) students makes a big difference in terms of the intimate arena’s gameday atmosphere.

I’ve made the argument multiple times (most notably here) that the men’s hockey program is the closest thing to a pro sports team on campus, not just at Carleton but at many OUA and CIS schools. The majority of the guys on the Ravens could play pro somewhere, whether it be in the minor-pro ranks on this side of the pond or top-division pro on the other side of the Atlantic. No other ‘top-tier’ varsity team on campus can say that the majority of its players could play pro in their respective sport; not basketball, for all its domestic dominance, and not football, for all of its pageantry and posturing.

I had the opportunity to see some unique old barns on my travels around the league.

There was McConnell Arena, home of the McGill Redmen. I had the chance to travel up there seven or eight times over the course of two seasons, but I’ll never forgive myself for catching a flu bug ahead of our 2014-15 trip there during ‘Carnival’. A rowdy student crowd of roughly 1,500 packed the historic arena that night, and even though Carleton fell 2-0, I enjoyed watching the live stream. Not being in that buzzing building that night is probably my biggest regret.

The classic Colisée up in Trois-Rivières was another legendary arena. Renowned as much for the difficulty of winning games (especially come playoff season) in it as for its classic white-roof design, the home of the powerhouse UQTR Patriotes did not disappoint on either of my trips there. They managed to get nearly 1,000 people through the gates on a chilly Wednesday night during the OUA East final, and the atmosphere at that game in early March was easily the best I experienced during my two years in the league.

There are a select few people who went above and beyond for me during my time in the league that I need to thank.

First and foremost is Ravens head coach Marty Johnston, who treated me as an equal from the first night I walked into his office back in October 2014. Despite my 17 year-old, pimply-faced, voice-cracking self being completely out of his depth, Marty was always honest and professional with me. Roughly eight games into the season, I began traveling with the team and gained valuable experience at a level of hockey I could never have dreamed of even a few months prior. He went to bat for me multiple times, and for that I’m grateful. Marty is a true pro, and will eventually move on to bigger and better things; until then, Carleton is incredibly lucky to have him guiding its men’s hockey program.

Second is Ravens video coach Rich Bue. Rich is a beauty, plain and simple, and was instrumental in the highlight packages and promotional videos I pioneered during my time with the Ravens. I got a crash course in CIS hockey from the staff (mainly Rich) during my first year at Carleton. Above all, thanks for keeping things light and throwing in the occasional jab at my wardrobe or whatever god-awful haircut I was rocking on any given weekend.

Third is the players; they put on a show every weekend, playing high-level hockey in front of family and friends. They play hard for each other and their coaches in sparse settings many of them haven’t seen in years. It’s admirable to see players transition from major junior to the, err, quaint settings of Canadian college hockey and not bat an eye. For this, players like Brett Welychka and Ryan Van Stralen earned my respect.

Lastly, my parents gave me the opportunity to try something new back when I was 15, 16 years old and looking for something to do on weekend afternoons. They always gave me the car, allowed me to travel all over hell’s half-acre in the Ottawa Valley, and all they ever asked for in return was a text to know that I had arrived safely, the broadcast had ended, or I was heading home. Not many 19 year-olds can say they’ve called minor-pro hockey, but I can. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to.

I don’t know what’s in store for me for 2016-17. I’ll be in year three, reputedly the most demanding, of journalism at Carleton. What I do know is I will find myself in a rink, with a headset on, calling hockey. I’m just not sure what colours the team on the ice will be wearing, nor do I know what league I’ll be boning up on in September. Until then, enjoy my favourite moment from two years at the Carleton Ice House.

~ C

 

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One thought on “Reflecting on Two Years in Canadian College Hockey

  1. Good read! Same problem here on the west coast at UBC. Beautiful stadium, high caliber hockey beating the likes of top div 1 schools in the states, but empty arena. Our frat rec team got more fans per game than the varsity team. Keep on working!

    Like

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