See the kid with the Fu Manchu mustache in the yellow? He ruined my night.
A few months ago, I butted into a friend's Twitter conversation. She and another friend (both live in Pittsburgh) were discussing heading up to Erie to see the Windsor Spitfires as they play the Otters on a Saturday in February. I interjected, saying I wanted to go, and so I bought the game tickets, reserved a rental car, and got a hotel room in Erie, Pennsylvania.
That Saturday arrived this past weekend. It was not only my first Windsor Spitfires game, but also my first junior hockey game.
I became a Windsor Spitfires fan about two years ago, in my first exposure to junior hockey: the 2009 Memorial Cup, broadcast on NHL Network. I think it was the Spitfires' color scheme that first attracted me: they sport the familiar red, white, and blue, with the same font used on the jerseys as the Capitals. They also reminded me of the Capitals in terms of playing style, with lots of offensive firepower, particularly the previous two years with Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Justin Shugg, and others in the lineup. They still retain arguably one of the best defensemen in the CHL, Ryan Ellis.
I set out early Saturday morning, and spent seven hours driving in the rain. Yuck. Seven hours and several cups of coffee later, I arrived in Erie to a light snow. I checked into my hotel and waited for a reasonable hour to head out to dinner. Well, it started snowing. A lot. By the time I set out for dinner and the game, the roads were covered, not plowed, and extremely slippery. My rental car was a Toyota Corolla. Not exactly a car made for snow.
It was a slidey trip over to Tullio Arena in downtown Erie. The arena reminded me of my high school gymnasium - before the renovation in 2000. It was pretty old and rundown, but packed with a little over 5,400 very rabid fans. I headed down to rinkside as the warmups began.
You couldn't wipe the smile off my face. I'd only ever seen these guys on my TV or on my computer watching OHL Live. There was Ryan Ellis! Kenny Ryan! Jack Campbell! Alexander Khokhlachev (please draft him, Caps)!
After the too-short warmups, I met tweeps Erika and Devin for the first time, and we found our seats, four rows behind the Otters bench.
Ryan Ellis scored first in the first few minutes of the game, but after that, there wasn't much for us to cheer about. The Otters struck again and again, and Jack Campbell was pulled after the fifth Otters goal in the second period. He was replaced by Michael Nishi (new trade acquisition John Cullen apparently had the flu).
Going into the third period, Zack Kassian, Alexander Khokhlachev, and Nick Ebert did not reappear on the ice (they were banished to the locker room for poor play). Brady Vail scored one late in the game for the Spits, but it was far too late. The Spits lost 8-2 as Otter Brett Thompson got a hat trick plus one, scoring four goals.
Remember the Capitals 7-0 loss to the Rangers? Yeah, it pretty much felt like that.
So, not a great first time seeing the Spitfires. But I was still so happy to actually SEE them. It allowed me the chance to see things you don't get from a score sheet or from a pixelated computer broadcast with TV timeouts.
Jack Campbell, after being pulled, didn't sulk in the corner of the bench. He was standing there leaning over the boards the rest of the game, opening the door for teammates as he intently watched the game.
Ryan Ellis proved himself to be the perfect choice for Spitfires captain in his final age-eligible season. He was constantly encouraging his teammates, offering constructive criticism when something went awry, and supporting his goaltender, most notably by skating over to Nishi after he'd allowed a goal and patting him on the head and offering words of encouragement. I can't wait to see Ellis in a Nashville Predators uniform.
Sunday, after making my first ever Tim Hortons stop at a location just down the street from my hotel (PS, coffee, delicious, amazing), I traipsed home, with a soundtrack provided by my phone's TuneIn Radio app. Which meant that I was able to listen to Kolbe call the 12:30 Capitals/Penguins game while I was on the road, and I listened to Michal Neuvirth and the Capitals gloriously shut out the Penguins 3-0 as I was passing just outside of Pittsburgh.
No, the trip wasn't exactly what I wanted, but it was worth it all the same. Next time, I'll just have to head out to the Spitfires' home WFCU Centre in Windsor, Ontario, and watch them win at home.
Photos from my trip are on flickr here.