Growing up as a kid in the GTA, hockey was not actually my first love. My grandfather played baseball in the Boston Red Sox farm system, so as soon as I could walk, he put a glove in my hand. Believe it or not, I didn't really learn how to play hockey until I was 8 or 9. At school, they had started a hockey league during recess and being the sport nut that I was, I desperately felt the urge to be part of it. So I begged my father to teach me to play hockey; a passion was born.
Around that same time (probably a year or so later), I had gotten a paper route. On the weekend, I'd have to spend a few hours putting together the paper and all of the flyers. This was, of course, a very tedious and mind numbing job that required that the television be on at the same time. During one of those weekends, a QMJHL game was televised during the day, featuring a young Daniel Briere (then playing for Drummondville). I remember thinking he was such an amazing hockey player. Not only that, but the hockey was incredibly entertaining and completely captivated me. I dug deeper into the realm of the CHL (researching it); I was hooked. From then on out, my friends and I used to go to Oakville Blades (Junior A) games whenever we could. It wasn't the CHL, but it was the next closest thing.
Fast forward a few years later (1998 to be exact), the GTA (at least the suburbs since downtown had gotten a franchise in 1996; the St. Michael's Majors), the OHL came to my neck of the woods. The Mississauga IceDogs and the Brampton Battalion were born. I was ecstatic. I'd finally have a chance to go see OHL games after following the league for several years previously. My father took me to an IceDogs game and it was incredible. Lou Dickenson was my favourite player that year. Then the next year, it was Jason Spezza dazzling the crowd. Or it was fans feeling empathetic towards Michael Mole after letting in another 10 goals.
But none of those guys were my favourite OHL player. Sorry Lou Dickenson and Jason Spezza, but you couldn't hold a candle to Raffi Torres. I remember seeing my first Brampton game live at the Bunker and thinking "holy crap, this guy is awesome." He could bring you to your feet with a thunderous check, or he could snipe one home top shelf where mother kept the peanut butter. Ever since then, I've always held a deep place in my heart for the Brampton Battalion.
When I was in high school, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be a teacher or a journalist. To fuel my passion, I got a job for a website called HockeysFuture. They wanted me to cover the Mississauga IceDogs, the Brampton Battalion, and the OHL in general. Ultimately, I went down the route of being an educator, but if it wasn't for that first job covering the Battalion, I certainly wouldn't be writing this blog for you today.
So why is it that the OHL continues to fail in GTA markets? I ask myself this question constantly. I won't get into specifics or theories (because that's not the point of this article), but I will say that it's a damn shame. The GTA communities don't know what they're missing. I try my best to promote the game, even in borderline propagandist ways with my students. I have a Steelheads poster hanging in my classroom, and I constantly engage in conversation with my students about the Steelheads game or the Battalion game, or about junior hockey in general. Heck, a few of my students follow me on twitter and seem to be developing the same passion for the league that I have. My biggest fear is that the Steelheads will soon follow the St. Mike's Majors, and the Brampton Battalion. That ownership will grow tired of shoddy gate returns and pack up for greener pastures. Then...how will kids of the GTA grow to develop a passion for the OHL, much the way I did?
Alas, Brampton Battalion, I bid you adieu. We've had some great times together. I've always admired Stan Butler's ability to get the most out of his squads, even if they weren't the most talented on paper. In particular, that 2009 Battalion squad with the likes of Hodgson, Duchene, Grachev, etc was a lot of fun to watch. Too bad they lost to Windsor in the OHL finals that year. They were a great team. The Battalion have also had a ton of great heart and soul type of players; guys who I always admired. The likes of Jay McClement, Adam Henrich, Ryan Oulahen (now a Brampton assistant), and Sam Carrick were certainly fun to watch.
If I were to give you my "all time" Battalion line up...it'd probably look something like this:
Raffi Torres - Cody Hodgson - Evgeni Grachev
Adam Henrich - Jay McClement - Luke Lynes
Wojtech Wolski - Matt Duchene - Brent Burns (was drafted as a forward)
Sam Carrick - Ryan Oulahen - Luciano Aquino
Jay Harrison - Rostislav Klesla
Phil Oreskovic - Cameron Wind
Mike Vernace - Mat Clark
(Brad Topping and Bryan Pitton would be close 3/4)
Best of luck in North Bay, and know that I'll always have fond memories of the Brampton Battalion and the Bunker.