For the real love of hockey

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

There is hockey after hockey, a passionate, boisterous brand draped in the purity of amateurism long lost in the megabuck world of warring professionals.

High school hockey lives and breathes. It also crackles and pops and right now in London, it simmers in the glow of the playoffs.

A guy walks into the refurbished Nichols Arena tri-pad and for his two bucks finds not one, but two quarter-final games. There are no $10 beers or five-buck popcorn, no neighbouring cellphone addicts ruining your $200 investment in a seat with "important" calls, no self-absorbed ushers, no traffic snarls, no parking ransoms to be paid.

Just hockey with an amateur verve that more than compensates for any gaps in style.

This is sport at its most elemental, games pitting Saunders and Catholic Central on one rink, Regina Mundi and Clarke Road on another. Unlike the children whose prolonged spat wound up pulling the NHL season down the drain, these kids just want to play.

They want to play so much they pay to play, as much as $175 apiece a season for jerseys and ice time and bus rentals to a few tournaments. That doesn't count the composite sticks so many love that come in at as much as $200 a pop.

"They play for the love of the game," says Saunders coach Grant Reveler, whose Sabres took the lead in their best-of-three series via a 5-3 victory. "They'll be right back at it at Carling Arena at 3 p.m. (today)."

Saunders got yeoman work from its three Grade 9 students, Jeff Cornell, Bobby Cook and Dylan Thomas, whose presence led to a goal by Thomas -- but more importantly, sparked the older players on the team with their work ethic against larger Grade 12 students.

Saunders got the winning goal on a late CCH penalty, then clinched it with an empty-net goal.

A lot of pro coaches would have been fuming at such an outcome. CCH's Pat Clancy didn't finger anyone. He thought it was a good game and figures his Crusaders will rebound.

"Look at the effort both teams put in. These kids play because they love it."

Clarke Road coaches Dave Day and Mike Vilon echoed that, discussing the NHL woes in a manner that suggested their players would have been better-suited to negotiate an NHL settlement.

"I find it difficult to comprehend," said Day, whose team won 3-2 in overtime. "It's not as though there isn't enough revenue for the two sides."

He is not alone.

"We were just talking about it the other day," Clancy said. "When (NHL play) resumes, older fans will come back, but some of these kids have lost interest. They're the ones they've got to be afraid of losing."

Up in the seats, the factions are obvious. Each team has a cheering section of students, parents, neighbours. They root as vociferously as any crowd at a pro game.

This is important, more important than money. It's solely about sport, about winning and losing and regrouping to go at it again.

It isn't the Detroit Red Wings taking on some hapless expansion outfit that scarcely deserves to be on the same ice, it's about something the NHL has lost and that is parity. The London championship is a wide-open affair.

Fan and father Don Cook takes it even farther.

"The NHL game has become pretty predictable," he said. "You never know what's going to happen in these games."

Well, there are a couple. You won't see the trap and you won't see lesser players consistently hooking a superior one back into the pack.

These kids could teach pro hockey a thing or two.


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