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Sherman Says: A Canadian minor league sports win

HAMBURG — Overpaid athletes ruined the show, during the pro football playoff games on Sunday. It’s a sad reflection on a slice of society that used to be universally worthy of admiration and respect.

It was refreshing to drive to London, Ontario last week, to attend an Ontario Hockey League game and immerse myself in the small-town culture of Canada.

I say “small town,” despite the city of London’s having a population of more than 366,000. Last week, the quaint and clean downtown sector overflowed with people of all ages, clad in the colors of their hometown team, the London Knights.

One of the best parts of the trip was the drive through southern Ontario. I avoided the major highways and cruised through Wainfleet, Haldimand and Dunnville, where I saw yellow curbside signs that said “Caution. Senior citizens area.”

The rural route is dotted with farms and homes from another era, as well as power-producing windmills and, in a few places, large solar panels aimed at the sky. The dichotomy of working the tired soil while stealing power from the sun was stunning. Here, life is slower and simpler.

The city, with its tired, single-family homes, sneaks up on you. Streets now have names instead of just route numbers, and many reflect the heritage of Canada’s former connection with the British Empire: Pall Mall Street, Wellington Road, York Street and Oxford Street.

The growing urban landscape suddenly gives way to a sprawling concrete plaza dominated by Budweiser® Gardens, home ice of the local hockey team. It opened in the autumn of 2002 as the John Labatt Centre. Labatt Breweries and Global Spectrum, the company that operates the building, retained the naming rights a couple of years ago, but changed the name to boost the better-known brand.

According to The London Community News, officials said that, if they were going to make another 10-year commitment to the arena, the name would have to be linked to their top-selling brand of beer.

The Knights were born in 1965 as the London Nationals, an affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. This relationship ended in 1968, when the National Hockey League ended direct sponsorship of junior teams. The team, renamed the Knights, has sent many players to the NHL.

The Budweiser Gardens seats 9,000 fans, many of whom, especially those who are old enough to remember the glory days of the Nationals, have a parental love of the team. A lot of the players are still in their teens, teetering between blossoming talent and the Stanley Cup.

The Knights’ roster includes Nikita Zadorov, a prospect of the Buffalo Sabres who will not turn 19 until April. Last Thursday’s opponent, the Kitchener Rangers, boasted Williamsville native Justin Bailey, who will be 19 in July. My son Jonathan made the trip with me; he will be 23 next month.

There is innocence to this level of play. The individuals who scrape the ice during time outs each wear a helmet; “Oh Canada” was sung by a middle school choir. The team store is named “The Armoury.”

London won 6 – 2, with Zadorov on a pair of assists and Bailey with the first goal for Kitchener. After absorbing the winter cold and the colorful culture, it really did not seem to matter what the final score was.

Merging traffic headed north, past countless people waiting for a bus at 9:30 p.m. The sky looked like a snow globe that had been placed above us. The trip home was a reminder of the best things in life, pushing controversy far into the background.

I think it’s charming. I can’t wait to go back.

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at

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