It is out with the new, in with the old-time hockey atmosphere for this OHL final.
Just as it is the Eastern Conference vs. the Western Conference for the J. Ross Robertson Cup, the North Bay Battalion-Guelph Storm championship series also has a throwback element. In an OHL that, in many markets, has grown to a scope that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, the Battalion play out of a Memorial Gardens that fuses that cozy bandbox feel with most of the modern amenities that are mandated in major junior hockey. The underdog Battalion are 7-1 at home in the playoffs, where they feed off the noise of 4,200-plus fans packed into a tight space.
It's an increasingly rare atmosphere in a league that has benefited from a building boom over the last decade and a half. Guelph's experience with enemy crowds has mostly come in the more contemporary puck palaces.
"They have a great fan base there," Storm captain Matt Finn, a Toronto Maple Leafs signing, says. "But we played a tough couple series with Erie and London. Those 10,000 fans that London has at the Budweiser Gardens are a pretty proud bunch. We took two games in there.
"We're an old team. We have plenty of experience with going into someone else's barn and trying to win a game. We're just going to have to be prepared. Tune the crowd out, focus on our own game."
Following the North Bay Centennials' metamorphosis into the Saginaw Spirit in 2002, there was debate in the northeastern Ontario city over whether to replace or renovate the Memorial Gardens in hope of getting another OHL team. During that span, several franchises left behind old hockey barns to move into scale models of NHL rinks. A few other OHL cities, such as Kitchener, Peterborough and Erie, Pa., renovated their existing stadia, while others (Belleville and Sudbury) remain on the fence. Ultimately, North Bay's city council opted to refurbish the Gardens. The more economical choice won out; the renovations did cost more than projected, which has been a sore point for some in the community of 64,000 despite the Battalion's right-off-the-hop success.
The Battalion didn't play a home game until the fourth weekend of the season, and practised at a city rink that was less than regulation size. But the Gardens immediately felt like home for the "the short-passing, clog-the-neutral-zone, don't-call-it-a-trap Battalion," helping it immediately fashion an identity.
"When you think of junior hockey in Canada, it's pretty much everything you can think of," Battalion captain Barclay Goodrow says. "It's nice to be recognized in the community. And then come game time, the support they give us has been great. The whole atmosphere around the town has been awesome. Really can't wait for next Tuesday and the first home game to happen."
Guelph is the overwhelming on-paper favourite. The 26-point gap in the teams' regular-season records is the largest in an OHL final since 2007, when Plymouth knocked off a Cinderella outfit from Sudbury. The way the Battalion goes about its business when it is in its own space, though, is one potential equalizer.
"The people in North Bay, they're extremely excited and they've obviously enjoyed the playoffs and have been extremely supportive of the players," Battalion coach and director of hockey operations Stan Butler says.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.