My family moved to Baltimore, Ontario, just north of Cobourg, in the summer of 1997. As a six-year-old, I was immediately plugged into Cobourg’s vibrant minor hockey association that fall. It’s a cliché to say hockey is more than a game in any rural Canadian town, but in Cobourg, hockey really is a way of life.
When people I meet from nearby towns ask me where I’m from and I say “near Cobourg”, I almost always receive the same follow-up question: “Do you play hockey?” Well, duh. If I didn’t, the townspeople would probably exile me to Port Hope or something. (Port Hope-bashing is almost as common a practice in Cobourg as a Sunday morning minor hockey game.)
So when the Toronto Marlies faced the Hamilton Bulldogs in a pre-season game on Saturday night, it was really a momentous occasion. The town rallied to raise funds (with more than a little help from all three levels of government) to build the fancy, creatively-named Cobourg Community Centre a couple of years ago, which houses the 2,000-seat, NHL-sized rink where the Marlies and Bulldogs faced off. Since it’s opening, the CCC has hosted Ontario Hockey League and Ontario Junior Hockey League showcases, all while providing a state-of-the-art home for the OJHL’s Cougars. But never before had Cobourg hosted an American Hockey League game…until Saturday.
The game marked a significant milestone in the town’s considerable growth over the last decade or so. The sign as you drive out of Baltimore and into Cobourg says the town is home to 18-thousand, but it’s probably closer to 20-thousand now. It was a big deal when we got a Wal-Mart several years ago, as was the day Winners moved into the neighbourhood this past year. When a Starbucks finally opens in Cobourg, then we might feel like we’ve finally made it as a community. (However, it remains to be seen how the addition of a Starbucks would affect Tim Hortons’ Krusty Burger-like stranglehold on Cobourg’s coffee-consuming community. There are four Tims’ in town. That has to be some kind of record for Tim Hortons’ Per Capita.)
Cobourg is only about an hour drive east of Toronto down the 401. Sports fans, for the most part, live and die with Toronto’s sports scene (*SHEDS TEAR*). No other team has as many devout followers in Cobourg than the beloved Maple Leafs. (Even if forces from the East, promoting the wicked Senators and Canadiens, have been polluting the hearts and minds of our children for years.) So when word spread that Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Jake Gardiner, Ben Scrivens and the rest of the Baby Leafs were coming to town, no wonder tickets were completely sold out at the arena box office in two days. (Fans were even lining up to get their picture taken with general manager Brian Burke before the game. Who knows? It might have been their only chance to see Burkie in-person before he gets unceremoniously dumped when the Leafs inevitably underachieve whenever they play again.)
Say what you will about Saturday night being nothing more than a hockey game, but for a hockey-loving community like Cobourg, it meant so much more than that. It was a chance to see a few of our heroes, and some fresh new faces, in the comfortable confines of our own backyard. So what if it wasn’t the NHL? Because of the lockout, there’s a good chance the AHL will be the best hockey available in North America this season. Not too shabby for a town without a Starbucks and probably the lamest nickname in the history of the world.