The Erie Otters and Niagara IceDogs hit the ice Friday night in Virgil to the roar of a crowd hungry for hockey and popcorn.
The smell of hotdogs and melted butter wafted into the rink from the snack bar in the Meridian Credit Union lobby as hockey fans milled about looking for the best view of the preseason exhibition game.
“We’re super proud to have the opportunity to host an event like this and see the support that our town is giving us,” Trevor Falk, director of development for the NOTL Minor Hockey Association, said in an interview.
“We hope to make it an almost an annual event if we can,” he added.
The fundraiser sold more than 800 tickets and the fans packed the stands.
Kids dressed in red jerseys stomped in the bleachers and drummed the rink-side plexiglass to the chant of, “IceDogs!”
The Otters may have been the home team on the scoresheet, but the crowd was largely cheering for the IceDogs.
A sea of kids in red jerseys surrounded the dressing room entrance after the second period with fans itching to get autographs from their favourite players.
Centre Pano Fimis took a few minutes to sign jerseys, shoes, hockey pucks and even a few chocolate bars.
Goalkeeper Josh Rosenzweig joined his teammate to sign memorabilia even as security held back the crowd of rambunctious young hockey fans.
Otters general manager Dave Brown, a Virgil resident, and NOTL Minor Hockey League Association president Peter Flynn brought the teams together for the match to raise money for NOTL hockey.
“Sometimes minor hockey needs that little bit of a boost,” Brown said.
He added that it was good to “create some opportunities for kids who can’t play and reduce costs for those who can.”
Mayoral candidate Gary Zalepa, a former hockey coach, was there for the puck drop and to enjoy a big game in a small town.
“It’s great to be back in the rink again too, after a long time,” he said.
Zalepa has been around the rink for years, first as a player, then as a referee and later as a coach.
He said he’s proud of the arena, built mostly from fundraised money and large enough to host junior games.
Flynn credited Brown with making the game a reality.
With back-to-back games versus Niagara on Sept. 9 and 10, Brown came to him with the idea of holding an Otters hockey game in Virgil to save the team a second trip back across the border to their hometown, Erie, Penn.
Many of the organizers see potential in the facility to host junior games regularly.
“We’d love to have a Junior C team here,” Flynn said.
“And I’m gonna be pushing hard to try and get one,” he added.
The IceDogs took an early lead against the Otters and closed out the game 7-2 in a dominant display.