The saying “our fans are the best in (insert league name here)” is one that in my mind is grossly overused in this day and age. Being a fan of two franchises over the years its hard to think that any one group of fans are “better” than any other group. What constitutes best fans? Regardless of the size of each fan base in the Ontario Hockey League each team has its own following of hardcore fans whether they be in Kingston, Erie, Sarnia or London, the fans in those cities cheer just as passionately as the fans in one of the newest old cities in the OHL that has grabbed headlines with their 7th man that now follows their team around the league with a noise that rivals that of an NHL team in a new old city.
The North Bay Battalion for the second straight season are competing against the Oshawa Generals in the Eastern Conference final and the city has come down with playoff fever. Everywhere the 7th man goes the noise, green face paint and megaphones usually follow. What many outside North Bay might find surprising is it hasn’t always been that way with the Battalion in North Bay. Battalion fan Ivan Arbour recalls that when the team first arrived in North Bay after their move from Brampton in the fall of 2013 the crowds while large in size weren’t exactly vocal. “I think most fans weren’t sure what to expect. We actually got out cheered by a small group of fans from Brampton who came to give the team one final send off.” Though eventually things got louder at Memorial Gardens which Ivan attributes to some of North Bay’s hockey past. “I think the real turning point for the fans was the game that the Battalion wore the Centennials throwbacks (North Bay’s former OHL team that moved to Saginaw in 2002) and did a whole tribute to the OHL’s history in the city. That night there were ‘Go Cents Go’ chants that up to that point was the loudest the rink had been that year.”
As they say though a fan base loves a winner and the Battalion became an even bigger hit following a first round Game 7 comeback over the Niagara Ice Dogs that eventually led to a OHL Finals appearance where the Troops finally heeded to the Guelph Storm. That playoff run led to Battalion fans venturing out on the road with road trips to Oshawa and Guelph that have spilled into the 2014-15 season. The 2015 playoffs here and the Battalion once again are on a deep run that will hit the month of May for just the third time in the teams seventeen seasons of existence. The fans of North Bay and the surrounding area have hit the road again in greater numbers this year thanks in large part to the efforts of Nicholas Forsyth who managed to organize two full buses of North Bay fans on very short notice for Game 2 of the Battalion’s conference final series to Oshawa on Sunday. “I probably put in 25 hours over the past two days trying to put a second bus together, there have been many sponsors, some gave money towards the bus, others gave money so that people who couldn’t afford to go could.”
One of those fans who donated a spot on the bus to somebody who otherwise couldn’t afford to go was Chantal Trottier who did so in memory of her son Ryan Fleming who passed away ten years and one day to the day of the Sunday trip to Oshawa. “Ryan and I were huge fans of the Centennials and had season tickets and we were sad to see them go. It makes it a little easier to be surrounded by Troops fans who are awesome, generous, caring, and wonderful. Ryan was a huge hockey fan and he would love to be here.” She also donated a spot in the name of the Ryan Fleming Memorial Fund as she tries to reach out to people to bring awareness to teen suicide which is what unfortunately claimed her sons life. “It’s tough being a kid at that age, but don’t give up because this will pass, its not the end of the world what you’re going through now, it may seem like it but you can overcome it.”
Cheering for the Battalion during their playoff run has helped Chantal overcome some dark feelings and perked her up on days of the calendar where she is normally at her lowest thanks in large part to what she calls her Troop family. The fans to took one further step to help Chantal as they decided to call Sunday’s trip to Oshawa the ‘First Annual Ryan Fleming Eastern Conference Final Bus Trip.’ “When we showed up and they had all the signs saying that it just floored me it was just surprise, tears and shaking.”
One of the leaders of the Troop Family and 7th man is Bob McIntyre. Bob has been a prominent member of the North Bay hockey community since the 1950’s but recently has thrown his support behind the Battalion in a big way. Many people who may watch or listen to games out of North Bay may hear McIntyre through his megaphone as he stands in front of each section of fans. “When I say Battalion, you say GO!” McIntyre has taken up bringing the mega phone on the road to help his already rowdy group of Battalion supporters get even louder but on Sunday night the General Motors Centre staff weren’t big fans of the mega phone. “Somebody obviously was crying the blues about it. All I am doing with my bullhorn is just getting our fans into the game. When I get our fans into it the team feeds off of it.” Security tried to take away McIntyre’s bullhorn but a compromise was made with security letting him keep it as long as he stopped using it. It does raise the question of why are the management teams of arenas so hell bent on keeping things like noise makers out of rinks. There’s always the vague responses about crowd safety and how I guess somehow things like air horns and megaphones are unsafe but nobody can deny the amazing atmosphere that took place between the North Bay and Oshawa fans on Sunday evening. A capacity crowd of 5,659 watched as eventually the hometown Generals took a 1-0 victory in the first minute of overtime to send most of the GM Centre into a frenzy as Oshawa tied the best of seven series at one game a piece. During North Bay’s 6-1 victory on the same ice surface Friday night many comments were thrown around that the Generals fans were very quiet even at the point of the game when Oshawa had the lead. There was no doubt however that the Generals fans stepped up their game on Sunday night to compete with the noise coming from the Battalion fans in section 107. Right along side them in section 108 was another large group of Battalion supporters from the McIvor clan. Battalion captain Marcus McIvor is from nearby Whitby. McIntyre notes that the North Bay Battalion are much more supported now than at any point during the Centennials time in North Bay from 1982-2002. “There’s no question about it. In the playoffs so far we have averaged over 4,000 people per game. It shows how passionate North Bay fans are about their junior hockey.”
It’s a passion that has taken on such a life of its own that even players on the Battalion have taken notice. “North Bay’s just crazy, you can hardly hear yourself think out there” noted Battalion forward Nick Moutrey during one of the intermission’s Sunday night.
It’s a craziness that fans of the Battalion hope will continue not just this playoffs but for years to come. Nick Forsyth plans on organizing another bus or as many buses as he can fill when he Battalion return for a now confirmed Game 5 in Oshawa on Friday, May 1st. While Nicholas didn’t want to jinx the team at all he mentioned that should the Battalion advance in the playoffs fans can expect buses to be organized for an OHL Final series against either the Erie Otters or the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Forsyth is also trying to get an official Booster Club off the ground in time for the 2015-16 season in North Bay. “For the last four or five months I’ve been trying to get it going. We’ve had great sponsors for these bus trips so far. The Hampton Inn, Dominion Lending, people from Remax and Century 21 as well as several individual people. I’ve had help from Matthew Sookram from CKAT and Amanda Turcotte.”
Many have compared the situation in North Bay to that of Winnipeg since their beloved Jets returned in 2011. Two northern cities that had teams ripped away from them now both have them back and have amazing fan support that fans in most cities should strive to have. Though that doesn’t make the fans in North Bay better than any other group it certainly should make them the envy of many other groups of fans in not just the OHL but the entire Canadian Hockey League.