Hockey / “The Best Fans in the League”

“The Best Fans in the League”

Date:  Source: OJHL Wellington Dukes

                                                            “The Best Fans in the League”


This description of Dukes’ devotees was repeated often by Captain Colin Doyle during the team’s remarkable playoff run this past season. Their support was virtually unmatched in the league, Trenton G-Hawks fans notwithstanding.

But what makes a fan? It comes from the word fanatic which is defined as “an inordinately zealous adherent or supporter.” The Dukes’ hard core fans may be a slight notch down from that level – or  not. Our enthusiasm knows no bounds.

Among players and fans alike, rituals and superstitions abound. During the Dudley-Hewitt Tournament, I wore the same green and yellow cardigan at crucial games, which the Dukes happened to win. I took it along to the RBC Junior A Championship in Chilliwack, B.C.  Sadly, the “magic” was fleeting. The Dukes lost the first game in the round robin portion of the tourney. Should I or shouldn’t I wear it again. Would it only bring bad luck now? Faced with a dilemma, the former good luck charm stayed in my suitcase for the rest of the series.

Throughout the season, when games were at a critical point and emotions were running high, a certain fan would vacate her seat and take refuge in the canteen, or better yet, the washroom. Upon her return, she often learned that the Dukes had scored in her absence, so she employed this recurrent escape strategy whenever the Dukes desperately needed a goal, and it often seemed to work.

At the Essroc Centre, I had the habit of walking the track between periods. It became a power walk to release pent up tensions when the game was particularly nerve wracking. If the Dukes were winning, I would keep going in the same direction; if they were losing, I would reverse direction hoping to change their fortunes.

Raucous noise and cheering are hallmarks of fans everywhere, but the ever-present maple syrup cans, (not containing the lip-smacking liquid, but metal washers instead), clutched in the hands of Dukes’ fans, are unique among noise makers. Every save, sparkling play, and especially goal, triggered a can-clanging chorus to augment the cheers. The Cymbal Man” John Wilson, not exclusive to the Dukes, but moonlighting from the Belleville Senators, attended games both home and away whenever he could. He capped off the goal scoring celebrations with a rousing cymbal salute. He changed seats for different periods, but was easy to spot in his flamboyant costumes.  Anything from Superman to SpongeBob SquarePants. We wish he could have joined us at the RBC.

The Dukes had travelled a rocky road indeed marked by many peaks and valleys to reach the RBC. At the outset of the season, circumstances surrounding the team did not bode well for success. However, as things evolved, the impossible seemed achievable, and the underdog Dukes, battle worn, weary , and bearing the scars of many hard fought wins, arrived at the threshold of the Canadian Junior  A Championship. On two previous occasions in 2003 and 2011, the Dukes accomplished this. Each time, a core group of fans eagerly followed them to Summerside, P.E.I. and Camrose, Alberta respectively. 2018 would be no exception with about 24 faithful followers making the trek. The names of Baitley, Francis, Insley, Lavender (naturally), and Rosebush were among our contingent. As we drove along the 401 to Pearson Airport with our travelling companions the Easterbrooks, the sky was dark and foreboding. Was this a bad omen signifying a poor outcome for the Dukes? (Superstition had resurfaced). As we neared Toronto, the rain stopped and the sun broke through, so we happily decided the team would do well.

We couldn’t leave without the maple syrup cans, but they were not reserved solely for the Dukes’ on ice exploits. Before each game, as the team was leaving their hotel and boarding the bus for the arena, we would congregate outside the main entrance and give the players a rousing send off with the ever present Can Cacophony rattling in their eardrums. Sometimes I think the red-faced players might have preferred to sneak quietly out an alternate exit.

In Chilliwack, we were greeted with summerlike conditions – fine for vacationing, but not so much for a hockey tournament. It was a challenge to maintain a decent ice surface, and spectators were quite comfortable in lightweight attire. It was appropriate that we did most of our sight-seeing in and around the beautiful Hope, B.C. area, as we were filled with hope and anticipation of a great result for the Dukes. Like the ice surface, the games were a challenge chock full of heart-pounding, teeth gnashing moments for our enthusiastic fan group. We were all in shock and awe at the team’s remarkable 2-1 semi-final triumph on Saturday over the heavily favoured Wenatchie Wild from Washington State. Once again, David had toppled Goliath. After the post-game awards, my husband, Frank called out, “Hey Dukes, look up here,” directing them to where we were sitting in H section. We vigorously shook our cans in a victory salute and the players responded with a complementary stick salute to us.

The Dukes did not have to import all their fans as they garnered support from several attendees throughout the tournament. Just before that semi-final game which had attracted a larger crowd, Robert Baitley, selected a seat in G section. A gentleman came along, informed Bob that he was in his seat, and asked him to move. Robert looked around at over 2000 other available seats in the 5000 seat Prospera Centre, but did oblige, and moved over one seat. After the game, they had a chat which revealed that the gentleman, Ron Chapman, had been to ten previous RBC championships across the country. He had never heard of Wellington before, and was amazed that such a small centre could ice such a competitive team. His practice was to pick a favourite team in the tournament and his two favourite players on that team.  This year, the Wellington Dukes won the honour. He asked Robert, “Now, which two players would you choose?”

Intuitively, Robert named Capt.Colin Doyle and goalie, Jonah Capriotti, the same players Ron had chosen. He took Robert to his car to show him the custom hoodies which had been designed for the  recipients. Robert offered to take them and present them to the two honorees at the Dukes Awards Banquet in June and Ron gladly agreed. The boys were genuinely surprised by and very appreciative of the gesture. The hoodies were done in Humboldt, providing a poignant connection to a terrible tragedy.

The outcome of the final game between the Chilliwack Chiefs and the Dukes on Sunday, brought to mind the phrase used in the introduction to ABC’s  Wide World of Sports which had aired on Saturdays for many years: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”  The Dukes tasted the former the day before, but came up just short and unfortunately experienced the latter in the finale. As Colin Doyle later remarked, “We were twenty minutes away from winning it all.” We all shared their heavy hearts as we headed back home.

NHL star, Jonathan Toews, describes the essence of a great team as one which creates so much more than any of the individuals can on their own. The Dukes were the embodiment of that this past year.


Now, as the next season unfolds, many new faces make up the team roster. Most of the 2017-18 players have graduated from the ranks of the Dukes, were traded, or chose different options.

Will the successors be as successful? Is a repeat performance in the cards? The 2018-19 team has three championships to defend, definitely a tall order. Come and see for yourselves. We are up for the challenge. And we will be there rattling our cans.