A superfan transformed; Battalion-turned-Storm supporter only slightly conflicted

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Steve McLean was a superfan of the Brampton Battalion to the bitter end when the team moved to North Bay. He took his talents as a supporter to the Guelph Storm, buying season tickets. Life was good, until it dawned that his first OHL love and his current beloveds were on a collision course to meet for the league championship, giving people an opening to use the B-word: bandwagon! In his own words, the Brampton, Ont., resident explains how it came to be, and why one has to learn to move on.

They say time heals all wounds. I cannot say if it heals all wounds but it sure helps with the loss of your favourite junior hockey team. Well, that and having another team close by to adopt.

Thirteen months ago, the day I had long dreaded arrived. The Brampton Battalion were no more. Even though their move to North Bay became official in late 2012, I had continued to cheer for them in and soak in all I could. An overtime loss to the Sudbury Wolves ended their season and sent me on an emotional roller coaster that I had wondered if I ride out with dignity. Battalion play-by-play man Doug Anderson put it best later that night as several of us shared drinks one last time, as we usually did after home games: "Steve, regardless of what happened here tonight the sun is going to come
up again tomorrow." You might think, "Wow, Steve, get a grip it's only a hockey team. The world isn't over." Feel free to think that, but it was still devastating to me.

Enter the Guelph Storm.

In my time as a Battalion fan, I had the pleasure to see games in all 20 OHL cities. I attended my first Storm game back in 2007 when the Battalion had a night off. I instantly fell in love with the Sleeman Centre, which became my favourite arena in the league. When Brampton was off and the Storm were home, I would go and cheer for 'my second team.'
The Sleeman Centre may seem like a cookie-cutter rink that is similar to the arenas in Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie and Oshawa. But it has some unique touches. I've always loved the low ceiling and the dark blue seats. Over the years, some big names played for both the Battalion and Storm — Thomas McCollum, Kyle Pereira, Cody St. Jacques, Matej Machovsky.

Switch to Storm sidestepped conflict

As gutted as I was at the Battalion moving, becoming a Guelph Storm fan seemed like a clear next step. Some people have asked, "Why not just go to Mississauga? It’s so much closer." It’s not like a Battalion fan could flick a switch and cheer for a team I spent years loathing. Tell a Yankees fan to start cheering for the Red Sox and see what they say to you. I am sure we can also agree that Mississauga is no more stable of an OHL market than Brampton. I didn't want my heart broken again.

With Guelph, there was a team I already felt a small connection to that was in a stable market. It also didn't have a major rivalry with Brampton, at least since I had begun cheering for the Troops in the mid-2000s. Plus they weren't in the same division.

So at the last minute to buy Storm season tickets, a friend and I decided to share a season-ticket package. The first test of my loyalty came right away — the Storm preseason opener on Aug. 31 against, who else, the North Bay Battalion. Picking up Storm season tickets while wearing a Battalion jersey, while the Troops were in town, did get me some odd looks.

I did the same thing when the Battalion returned in October. That time, I sported a Troops jersey and outright cheered for the Storm all the way through their 7-2 win. It must have been an odd sight.

Adopting a new team and cheering just as hard as I had in years past wasn’t as hard as I initially thought. Of course, backing a 52-win team helps a lot.

Not a bandwagon guy

But before you believe this was an all-time bandwagon jump, let me stop you right there. I was going to get season tickets this year in Guelph regardless of the Storm’s chances.

During the early months of the season on Storm off nights I attended some Battalion games when they were playing in southern Ontario. There was a well-publicized gathering of Battalion fans in their first visit to Mississauga in early October. There were short jaunts up Hwy. 400 to Barrie and down the QEW to Niagara.

The one night I truly felt a disconnect with the Battalion was Oct. 11. That day the North Bay Battalion held its home opener against Peterborough. Several people from Brampton made the trip. There was our team, same uniforms, same players (mostly), same coach, even the same PA announcer since Jason Davidson had come up to work one last game.

It was a different building, different fans, different town. It smacked me in the face: this wasn't our team anymore. It was now North Bay's.

I started doing my usual road trips as I had done every season, except now it was in crimson and white Storm jerseys.

Guelph’s first visit to North Bay made the transformation official. It ended up being the worst day of the season for me. I barely got 60 km out of Brampton driving in a snowstorm when I was a plowed into by an oncoming car who had crossed into my lane. That trip came to an abrupt end. I was sore but otherwise fine and damn thankful to be alive. Of all places to be on the way to before having that collision, it was North Bay. Nothing against North Bay but I just found it an odd coincidence.

This final has thrown me a huge curve ball I would have never seen coming in a million years. Early in the season, I joked with friends, "Imagine if the Battalion and Storm met in the finals? Yeah, probably not happening."

In the first few months, the Battalion didn’t resemble a contender. They had a rough go from October to December. It all seemed to turn around for them after Christmas, but not many people outside of North Bay figured they were contenders. When the Troops were down 3-1 in the first round against the Marty Williamson-coached Niagara IceDogs my thought was, "Some things never change." Williamson-coached teams were 6-0 in series against the Battalion. To their credit, the Troops won three in a row to advance.

Then they had to face Barrie. "The Curse of the Colts," I thought, flashing back to 2008, when the seventh-seeded Colts took out one of Brampton's best teams in the first round. "Barrie is a high-skilled offensive group, I'm not so sure they can handle them." North Bay, of course, slayed another Brampton demon in six hard-fought games.

"Wow, the Battalion have made the final four,” my thought train went. "You don't think? No, my new team won't have to play my old team in the finals. The Battalion have to play Oshawa now, I don't think they can contain those guys." At that point, I was more focused on my Storm facing the Erie Otters. But by the time the Storm had finished off a convincing five-game win over the Otters, North Bay had already swept away Oshawa.

Feeling a bit conflicted

Since the conference finals started and the first real possibility that it could be Guelph vs. North Bay appeared, people have said to me, "Steve, this must be tough for you, I imagine you are going to cheer for the Battalion." Or they say, "Who are you cheering for?"

There’s no question to me. Guelph Storm all the way. That doesn’t mean I’m not conflicted. It’s hard to put into words. I dedicated a big portion of my life to the Battalion for nearly a decade. I even had a role with the team making highlight videos. I loved them as much as a person can love a sports franchise. Yet here I am, 13 months later, and nothing would make me happier than to see them lose.

The Battalion deserve this. The players, coach Stan Butler’s staff and their new OHL-starved fans in North Bay all deserve this run to the final. Considering that the team packed up and left, though, there couldn't be a better team to lose in the finals against my Storm. It would feel like ultimate justice. The Battalion winning would be crushing, like seeing the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in 1996 must have felt for Quebec Nordiques fans.

Like many sports fans, I've watched countless videos of teams winning championships. My thought it always the same. "I want to be part of something like that." One of the most emotional scenes I've seen with a celebrating team and fans has to be when the Owen Sound Attack defeated Mississauga for the OHL crown in 2011.

Imagine having that hope dashed by the team you once thought would give it you? Oh, the irony.

People have questioned my loyalty: "How big of a Battalion fan could he have actually been if he abandoned them so quickly?" There is a difference between no longer cheering for a team you love and choosing to move on. You have to move on and find something else. That something else, the Storm, have already given me some great memories. That something else is something I won't give up on next season either. I am a superfan that has been transformed. You don't see it often but it's possible.

My Brampton memories will always be special to me. Moving on has been one of the best things I've ever done as a sports fan. The only thing better I can think of was my choice to start following the OHL in the first place.

If you truly want to know how my mind has dealt with the past 13 months of my sports loyalty, listen to the song One. Not the Metallica version, as awesome as it is. I'm talking about the instrumental string version by Apocalyptica. From the slow, almost sad start to the frantic-mind-racing finish, that pretty much sums up what's gone on in my head while making the transition of from Battalion fan to Storm fan, to facing up Battalion vs. Storm final.

Hopefully, I can push aside all these wild thoughts over the next week or so and fall into the routine of a fan whose team is in the league final. Cheer as loud as I can and above all enjoy the moment. It won't be long until the season is over and this will all just be a memory. I need to enjoy it as much as possible to try and make the memory last.

I hope this clears up why I now sport Storm crimson and white … and why starting Thursday, I will cheer against the players and team I loved so much.

Follow Steve McLean on Twitter @stevemc888.

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