By Lucas Punkari, Staff writer
Before I arrived in Fort Frances from Sault Ste. Marie nearly a month ago, and ever since I’ve started working here at the Times, all I’ve heard about was the heated rivalry between the Fort Frances Muskie and the International Falls Bronco boys’ hockey teams.
I had heard fans in the stands talk about how the Muskie players “needed to save up those big hits for the Falls,” and I’d heard other people tell me about how the rivalry wasn’t what it was back in the day when the grandstands would be filled with people from the Fort on one side and the Falls on the other.
Personally, I was getting more and more interested as game day approached here last Friday. But I also had my expectations set really high as I had been witness to quite possibly the craziest high school hockey rivalry I’d ever witnessed during my time in Sault Ste. Marie.
While it doesn’t match the pure venom and hatred the Catholic-rooted Celtic and Protestant-based Rangers soccer teams do in Glasgow, Scotland (and, to be frank, nothing really can match that), the full-out wars between the St. Basil and St. Mary’s Catholic schools were nothing short of legendary while I was in high school in the Soo and when I returned from college.
Each game had its own level of hype that spun out of control, especially if the teams ever met in the playoffs, where the intensity level jumped off the scales.
I remember going to a playoff game where fans were throwing cherry bombs onto the ice during whistles, and it seemed like both sections of fans were about to engage in full-out warfare.
And that doesn’t even begin to describe the on-ice action, which saw both teams try to one up another. In fact, I’ll still say, without any hesitation, that a 7-6 tie-breaker game both teams played in 2005 to determine the first overall seed in the playoffs was the best hockey game I’ve seen at any level.
So with all that in mind, I walked into the Ice For Kids Arena on Friday night not knowing what to expect. But the fact that people were lining up all the way down the staircase minutes before warm-ups should have been my first clue that this wasn’t going to be any ordinary night of hockey action.
Well, that and the fact that cheerleaders were on the ice at the Broncos’ end of the rink.
I also noticed both groups of students were in the same section of seats, which usually is a recipe for disaster between heated rivals.
But even though there was a little bit of physical action between the two sections, which caused authorities to break things up during the second period, both sides behaved fairly well with one another, or as well as any teenaged throng can behave.
Both student sections brought their ‘A’ game before the exhibition contest even started, as both the Falls and the Fort High students belted out their national anthems with a passion you usually hear at the world junior hockey championships.
Even when the game was going on, each of the students went back and forth with chants of “U.S.A.” and “CANADA,” which brought an added level of intensity to the proceedings (though I think the Fort High crowd easily won the chant of the night by belting out “FREE HEALTH CARE” during the first period).
At this point, I began to wonder to myself, “If the rivalry was better before, I’m not sure if I would be able to handle what it was like back in the day!”
So with the crowd already having won me over, I was looking to the actual on-ice action to do the same, which seemed kind of tame during the game’s opening proceedings and left me a little bit disappointed.
But as per usual, how wrong I was.
Once the Broncos took a lead late in the second period, and the Muskies had knotted things up early in the third, the entire complexion of the game changed. Both teams raced back and forth down the ice, trading scoring chances with one another and throwing each other around like rag dolls with a series of heavy hits.
This, in turn, was whipping the crowd into an even more fever pitch, which threatened to blow the roof off of the entire Memorial Sports Centre if either team scored a goal late in regulation time.
Thankfully for those who run the arena, that didn’t happen and the game headed to overtime. But once I heard that the game would end in a draw if no one scored at the end of the eight-minute extra frame, I was pretty convinced to go and grab a bullet-proof vest and some riot gear just in case both sets of students lost their minds for having no clear-cut winner.
But thanks to a beautiful Brett McMahon point blast with just over two minutes left on the clock, that situation didn’t present itself as the Muskie players and student section celebrated a dramatic victory.
In the span of a couple of hours, any lingering doubts I had about this border battle had been washed away. The atmosphere on and off the ice was second to none, and has left me salivating for the chance to cover the meeting between both of these teams again next winter.
Plus, maybe by then someone from Fort High can explain to me what the significance is of throwing pizza boxes and action figures onto the ice after every goal.