The face- painting booth caught my eye first as I walked through the doors of the new K-Rock Centre to watch the long-awaited opening night hockey game between the Kingston Frontenacs and Belleville Bulls.
I immediately thought of another painted face: the face on the 10-foot-high portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II. That face had never grown old, unlike the Kingston Memorial Centre, where the Frontenacs used to play. The painting of the Queen at the M-Centre made a lasting impression on me from the first time I saw it there, hanging from the rafters.
I also attended the last game played by the Frontenacs at the M-Centre, against the London Knights on Feb. 15. Something else made a final impression on me that night. It was the strands of chicken wire that hung beneath the portrait of the Queen. After all these years, and in spite of the new nylon mesh netting strung above the boards, the chicken wire was still there, protecting her Royal Highness.
On opening night at the K-Rock Centre, the corridors of the arena seemed to be transformed into a market square. Besides face painting, there were balloon making and bands playing. The K-Rock radio station was broadcasting live. Posters of Fron-tenacs star player Nathan Moon, with the caption "It's better live," were everywhere. People were selling food and clothes and souvenirs. Fron-tenacs fans flooded the halls, talking, laughing, smiling and overflowing with anticipation.
The K-Rock Centre is located exactly where it should be: in the heart of downtown Kingston. Gone are the days when a father and son could drive to Kingston from places like Verona or Gananoque and pull into the parking lot behind the rink, pay a dollar to park before watching the game and drive right back home after the game.
People aren't going to a hockey game at the Memorial Centre anymore. They're coming to an event at a $46.5-million, first-class facility in vibrant downtown Kingston. On some nights, 5,700 people will be taking buses, shuttles and taxis and walking around downtown and meeting friends while spending time and money in restaurants, stores and hotels.
When I first saw the new brightly painted ice surface surrounded by all those seats, I wondered how they had fit this big, spacious building onto such a small lot. New amenities include a colour scoreboard with instant replay, luxury boxes, press boxes, a VIP level, ATM machines, LCD televisions, a restaurant and a top-notch sound system.
It was a night of celebrity. Members of The Tragically Hip were in the stands. Mayor Harvey Rosen was there. Don Cherry, the high priest of Canadian hockey, participated in the opening ceremonies, decked out in a gold suit. And marathon swimmer Jenna Lambert sang O Canada.
The Fronts wore their original black-and-gold team colours with the big "K" logo on the front of their sweaters. The game itself did not change from the last one played at the M Centre a week earlier. The Fronts and the Bulls skated and hit hard. They exchanged words, dropped gloves, made mistakes and scored goals. Unlike other games, the outcome didn't seem to matter to the fans. They were celebrating Kingston's new entertainment centre.
Outside the rink after the game I saw something that made a bigger impression on me than everything I had seen all night. Ten feet from the door, I saw the remains of the start of Kingston's history; maybe the history of Canada itself. The crumbling limestone walls of Fort Frontenac, built in 1673, are still there outside the doors of the new K-Rock Centre. I smiled to myself and thought, that's why they're called the Frontenacs.
The remnants of the old stone wall of Fort Frontenac rises gradually from the ground as it gets closer to the steps of the K-Rock Centre, seeming to reach out to connect to the new limestone blocks that are now part of our history and heritage.
L.W. Oakley's hunting/wilderness book Inside The Wild is available at book stores and the publisher's website: www.gsph.com.