SASKATOON, Saskatchewan - Nestled in a corner booth and nursing a cup of coffee Saturday before his 3 p.m. shift as a restaurant cook at a local truck stop was Saskatoon's biggest Islanders fan Arnie Zezula, who wore, appropriately, a personalized Islanders jersey to honor the day his favorite team arrived to begin training camp.
There are many reasons, according to Zezula, why he supports a team that plays 2,164 miles from his hometown of Saskatoon. Although he grew up idolizing Bobby Orr, he immediately became an Islanders fan when they became a member of the NHL. Zezula said he liked the fact that the franchise was starting anew, and they eventually won four Stanley Cups, and also depended on sturdy "Saskatchewan boys" such as Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, and Bob Bourne. He liked hearing stories his mother Louise - who passed away in 1991 - told of serving Gillies back in her waitressing days in Moose Jaw.
"When they came into the league, a lot of us went nuts," Zezula said. "This was New York. This was the Big Apple."
Zezula - a known fixture at the WHL's Saskatoon Blades games, where he sits next to the penalty box while always sporting an Islanders jersey - was equally as thrilled when informed that his favorite team scheduled its training camp in Saskatoon this year.
"It can't be," Zezula said when a member of the Blades organization told him the news. "You're making my dream come true."
Zezula can barely believe the time has finally arrived when he'll see his favorite team practice and play.
"It's about time a real NHL team came into town," Zezula said. "It's one of the best thing's Saskatoon's ever done for us."
Zezula is not alone in his anticipation of the team's arrival. The Islanders open training camp today at the Credit Union Centre with many local residents buzzing about their newest visitors.
"They'll love it," said Ralph Katzman, 70, about the Saskatoon fans. "This is a hockey-nuts city. A hockey-crazy city . . . This place will be jumping."
Amar Vasani, 32, wore an Islanders shirt with "Tavares" emblazoned on the back to Friday's Blades exhibition game to show his support for the Islanders' first overall pick in this year's draft.
Even Lorne Molleken, head coach and general manager of the Saskatoon Blades, is looking forward to the Islanders' visit. "It'll be neat to see them here,'' he said. "It'll be a good experience for some of my players to see what NHL players are like and how they train and play."
But, of all the fan fervor, nothing can rival that of Zezula.
"That's my team. I'll always be cheering for them."