Small town getting chance to see Canadiens
|Dan Craig, NHL Facilities Operation Manager, is relishing the opportunity to make the Benoit Levesque Arena suitable for a preseason game.|
Known in Roberval, Quebec, as Centre sportif Benoit-Levesque, the tiny facility that often hosts birthday parties will be rocking Sept. 23, when the Montreal Canadiens meet the Buffalo Sabres to cap off the Kraft Hockeyville 2008 festival.
A native of Northern Alberta, Roberval is the type of town that makes Craig feel right at home. Home to just 11,000 people, Roberval demolished the competition by defeating Kingsville, Ontario, by nearly 1 million votes, to earn the right to host the festival. In the end, more than 2 million people voted for the tiny French-Canadian community that is roughly a three-hour drive north from Quebec City.
"Because I grew up in Northern Alberta, I'm very familiar with those types of towns," Craig told NHL.com. "Being a French-Canadian atmosphere, it definitely has a unique Canadian feeling up there. I grew up in it, so I feel very comfortable in a town of that size and the atmosphere that's there."
In 2007, the event was deemed a huge success in North Bay, Ontario. On the final night of the festival, the Atlanta Thrashers defeated the New York Islanders in overtime. But with the Canadiens invading Roberval, Craig believes 2008 could be Hockeyville's most memorable year yet.
"I think it will be even more so in Roberval because of the Canadiens going there," Craig said. "Just about everybody in Quebec cheers for Montreal. So the Canadiens there are huge."
With a standing-room only crowd expected, the challenge to make this tiny facility NHL-ready could be difficult. But Craig believes the toughest task of the three-day event will be preparing Roberval for the thousands who are expected to gather for what will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"It's been a harder challenge to them than it has been to me," Craig said, referring to the town's officials. "But they have done an absolutely outstanding, outstanding job preparing the rink."
This will be the third year of existence for Hockeyville. In 2006, the festival was held in Salmon River, Nova Scotia. The Canadiens also took part in that event, as they defeated the Ottawa Senators, 7-3. Craig believes the Benoit Levesque Arena is even smaller than Colchester Legion Stadium, which hosted the inaugural game.
But what makes these games so special? If you ask Craig, it's not just the fact that a tiny community will be the center of attention for a few days. It's also a chance for many NHL players to skate on a sheet of ice similar to the ones they played on as children.
"Every one is different," Craig said when asked to compare the rinks. "Next to Salmon River, I think this one might even be smaller. It's a very small, intimate rink. I think it was built in the early 70s, but it has a very good feel for it. I think the players are going to really enjoy it, because it's what most of them probably grew up on when they were playing hockey at 9, 10, 11 years old. I think they're really going to feel the crowd and I think they'll enjoy the atmosphere."
While the players will certainly enjoy themselves, it's hard to argue with the theory that the citizens of Roberval will be the ones who will be left with memories that will last a lifetime. With Montreal being a long drive -- roughly seven hours -- away, this is a chance for them to watch the Canadiens in an atmosphere that otherwise would never be provided.
"For us, our main objective is bringing a game back to the grass roots," Craig said. "We're not that far removed -- it doesn't matter what age we are -- we still remember our minor hockey and what it was like. Just being able to go around town and see adults act like little kids again … the little kids always have their heroes, but all of a sudden the adults will just be all giddy. It's awesome. I wish everyone that worked at the League office could experience this."
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Staff Writer