Winnipeg Jets director of pro scouting Mark Dobson likes to return home to his native Stirling-Rawdon, Ontario, every summer. When his hometown entered itself into the 2012 Kraft Hockeyville competition, he couldn't believe his eyes.
"When I was there last year when they were going through the whole process, it was crazy," Dobson told NHL.com. "People had their yards decorated. It was really unbelievable. I drove through there one day going out to the Trent River just to check on my summer place out there and I'm going like, 'Holy mackerel, what is going on here?' I heard some rumors about Stirling working on the Kraft Hockeyville, but I had never really realized the extent and the effort that they put into it. It was incredible."
That hard work paid off in a big way. Stirling-Rawdon won the event, earning $100,000 in upgrades to the Stirling & District Recreation Centre, and the community now will host a preseason game in nearby Belleville on Saturday when the Jets and Washington Capitals will drop the puck on the NHL preseason (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, CBC).
"It's huge for the town," Dobson said. "I think it's a great concept, especially in small towns like that. Even kids playing there, to have that access to an NHL game and NHL players, it's a real special thing. We never had that growing up, and you don't have the idea of the League being in a small town like that."
Dobson, who won an all-Ontario title while playing for the Stirling Juveniles in 1976, remembers how the rabid hockey town was divided when it came to the NHL. The Ottawa Senators didn't exist then, so it boiled down to rooting for the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens.
"When I grew up, we had an antenna and we got two TV stations," Dobson said. "We got Peterborough, and on some days we would get Kingston. ‘Hockey Night in Canada' on Saturday night, you were basically either a Toronto fan or a Montreal fan. That was before expansion in the early days and Ottawa didn't have a team. Little communities like Stirling, it was always they were half Toronto fans and half Montreal fans, and a few others sprinkled in. But those were the two teams and that's what you saw on Saturday nights. I was a Toronto fan. I don't know how that all took place, but that's the way our household went."
This Saturday night, Dobson will return to his hometown to witness something he never thought he'd be able to attend in his community -- a live NHL game. While in town, he'll undoubtedly reflect on his time as a youth hockey player and the memories created along the way.
"I spent all my minor hockey days in Stirling," Dobson said. "It's a tiny town, but it always had a great minor program there when I was growing up. They always had support from the region and they had a lot of really good people running it."