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Warm welcome greets Canadiens

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

Guy Carbonneau's Canadiens practiced in front of a packed house in Roberval, Quebec, on a rink renovated for the winners of the Kraft Hockeyville 2008, before Tuesday's preseason tilt with Buffalo.

CHECK OUT: Roberval's village on ice
ROBERVAL, Quebec -- As soon as the Montreal Canadiens took the ice at Benoit Levesque Arena Tuesday morning, a dream came to fruition.

The crowd roared as the Canadiens arrived for their morning skate, in preparation for Tuesday night's game (7 p.m. ET, NHL Network) against the Buffalo Sabres -- the main event for Kraft Hockeyville 2008.

Certainly, it was a moment that nobody in the packed crowd (remember, this was a morning skate) will ever forget. But being a part of this event is also a special time for the players -- especially those who are familiar with or have played in Roberval.

"This is a barn I know very well," Canadiens goaltender Marc Denis said. "It's good to be back here and see the improvements that were made in the building through the Hockeyville contest. It's great for the people to have a chance to see two professional hockey teams in their city. I'm proud to be part of the whole process, especially because this is the place I call home now."

The Lac Saint-Jean has been home for Denis for more than 10 years now. Not only did being drafted by the Chicoutimi Sagueneens change his professional life, but it also had a dramatic impact on his personal life, too.

"I got here in '94 when I was drafted by Chicoutimi, and I never really left," said Denis, who drafted in the first round of the 1995 Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. "In my last year of junior, I ended up meeting my wife. We came back here and built a house during the lockout. My wife and kids are still here."

A Montreal native, Denis certainly understands the pressure the Habs face to win tonight in front of some die-hard fans. But after spending a large chunk of the 2007-08 season in the American Hockey League, Denis is tackling the bigger task at hand -- to make the Canadiens' roster as a backup to budding star Carey Price.

"Obviously, we're here for a reason, (but) this is an NHL training camp," Denis said. "It's a special day for me, being from around here. At the same time, you've got to balance it out. Performance is important. There are a lot of technical points I've got to work on, and a lot of youngsters are here to impress team brass. As a professional athlete, you just have to find a way to balance all these things."

David Desharnais finds himself in the same boat. After exploding on to the scene in the ECHL last season -- he was the league's MVP and Rookie of the Year with 106 points in 68 games -- Desharnais is hoping to make a big impression on Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau tonight.

On the flip side, it's a homecoming of sorts for Desharnais, who also played junior hockey with Chicoutimi.

"I know a little bit of (Roberval)," Desharnais said. "I know the rink. It's an exciting time of the year for me. It's unbelievable to play with Montreal. After the season I had last year, it's a reward. It's special."

Kraft Hockeyville is nothing new to Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau, as Montreal participated in the competition's inaugural event in 2006 in Salmon River, Nova Scotia. He loves the concept and is in favor of the NHL and Kraft bringing hockey back to its grass roots.

"We're all from towns like this," Carbonneau said. "At the start when you hear about it and they tell you you're going to go that far, it's not that convenient because you have to travel a little bit more. But you get here and you see the result and the work the people put in … the important thing is the guys are going to be able to play on good ice and on a good rink. Whether it's 18,000 people or 1,200, I don't think it makes a big difference."

Any worries that the facility or the ice wouldn't be strong enough to host an NHL game were basically tossed out the window the moment the Canadiens took the ice. Afterwards, they raved about the amenities and improvements made to the rink.

"This contest started a long time ago with a lot more cities and towns, and there's a lot of people who put in their souls and worked together to try to make it to the end," Carbonneau said. "To be here, you see the result of it. We're in a rink that was renovated because of that. They did a really great job. I think it's going to be fun for the players tonight."

Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec, who hails from the Czech Republic, came off the ice highly impressed with the condition of Benoit Levesque Arena.

"It's perfect. It's a great, great rink," said Plekanec, who had 29 goals and 40 assists last season. "We were so surprised when we came in the morning. I never played in a small town like this since I've been in North America. Some guys said it might be a tough rink to play on, but this is perfect."

As for practicing in front of a capacity crowd, Plekanec was moved by the reception the Canadiens received from this hockey-crazed town. The next step, of course, is to deliver a victory -- especially after Montreal's 8-3 loss to Boston on Monday night in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"It's nice to have a practice in front of all those people. It would be nice to get a win for them, but we want to get ready for the season and be better than last night. We want to play better and win the game."

Author: Brian Compton | Staff Writer

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