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Canadiens excited for trip to Hockeyville

by Brian Compton

Some may see Tuesday's contest between the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres as nothing more than an average preseason game, but Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau knows it is much more than that.

An entire village soon will come together and turn Roberval, Quebec, into Hockeyville -- the annual competition sponsored by Kraft that the city on Lac Saint-Jean won earlier this year. Carbonneau, who is from Sept-Iles, Quebec, is familiar with the area and knows just how much this event will mean to a city with a population of roughly 10,000 people.

"I had the chance to play four years in Chicoutimi, which is about an hour away," Carbonneau told "I've never had the chance to go there too often, but I know the people there are excited. It's always been a corner of the province that really supported the Canadiens. I'm sure I'm going to have a few fans in the stands."

No doubt, Benoit Levesque Arena will be packed. Although the facility can only hold about 1,200 people, another 8,000-10,000 people are expected on the grounds to witness the event outside on a large-screen television.

One has to believe the majority of the people in town will be rooting for Montreal, given it's in the same province. Carbonneau realizes that for many in attendance, this could be their one chance to see the Habs in person.

"I think the Montreal Canadiens -- especially in Quebec -- have always been the No. 1 team," said Carbonneau, who played 13 seasons for the Canadiens. "That part of the province has always been supportive of our team. Every time we have the chance to do those kind of trips, people are really excited because they don't have the chance to see us too often -- especially on their ice."

This is the third year for the Hockeyville promotion, and the second time the Canadiens will participate. In 2006, Salmon River, Nova Scotia, hosted Montreal and the Ottawa Senators in a game the Canadiens won, 7-3. Last season, the Atlanta Thrashers topped the New York Islanders, 4-3 in overtime, in North Bay, Ontario.

Since the inaugural season, the prize money for winning the event has doubled. Roberval received $100,000 from Kraft toward arena upgrades and also put in another $200,000 of its own money. Clearly, the town is excited to host these festivities, which get underway Sunday morning.

"I saw the last couple of years there with the Hockeyville, we had the chance to see how excited the people are to have teams come in," Carbonneau said. "I know there's a lot of work that's been put in to win that contest. At the end of the day, I think it makes a lot of people happy."

Roberval, which is roughly a three-hour drive from Quebec City, is just off the shore of Lac Saint-Jean and is hockey-crazed during the winter months. It was the clear-cut winner in this competition, as it received more than 2 million votes last spring. While it's a pretty long hike from Montreal, Carbonneau knows it will be worthwhile in the end.

"That thing with Hockeyville, it's across the country," Carbonneau said. "I think they do an unbelievable job, just to try to win that contest. It's always fun. You get back to your roots. It's an inconvenience sometimes to go that far, but once you get there and you meet those people, you come out of it with great, great admiration for those people."

While the competition didn't exist during Carbonneau's playing days, the coach said the Canadiens participated in several charity events across Canada during the summer months. No matter how far he was from Montreal, he said it wasn't difficult to find Canadiens fans. The case will be the same in Roberval, but the coach nonetheless is appreciative of the love his organization receives across the country.

"I still remember when I started my career with Montreal, we used to play softball -- anywhere from five to 10 games -- everywhere in Canada," Carbonneau said. "We used to go to small towns, and I couldn't believe in parts of British Columbia or Saskatchewan, in the middle of nowhere, that we had people that loved the Montreal Canadiens."

Surely, Carbonneau understands just how much a victory Tuesday night would mean to the people of Roberval. More importantly, though, Carbonneau's job is to have his team ready for the regular season, which begins Oct. 10 at Buffalo. After finishing atop the Eastern Conference with a 104-point season, Carbonneau and the Habs are out to prove the 2007-08 campaign was legitimate.

"I think everybody's excited," Carbonneau said. "There's always nervousness when you start every season -- it doesn't matter if you had success or not. Nobody wants to have a bad season. We made a lot of strides last year. I think we improved a lot. We made some great transactions this summer to improve our team. I think everybody's anxious to start, to prove that last year was not a fluke."

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