ROBERVAL, Quebec –
The Kraft Hockeyville festivities got underway on Sunday morning at Benoit Levesque Arena, where parents and children alike were treated to some great players of the past.
Former Buffalo Sabres forwards Richard Martin and Donald Audette – along with former Montreal Canadiens defenseman Gaston Gingras – put the blades back on to try to pass on their skills to youngsters who live in an area that is certainly passionate about the game.
Martin, who was taken with the fifth pick in the 1971 NHL Amateur Draft, was more than happy to oblige the citizens of Roberval after they won what has quickly become a prestigious award. While he’s lived in Buffalo for the past 37 years, the 57-year-old has not forgotten about his roots. And if he did, Roberval has brought him back to his youth.
“I think this is great,” Martin told NHL.com after the morning session. “To just be here, you can see everybody’s really into it. There’s 11,000 people in this town, and I bet you there will be 20,000 when the Stanley Cup’s there. Everybody’s really excited. They’re all fired up. They put in a lot of hard work, and they ended up doing it.”
While the kids on the ice probably didn’t understand the magnitude of having players such as Martin and Audette to learn from, the parents certainly did. Most just stood in awe in the stands, realizing that their dream to be dubbed Hockeyville had officially come to fruition.
“It’s an opportunity that I’ll never get again,” said Roberval native Yoland Duchesne, while watching his eight-year-old son, Etienne, skate. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It’s something I’ll always remember.”
Audette, who hung up the blades in 2004, played for the Sabres from 1991-98 and finished his career with 260 goals in 735 games. The Laval, Quebec, native is thrilled that the people of Roberval will be able to watch an NHL game at Benoit Levesque Arena on Tuesday, when the Canadiens meet the Sabres in exhibition action.
“In the Quebec area, where they lost the Nordiques, this is the closest they’ll get to the NHL players,” said Audette, referring to the Quebec franchise’s move to Denver, Colorado, in 1995. “That’s fun for them. This is perfect.”
Since the arena can only hold about 1,200 people, the game will be broadcast live in the facility’s parking lot. The city believes anywhere from 8-10,000 people will show up to watch.
One of Roberval’s own who plans to watch outside is Pascal Girard, who says he is giving his ticket to a young player who lives on the outskirts of town. Many of Tuesday night’s tickets went to kids who live and play in Roberval.
Duchesne is in the same boat.
“My son has a ticket because he plays here, but I can’t come,” he said. “I have to watch it on TV, but my family is excited.”
Nonetheless, Sunday morning was good enough for Girard, who watched his son, Xavier, learn from a couple of greats.
“My son’s excited, but he doesn’t really know who the players are like I do,” Girard gushed. “I used to watch Audette all the time. But he’s really excited about the game. He has to get his hat and jersey signed, so he looks really good.”
Martin looked really good on the ice, and one would have never known he played his last NHL game in 1981, when a knee injury ended his career prematurely. He even admitted it had been a while since he had been on the ice. It would have been ever longer had he not received an invitation to Roberval.
"My son's excited, but he doesn't really know who the players are like I do. I used to watch [Donald] Audette all the time. But he's really excited about the game. He has to get his hat and jersey signed, so he looks really good."
-- Pascal Girard, Roberval resident
“I hadn’t been on skates in about a year and a half,” Martin said. “I had to get my skates sharpened, they were so rusted. I watched some of Hockey Night In Canada, and they showed what was going on, and I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ And then I got a call about a month ago, and they said they wanted me to go Roberval. I said, ‘Why not?’ We went out last night and met a lot of the local people, and just had a great reception. The people are very friendly and they’re all excited.”
As they should be. Not only will they host an NHL game on Tuesday night, but the town should also receive an economic boon as tourists and media have packed the city in anticipation of this very special event.
“We’ve got a pretty busy schedule, but it’s fun for the people,” Audette said. “It’s a big happening and it’s bringing a lot to the community. They’re very nice people.”
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.