BATHURST, New Brunswick -- Kraft Hockeyville Canada 2019, an uplifting event for the people of Renous, New Brunswick and surrounding areas, started as an ordinary morning for the Montreal Canadiens.
Defenseman Jeff Petry had this ticketed as a business trip. Forward Alex Belzile woke up and had breakfast per usual. Coach Claude Julien was planning the next step in evaluating who out of a group of prospects and journeymen will make the opening-night roster.
Then the Canadiens came off the bus in front of K.C. Irving Regional Centre. A huge contingent of fans wearing red and white sweaters showered them with adulation. The players obliged with autographs and photos, knowing this may be the only time those from small communities will get up close and personal with an NHL player.
"We're here to obviously play a game and for everyone to show what they can do," Petry said. "But getting here early this morning and seeing everyone that came out to support us and support the community was great to see. It's a warm welcome coming up here."
The Canadiens entertained a sellout crowd with a 4-3 win against the Florida Panthers at Tom Donovan Arena. Petry, Matthew Peca and Riley Barber each had a goal and an assist. Belzile, an undrafted 28-year-old forward yet to play a regular-season NHL game, broke a 3-3 tie with a shorthanded goal at 13:57 of the third period.
Video: Best moments from 2019 Kraft Hockeyville Canada
Like the people of Renous, Belzile is working to overcome challenges with determination. After taking in Hockeyville, he ended his experience on a high note.
"Before camp, I was really mindful about what I need to do when I'm on the ice," Belzile said. "I need to be full throttle, and every time I'm on the ice that's a chance for me to show what I can do. When it's time to make a play, I have a good hockey sense. You have to be intense and play the right way. When you do that good things happen.
"I control what I can control. I know there's a lot of players, but in my mind, I don't care about that. What I care about is what I can control every time I'm on the ice. I try to play every shift as hard as I can."
Belzile's effort put the Canadiens one step ahead of the Panthers, whose top line of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov combined for six points (two goals, four assists).
"They're dangerous," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "I like how they move the puck through the neutral zone out of our end neatly, cleanly. They pass the puck in good spots and on the tape, and the power play is pretty dangerous as well. They move well together, they know each other's traits, and they anticipate where they're going and how they're going to get there."
Hockeyville arrived to Renous after it became the first New Brunswick community to win $250,000 in upgrades for the arena. It was celebrated for three days, culminating with the game in Bathurst with everything branded Renous. Color guards were from the Renous and Blackville fire departments and Miramichi police. Maureen Donovan, Tom's widow, and Darlene Gillespie, Tom's oldest niece and an EMT volunteer for more than 40 years, were honor guards.
Video: FLA@MTL: Renous leaders presented with trophy, jersey
Harry and Dawn Dunn, parents of 14-year-old Thomas Dunn, whose death in a dirt bike accident June 30, 2018, was the impetus for volunteers to organize and submit their bid, joined oldest son Aaron to drop the ceremonial first puck between Barkov and Petry.
Dawn held a framed photo of Thomas to her chest, the range of emotions reaching the surface.
"We were all shaking, it was a little nerve-wracking, for sure," Dawn said. "But once we came out seeing all the people, everybody was cheering. I have to say I had a hard time not breaking down. From the support of everybody here, it's just amazing. It's just a rush of emotion, excitement, sadness and happiness, if you can imagine that. They're all here because of Tom."
The event exceeded expectations for Dawn.
"We knew that it would be big, but to see basically every seat in the house sold and knowing this would never have happened if there wasn't that bid for Kraft Hockeyville way back when, it's just amazing," she said. "We could never have imagined back in January that it would be this big."
Video: Canadiens rally in 3rd for 4-3 win in Renous