The community of Renous, New Brunswick had plenty of people leading its charge to be the host for Kraft Hockeyville Canada 2019.
But inspiration for the bid came from Thomas Anthony Dunn, a 14-year-old who was killed in an accident June 30, 2018 when his dirt bike collided with a car.
"It was his spirit that led us," said Nancy Hallihan-Sturgeon, the chair of the volunteer organizing committee for the community located about three hours West of Prince Edward Island.
And Dunn's spirit was felt at 11:45 p.m. ET on March 30, 15 minutes before what would have been his 15th birthday, when an overflow gathering at the Renous Rec Centre watched NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announce on "Hockey Night In Canada" that Renous won the Kraft Hockeyville grand prize: $250,000 to renovate Tom Donovan Arena, $10,000 in equipment from NHLPA Goals & Dreams and a preseason game between the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens at K.C. Irving Regional Centre in Bathurst on Sept. 18.
"It was his personality due to his passing that fueled the fire in the community," Hallihan-Sturgeon said about Dunn. "He was a kid who stood up for other kids in school, he was anti-bully. He was athletic but a humble athlete in baseball and in hockey."
The call to action for the Hockeyville campaign had signs and posters displaying one letter and one number, "T6" for Dunn and his hockey jersey.
"We knew his presence was going to be in the area," Hallihan-Sturgeon said. "We knew it from registration in October right to when we talked about doing the nomination."
Though the game itself won't be in Renous, the community is celebrating the entire event and the work already done on the arena, which has a new ice maker, refrigeration unit, scoreboard and clock, with a fresh paint job and new plexiglass on its way. The people are reveling over a celebration beginning with a parade of lights and fireworks, a pep rally, appearances by the Stanley Cup and a few surprises along the way.
Red-carpet arrivals by the Canadiens and Panthers and the game are at the home of Acadie-Bathurst (capacity 3,524) of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Everything inside will be branded Renous.
"We celebrate it," Hallihan-Sturgeon said. "We have a small arena and we know we didn't do this on our own. We had volunteers, businesses step up across the province. We had hoped for it to be local, maybe not at the Tom Donovan Arena but maybe in Miramichi, but we also gave them a big goal that we needed a lot of tickets. We know this is a New Brunswick win. Bathurst is an hour and a half away and it's well worth the day to come and enjoy the celebration."
There are ties that bind New Brunswick with Montreal and Florida. The Canadiens are participating in Hockeyville Canada for the third time (Salmon River, Nova Scotia in 2006; Roberval, Quebec in 2008) and their American Hockey League affiliate played in Fredericton from 1990-99. Panthers coach Joel Quenneville played 16 games (11 points; one goal, 10 assists) as a 20-year-old defenseman in Moncton for New Brunswick of the AHL in 1978-79.
"The passion for hockey in Canada is at the highest level anywhere in the world," Quenneville said. "From young kids learning how to skate to girls playing hockey, the rinks are the focus of a lot of communities and a lot of areas. Everybody is proud of their rinks. Whether they're part of the associations their kids are playing, it brings the whole community together and everyone involved takes a lot of pride in being a part of that.
"We know how passionate the Maritimers are with NHL hockey, American League hockey and hockey in general. We're looking forward to being a part of that."
Roberto Luongo, the third-winningest goalie in NHL history who retired June 26 after 19 seasons (11 with Florida), won the Presidents' Cup with Acadie-Bathurst in 1998-99 after he was traded from Val-d'Or midway through the season. The Titan retired Luongo's jersey Aug. 20, 2012.
"I was super excited to hear the game was going to be in Bathurst," Luongo said. "I'm sure the city is going to be buzzing. They love their hockey. I'll probably find a way down there for that game. I'm excited to be there and spend a great moment with the city. I'm sure it's going to be a fun day for everyone."
And it should be a unique experience for a community with an entire province in its corner. Dawn Dunn, Thomas' mother, has a favorite quote: "Go out there and make someone remember your name." Renous will neither forget Thomas Dunn, nor what Kraft and the NHL has done and will do beyond the rink upgrades.
"We didn't even exist on the map when Hockeyville started," Hallihan-Sturgeon said. "Eight minutes will get you all around Renous, it's not the biggest tour.
"You're one of us once you're here. We welcome you here with open arms. There's lots of stories from the time the rink was built in '84. There will be no doubt in anyone's mind the vision that we had when we started, and the outcome, is exactly what the community needs."