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Hockeyville growing in popularity

by Brian Compton

With two years of undeniable success under their belts, the brass at Kraft is hopeful Year 3 of Hockeyville will be even better.

Judging by what's about to transpire in Roberval, Quebec, beginning this weekend, how could they not be?

After receiving more than 2 million votes, the city of Roberval was awarded the $100,000 grand prize to put toward upgrading the Benoit Levesque Arena. But the hockey-crazed village was so excited upon winning the competition, the local government decided to add another $200,000.

The festivities get under way Sunday, with hockey clinics to be conducted by NHL alumni in the morning. Following that will be a Stanley Cup jamboree, as hockey's Holy Grail will visit the small town, which has a population of about 10,000.

"We're looking forward to it," said Jim Kozak, a senior promotions manager at Kraft in Toronto. "It's been a few months of planning, if not longer. We're really looking forward to seeing the community embrace the teams and the overall program."

Roberval is the third winner of the Hockeyville competition; Salmon River, Nova Scotia, hosted the event in 2006, and North Bay, Ontario, won the competition last season. So far, the results have been nothing short of phenomenal.

"Back in 2006 we sort of played around with the idea of looking at community upgrades and focusing on areas, and we thought, 'What a better way to celebrate it then to have two NHL teams come in to play an exhibition game?'" Kozak told "We kind of took that idea over to the NHLPA and the NHL, and it kind of evolved from there. I have to say all of the partners have contributed to shaping it and making it what it is today."

The entry method changed from last year, which also sparked more interest. While North Bay submitted a video on why its town deserved to host the event, Kraft asked for a short written story and photos in 2008.

"We made a lot of changes from '07 to 2008 to make it easier for consumers to participate and to communicate and rally with their communities," Kozak said. "We were hoping it would be that successful and that it would take on a bit of a life of its own, and I think it has. Obviously, we're hoping for even greater success in 2009, but we're extremely pleased with how it's turned out."

To show their appreciation for towns that came up just short – Kingston, Ontario, finished behind Roberval, with more than 1 million votes this year – Kraft decided to reward each of the top five finishers with a large check. Clearly, though, the switch to essays was the biggest change from 2007.

"We took the monetary prize from $50,000 to $100,000 in terms of upgrades," Kozak said. "In terms of changes, I think the entry mechanism was what was made the easiest. It was literally submitting a 750-word essay, along with three photos as to why they think their community should be Kraft Hockeyville. We just found that type of entry mechanism worked better than video or spirit items mailed in the past. A lot of people took to it and loved it to that extent. We realized that communities (that finished) two through five, it's a lot of work to take this type of project on, so we wanted to reward them as well. We gave those communities $20,000 for their efforts and to help upgrade their arena as well."

Logically, the biggest question is why does Kraft do this? What's in it for them?

"Kraft products have a 99 percent household penetration with our products, so for us it's about engaging with communities and really giving back and trying to bring something unique," Kozak said. "You want to do that in a way that not everybody else does. What can we bring that is unique? For us, it's about giving back to the communities for being such great consumers of our products."

And now because of their tremendous concept, a small town three hours north of Quebec City gets to host an NHL game Sept. 23.

"I think we have one passionate community that's really embraced this, and I think you can tell by the votes," Kozak said. "They had over 2 million votes. They're excited about it and the entire region's excited about it. We've seen that from the start of the planning of the event, their government is excited about it. They've invested funds into the arena on top of the funds that we've given them. Just the interest they're receiving around all the events that are going to happen for a town that has about 10,000 people, we could very well have twice the amount of people coming into town for that weekend. It could be exciting."

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