Canadiens, Panthers, fans ready for the game
The Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers took part in their respective morning skates for the Kraft Hockeyville Canada preseason game at K.C. Regional Centre, and Montreal coach Claude Julien was happy to see the level of support his team received from the sellout crowd.
"More than anything else, I think they're passionate about the game here," Julien said. "But nonetheless, there's a lot of French culture here and I'm sure that creates a lot of Montreal interest. For us to come here and see to support we're getting in the Maritimes, there are fans, so it's nice to be able to either shake their hands, take pictures or sign autographs."
Roberto Luongo is a Montreal native who played 19 NHL seasons, including 11 with the Panthers, before retiring on June 26. He made a name for himself by helping Acadie-Bathurst of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League win the President's Cup here in 1998-99. Yet he, too, couldn't deny how popular the Canadiens are.
"It's widespread for sure," said Luongo, who walked the red carpet with his former Panthers teammates. "Even when I was playing in Vancouver, there were a ton of Montreal Canadiens fans. They're everywhere. That's great. They have a great fanbase. I was saying that I've never signed so many Montreal Canadiens jerseys in my life. It's kind of weird."
A pro-Canadiens crowd is expected for the game, but the Hockeyville brand is formidable, too. The experience is new to the Panthers organization, but it's the third one for forward Mike Hoffman, who participated with the Ottawa Senators in 2010 (Dundas, Ontario) and 2017 (O'Leary, Prince Edward Island).
"And as a player, we really enjoy these games," Hoffman said. "They're fun ones to take part in. It's just a nice atmosphere for us to be around. It's a good day."
Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said the red carpet was his favorite experience. He was impressed by the energy of the small communities including Renous, Bathurst and Miramichi.
Of course, there is also the business of playing a preseason game and preparing for the regular season, one with higher expectations for Florida and the chance for Montreal to build off a 96-point season that wasn't enough to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.
"Obviously we were so close," Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin said. "It's just one game. one of these games that slipped out. If it's Game 20, maybe we lost a game in November that people think it doesn't matter, but they do matter. For us it's just being consistent. We were last year but there's still another step we can take, and we know that."
For Julien, that next step is playoffs or bust.
"Every year, teams prepare not for the Stanley Cup, they prepare for the playoffs," Julien said. "They need to get there first and that's a tough task in itself. Once you're there, it's obviously anybody's opportunity, so we got to get ourselves in the playoffs this year. That's what our focus is on right now. Once we're there, we'll certainly be talking about our chances."
Kraft Hockeyville Canada has arrived in Bathurst.
The Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens were welcomed to K.C. Irving Regional Centre with a red-carpet ceremony Wednesday morning and will play a preseason game at the home of Acadie-Bathurst of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN1, TVAS, NHL.TV).
Though the game is being played in Bathurst, it is Renous, located 120.9 kilometers (75.1 miles) south, being feted as the winning community. The arena inside is branded Renous. Outside, fans across New Brunswick and Canada bonded over the meaning of "We Are Renous" and "Renous is Hockeyville."
"It really started out as gathering to bring people together after the tragedy that happened with Thomas Dunn and the spirit that he brought to the community of Renous when he was alive and hockey was his passion," Miramichi resident Lindsay Walsh said. "And just to see all of these kids get to experience all this, all because of that committee and the family and everybody that made it happen, it's just unbelievable."
The Curtis family also made the 52-minute trip from Miramichi. Wearing Canadiens sweaters, Curry and Shelly, and siblings Jamie and Beth, received autographs from forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi and general manager Marc Bergevin.
"This is a dream come true for all of us, especially all of us together," Jamie said. "We travel up to Montreal once a year. But for us all being here together and seeing Marc Bergevin and Kotkaniemi, it's unbelievable."
The Panthers and Canadiens released their rosters for the game. Among those playing are top forward prospects Owen Tippett (Panthers) and Ryan Poehling (Canadiens) whom Walsh is eager to see compete for full-time NHL roles.
"Especially the young guys coming up that we're going to see be big stars someday," Walsh said. "Maybe the kids don't all recognize their faces now, but I'm sure they will in the future. And that's what preseason games are all about.
When the game ends, Kraft Hockeyville will leave Renous. It will be up to the residents to continue the momentum generated by the upgrades to Tom Donovan Arena.
"Hopefully it will continue," Walsh said. "Hopefully we can get on board and just stay together and do something for the communities. Every time we go up there now and going through the doors, it's going to be the talk. People recognize it now and you smile and wave at people. We were like that anyways, but now it's even more so."
Video: Renous enjoys day with Cup before Kraft Hockeyville
Cournoyer, Brisebois savor Hockeyville experience
Yvan Cournoyer's professional life has been dedicated to the Montreal Canadiens. He had 863 points (428 goals, 435 assists) in 968 games wearing the bleu, blanc and rouge, won the Stanley Cup 10 times playing for them and remains with the organization as an ambassador who makes countless public appearances.
His latest was in Renous for Kraft Hockeyville Canada, where the Hockey Hall of Famer spent 90 minutes signing autographs during a community celebration outside Tom Donovan Arena. Behind him was the Stanley Cup, on the last stop of a day-long tour through Renous and surrounding areas, a line of people around the arena waiting for what may be their only chance to get their picture taken with the trophy.
"The people are very, very nice," Cournoyer said. "It's amazing. This whole place seeing us, I think we bring so much memories. It's fantastic. I'm really impressed."
Patrice Brisebois played 16 of his 18 NHL seasons in Montreal and was on the last Canadiens team to win the Cup in 1992-93. He's also thrilled to give back, a reflection of when he received the Jean Beliveau Trophy awarded annually to the Canadiens player who best exemplifies leadership qualities in the community, the same day he retired from the NHL on Sept. 24, 2009.
"It's pretty amazing to be honest with you," Brisebois said. "For them it's a big prize. Everyone needs a good facility and a nice rink to play hockey as part of their future. I asked the kids today, 'Are you going to the game? Are you excited?' Everybody is telling me, 'I'm so excited, I don't know if I'm going to sleep tonight.' That's fun. That's the NHL and we're taking care of our fans."
The game is Wednesday in Bathurst between the Canadiens and the Florida Panthers. It's a preseason game, though a special one for this community.
"I think that's going to be a good game and I'm sure the guys are going to give a good show," Brisebois said. "They're going to play to win with some kids trying to win a spot on the team. That's their chance to show what they can do."
For the Panthers, this is a season of raised expectations after hiring three-time Cup winner Joel Quenneville as coach and signing two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract. For the Canadiens, the climb back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs continues after they had 96 points last season, two behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.
"We need to get into the playoffs and after that have the experience, because we have a young team," Cournoyer said. "You learn every year and you have a better chance with a few new guys, so you've got a better chance to win it. But hockey is great competition now because with 31 teams it's very close. It's a long season. And it's tough to win the Stanley Cup.
"They have a good base and I think they want to win. They have good character. I don't know if we're still big enough. I think maybe we're lacking a little bit on that side. But we have character and if you make the playoffs, you never know what can happen."
Surprise and delight
The Stanley Cup continued its rounds with surprise appearances that honored community members who went above and beyond the call of duty to bring Kraft Hockeyville Canada to Renous. A group known as Montreal Canadiens "superfans" are among those who volunteered and stood out. They got their time with the Cup at Tom Donovan Arena during preparations for a community celebration that will display the trophy for the general public.
"The Stanley Cup has been around for a long time," said Pancho Gillespie, one of the four, who received tickets to watch the Canadiens play the Florida Panthers in Bathurst on Wednesday. "The opportunity to see it and touch it, it's unbelievable."
Earlier, the Cup visited Eel Ground First Nation School, much to the delight of students from kindergarten to eighth grade. A select few won tickets through a drawing to watch the Panthers and Canadiens practice Wednesday morning. One lucky student won tickets to the game.
"Oh my gosh, I was really surprised. We just found out," principal Terri-Ann Larry said. "To choose us, we're only a small school, we only have 80 kids.
"You have a lot of hockey fans and, just our small community here in New Brunswick, to be a part of this big event is like … I'm still wrapping my head around it. I think the kids are really shocked. I think the community and the kids are going to be talking about this for a long time."
Two other big supporters of the Hockeyville campaign, Russell and Faye Walls, were also taken aback by the sight of the Stanley Cup on the kitchen table in their small home.
"It's a dream come true," Faye said. "Beyond a dream come true."
Day with the Cup: Pep Rally
Blackville School held a pep rally where the Stanley Cup, mascots from the Florida Panthers (Stanley C. Panther) and Montreal Canadiens (Youppi!) and Kraft entertained kids in grades kindergarten through 12.
"Today is certainly an event of a lifetime for the kids, for the staff, for the school and the community," Blackville School principal Rodney Buggie said. "For many, this will be their only chance to see the Cup live, and to have it in an area such as this and our size is certainty an honor."
There was also a floor hockey game with kids and mascots. The NHL donated a $10 gift card to each player from the winning team, team mustard. All players received a Kraft Hockeyville puck and all children took home a KD snack cup.
"I know a lot of the people," Buggie said. "It's just great to see a community come together so strong, and I never had any doubt that they wouldn't do it. So it's a community that is steeped in tradition of helping others and when the chips are down they can get together and pull it off."
Day with the Cup: Kelly's Special Care Home
The Stanley Cup made the first stop of its tour through Renous at Kelly's Special Care Home in Quarryville.
Once a boarding house that hosted fishermen from New York and Boston, Kelly's was converted into a special Care home by co-owner Judy Jardine and her daughter Kelly. Two years ago, the Jardines sold it, but bought it back because they missed it.
Residents at Kelly's enjoyed their time with the Cup.
Video: Tom Donovan Arena has undergone various renovations
"It means everything to them," Judy said. "They've been excited for days, so thrilled.
"It's just amazing to view this at their age."
A highlight of the visit was Bella Pineu of Newcastle leading a rendition of "O Canada."
Next stop, Blackville School for a pep rally.
We are Renous
Today, the Stanley Cup visits Renous with stops at a pep rally and community celebration, and some surprises along the way. One occurred during a game between Montreal Canadiens alumni and alumni from the Renous Whoppers Bantam AA team at the Miramichi Civic Centre on Sunday. The Dunn family, whose 14-year-old son Thomas was killed in a dirt bike accident June 30, 2018, was given a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey singed by Sidney Crosby, Thomas' favorite player. It read, "Thomas, now we know your name."
"When we had our alumni game at the Civic Centre, we can't decide between Friday night at the parade or the Civic Centre game which was best," Dunn said. "We never dreamt it was going to be so rewarding."
The reward is the crowning achievement that started when Nancy Hallihan-Sturgeon, the chair of the volunteer organizing committee, messaged one of Dunn's sisters to qualify interest in bidding for Hockeyville. A Facebook group had 25 members when Hallihan-Sturgeon submitted the first nomination. By 9 a.m. next morning, they had more than 1,000 and it grew to 13,000 when Renous was declared the winner.
Dunn and others throughout New Brunswick fortunate enough to get tickets, will be in Bathurst on Wednesday for the preseason game between the Canadiens and Florida Panthers. They will return home to help welcome a new generation of hockey players who will learn and play the game in a new arena and fresh sheet of ice.
"It's the heartbeat of the community and we just had a heart transplant," Renous resident Russell Donovan said.
Arena coming together
Tom Donovan Arena is the entertainment center of Renous. Built in 1984, it was in dire need of upgrades and fundraising efforts were difficult, which is why the residents are grateful their community was awarded the grand prize of Kraft Hockeyville 2019.
"It was getting down and the money wasn't there," rink manager Ray "Bucky" Singleton said. "Trying to get money for renovations is a very, very hard thing. We did manage over the years to do a lot, do some small renovations every year, but it was getting out of hand. This here gave us a good 20 or 25 more years."
The inside of the arena is nearly complete. There's a new clock and scoreboard and lighting. The top lobby area and girls locker room are renovated. PPG Paints supplied the material to paint the locker rooms and steel structures after rust was removed.
Though work remains to build a refrigeration unit and mechanical room, the goal is to have everything done by Oct. 6 or 7 so they can start making ice.
"As you can see, there's a lot of different projects going on in Tom Donovan Arena here," NHL senior manager of facility operations Mike Craig said.
The arena's namesake was a pillar of the community who brought people and businesses together to help build the rink and the adjacent Renous Rec Centre. The retired teacher died Jan. 29, 1999 at the age of 61 inside the rink doing something he loved, playing hockey.
"Tom was a great guy who wanted the community to have some sort of a recreation, because there was nothing at that time, late 60s, early 70s," said Renous resident Russell Donovan, who had Tom as his guidance counselor in high school. "He was the heartbeat. He and my dad made a great combination."
Adjacent to the arena is Reg Donovan Memorial Ball Field, whose own upgrades separate from Hockeyville are almost done. Donovan (no relation to Tom) was one of many pillars of the community who poured time and resources into efforts to help build the arena and the Renous Rec Centre.
"Reg was very instrumental in what we're seeing here on all the property," Russell Donovan said. "Great, proud community member. Leader. He had the ability to drum up the help we needed. It took a lot of volunteer work. A very important character to the community. He played a big role in this process."
Welcome to Hockeyville
It's daybreak in Bathurst, New Brunswick, 120.9 kilometers (75.1 miles) from Renous, the winner of Kraft Hockeyville Canada 2019. The Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens play a preseason game here Wednesday, but the Hockeyville experience will be centered around Renous and the upgrades already taking place at Tom Donovan Arena.
The meaning of Hockeyville goes deeper than rink enhancements. Renous and neighboring communities were hit hard by the deaths of eight people 40 and younger in a span of 18 months. One of them was Thomas Dunn, a 14-year-old baseball and hockey player who died June 30, 2018 after his dirt bike collided with a car. Dunn attended school in Blackville, an incorporated municipality 10 minutes away whose support from the mayor's office and fire department played a major role in bringing Hockeyville to Renous.
"It's unreal," Blackville mayor Christopher Hennessy said. "We had such a rough couple of years there with a lot of tragedy in the community. Everybody really pulled together and saw the light at the end of the tunnel. We came together to pull this off as one. People put up signs and there were voting stations set up around up and down the whole river valley. People worked around the clock on this deal. It's awesome to see that money coming to the rink but getting everybody out and coming together was a big part of it, too."
The celebration started Friday with a parade of lights and fireworks, and Saturday was a woodsman competition that paid homage to Renous' main natural resource, the forestry industry. Today I make my first visit to Renous, where I'll tour Tom Donovan Arena and the surrounding area while meeting the volunteer organizers whose yeoman campaign efforts also made this week a reality.
The fun continues Tuesday, when the Stanley Cup and alumni from the Panthers and Canadiens will appear at a community celebration.
"When you can rally around a small community like that and make a difference any way you possibly can, it's another opportunity we all love to be a part of, growing the game of hockey, meeting new faces and being a part of making the world a better place," Canadiens forward Max Domi said last month.
A treat the morning of gameday is the red-carpet arrivals, when Panthers and Canadiens players come off the bus to meet and sign autographs for hundreds who line up outside. Everything inside and all pregame activities will be branded Renous.
"I think it's fantastic," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "It's great for our organization. We can't wait to get there, have some fun and put on a good show for those people who certainly deserve it.
The Canadiens are participating in Hockeyville Canada for the third time (Salmon River, Nova Scotia in 2006; Roberval, Quebec in 2008). It's be a new experience for the Panthers, who are energized by an active offseason and will play their first full preseason game after a split-squad doubleheader at the Nashville Predators on Monday.
"I think it's a necessary thing, a great thing," Tallon said. "I applaud the League for doing this. I think it's an exciting moment for us and our franchise. It can only help develop the game and develop young men into not only hockey players but good people off the ice as well."