BELLE VERNON, Pa. -- Jeremy Roenick has covered high-profile events as an NBC Sports hockey analyst, including the Stanley Cup Final, NHL All-Star Game, Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. But he ranks Kraft Hockeyville USA among the top experiences he's had.
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"It's an amazing event," Roenick said Friday, when he was the master of ceremonies at a gala that raised money for the Belle Vernon community. This year, Belle Vernon won the title of Kraft Hockeyville USA, which awards one community an NHL preseason game and funding to update an arena.
In its third year in the United States, Kraft Hockeyville, which started in Canada in 2006, has awarded more than 80 communities more than $3 million in arena upgrades.
"It's one of the more fun things I do all year only because it's the grass roots," Roenick said. "It's where hockey starts. It's the young kids in these small towns that learn to love hockey by watching on television and asking their mom and dad to go play it. To have these communities that love the game and support the game, and it's important that we recognize those communities.
"I get to get out to where the NHL isn't. I get to meet people who watch me on television who have that same passion for the game that I do, and it's nice."
Belle Vernon beat out more than 1,300 other entrants before it was named a finalist and won the title based on an online vote. They also received $150,000 on upgrades for the Rostraver Ice Garden, including new pipes, LED lights and a compressor. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins will hold their pregame skate in Belle Vernon before they host the St. Louis Blues at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
"Raising money for charity is amazing," Roenick said. "Raising money for anybody is amazing. I've been very fortunate in my life to have that opportunity to just show up and because of my presence, gain a lot of excitement and activity that we can do that. I love meeting people, I love coming out whether it's shaking hands, speaking, signing autographs, taking pictures, all that stuff is easy in terms of the big picture which is saving arenas, giving money to organizations or charities that need it."
Roenick, who retired in 2009 after 20 seasons as an NHL forward, has attended the first two Kraft Hockeyville USA games: in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 2015 (Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning), and in Marquette, Michigan, in 2016 (Buffalo Sabres vs. Carolina Hurricanes). He said he knows how important it is for communities to keep rinks intact.
"I can't even tell you how many arenas that I played in that were old, decrepit and falling apart that were still worshipped and loved by the towns that they were in," Roenick said. "Anything that involves kids and youth hockey leagues brings me back to a lot of memories so it's nice that I could do my part to support those arenas and those towns that might not have the luxury of seeing an NHL hockey game."
Roenick, who had 1,216 points (513 goals, 703 assists) in 1,363 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks, Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, said the Penguins and Blues should be Stanley Cup contenders this season. But he did point out the Penguins lost key players in the offseason, including center Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators) and defenseman Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings).
"I think the Blues are going to be really good," he said. "I know there is a bunch of people around the hockey world that are very high on them maybe coming out of the Western Conference. Obviously with the Penguins, they've had to let a lot of guys go. With championships and winning come high salaries and [less room under the NHL] salary cap.
"They are missing a lot of [centers] down the middle and are missing some defensemen now. It's going to be interesting to see them play with integral parts of their team that are not there. But whenever you have a Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang and Matt Murray in net, you're never going to be out of it."