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Kraft Hockeyville kicks off a celebration of community

by Aaron Vickers

SYLVAN LAKE, Alberta -- Under a cloudless sky with the shore rippling ever so slightly from the wake of a handful of boats out on the shimmering water, Sylvan Lake united together, much like they had in the months leading up to Sunday, to celebrate.

After months of anticipation, 2014 Kraft Hockeyville officially arrived to the small community situated between Edmonton and Calgary.

"There's been thousands and thousands of volunteer hours put into preparing this, preparing all the celebrations for Hockeyville and if you back up, preparing all the reveal parties and voting parties," town mayor Sean McIntyre said. "We've had a team of volunteers that have been giving so selflessly and endlessly to this and we owe all of these great events, all of these celebrations, to that hard work.

"It takes all kinds … it takes all kinds and now we get to celebrate with all of them which is the biggest reward."

While local musicians serenaded hundreds at one end of Centennial Park, those of all ages and hockey allegiances lined up to greet the Stanley Cup at the other. Those who already snapped a photo with the Cup wandered around the grounds to absorb various activities ranging from a giant game of Connect Four to a bouncy castle to a lassoing exhibition.

And those who chose to simply relax in front of the stage were greeted to mascots like Peter Puck and Harvey the Hound from the Calgary Flames.

Sylvan Lake beat out 15 other Canadian communities for the right to host Hockeyville this year. Along with an NHL preseason game featuring the Flames and Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday night, there will be youth clinics, officials clinics and alumni from both franchises taking part in the festivities leading up to the game. A viewing party outside of the 1,000 seat multiplex is expected to draw in the thousands too.

Sunday served as a strong indication the town will be buzzing with the arrival of the teams on Wednesday.

"This day has just been so incredible," said McIntyre, whose emotional speech to the community was interrupted by an impromptu flash-mob. "My community surprises me over and over and over again. Just when you think you've seen the extent of their amazing community spirit, they come out with something new like two flash mobs back-to-back to show you how much they love each other and love this community. It's been unbelievable."

"I see lots of people here and everybody is just happy," said Graham Parsons, a member of the town council and organizing committee for Sylvan Lake's Hockeyville campaign. "It's just a happy event. Kraft and the NHL and the NHLPA have put on a heck of an event. There isn't anything negative about it. That's the whole thing. It's good from the start to the end. It's fun for all the communities involved."

The tone is a complete turn from a snowy morning in January.

It was nearly nine months ago to the day that McIntyre was awoken in the wee hours of Jan. 20 after receiving a phone call letting him know that the roof of the Sylvan Lake Arena had collapsed.

McIntyre admitted it was hard to believe. Then again, so too is the way the community has responded.

"Since then, it's been a process of gathering the community and rebuilding," he said. "If our community spirit is any indication now, it's going to be a great ride coming through to a new facility."

But it will be more than just a new building. It's the strengthening of a community that has rallied in the face of adversity.

"You hear the cheers over and over again of 'Go Lakers Go', 'Go Lakers Go'," McIntyre said. "Years ago that would've been saved for the arena bleachers. Now it's something that happens regularly at community events and as a community leader, it's so touching.

"People are proud to call Sylvan Lake their home and it's because they're willing to come together, because they're willing to work together for the greater good. It's unbelievable to see.

"Kraft Hockeyville was an incredible opportunity for us. We know that we are Kraft Hockeyville. We've known that from the start, but to be able to go through the process to prove that, not just to the world but to ourselves, was such an amazing exercise to bring everyone together and we're so grateful for the opportunity. It's been amazing."

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