JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- For nine years Kraft Hockeyville allowed Canadian cities to host an NHL preseason game and win money to upgrade their arenas; 2015 marked the first time the event also came to the United States.
The inaugural winner of the title of Kraft Hockeyville USA went to Johnstown, Pa., which held events this past weekend, including skating clinics for children at Cambria County War Memorial Arena with former NHL players and a FanFest at a local park with the Stanley Cup. The main event will be Tuesday, when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning play at the arena (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN), which received upgrades to the lights, sound system, boards and scoreboard with some of the $150,000 that went to the winning city.
"Kraft Hockeyville has been a success in Canada for the last nine years. It was something that the NHL was an integral partner with us saying, 'Why don't we try and bring it to the U.S. market?' What it is is a hockey program, and more importantly it's a community program and it allows communities to show their passion for the sport of hockey," Julian Franklin, Director of Consumer Relations and Brand Activation for Kraft, said Sunday.
The amount of nominations received and the outpouring of community support made it clear Kraft Hockeyville definitely has a place in the United States.
"We are thrilled that in the first year we saw such outpouring of success; over 1,300 rinks were nominated out of a total of 2,100 total rinks in the U.S., which is close to 70 percent of the arena population. Over 18,000 supported stories to support those nominations. It really showed us there was a market for this. And it was a national market, not just something that was in certain areas of the country," Franklin said.
One thing Johnstown had been famous for was the 1977 movie "Slap Shot," which had scenes filmed at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. But it always has been a passionate hockey town; the Johnstown Jets, who played here from 1950-1977, won five Eastern Hockey League championships from 1951-62.
Those Johnstown residents made a convincing case, one which caught the eye of the selection committee.
"It was an extremely tough process," Franklin said. "Communities wrote and told us why they should be vying for the title of Kraft Hockeyville. We read every story. We had over 18,000 stories to read, and out of those 18,000 stories we had to select a top 10. The criteria that we had was one where we wanted to really understand the communities' passion for hockey, what the sport means to a community. And from there we would judge them so the NHL, Kraft, as well as the [National Hockey League Players' Association] would judge the stories and we had to select a top 10."
The top-10 entries were voted upon publicly, with the community receiving the most votes declared the winner. Johnstown received the majority of the 20 million-plus votes that were cast.
"What this program has shown us is that there's even more of a passion for hockey than we probably even expected before we launched this program," Franklin said. "We think this is an opportunity for the game to grow. We were pretty excited about what we did in year No. 1, and the potential for years two and three to come."