Pierre McGuire has covered many events as an NBC Sports hockey commentator, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL All-Star Games, and Winter Classic and Stadium Series games.
Kraft Hockeyville USA, now in its second year, already is the event McGuire looks forward to the most. The promotion awards one community in the United States an NHL preseason hockey game and funding for arena upgrades.
This year, Lakeview Arena in Marquette, Michigan, finished ahead of more than 1,000 communities, including runner-up Rushmore Thunderdome in Rapid City, South Dakota, and will host a nationally televised preseason game between the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN).
A total of $335,000 was awarded to the top 10 finishers, including $150,000 to Marquette. The winning essay was submitted by Dr. Frederick Hoenke, who described how important hockey was to the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
"Marquette, Michigan, has a huge passion for hockey," McGuire said this week. "The success of Northern Michigan (NCAA Division I) whether it was under Rick Comley (who coached the school's hockey team from 1976-2002, winning the 1991 national championship) or now Walt Kyle, they've done so well and there's just a magnificent passion for the sport up there in northern Michigan."
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was the winner of the inaugural Kraft Hockeyville USA last season, and Cambria County War Memorial Arena received arena upgrades and hosted a preseason game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I had a blast last year," McGuire said. "I thought the community was outstanding, the fans were just off the charts."
Many of the more than 300,000 residents of the Upper Peninsula are fans of the Detroit Red Wings. Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings' home before they move into Little Caesars Arena next season, is a seven-hour drive from Marquette, so getting to games isn't easy.
"The biggest thing Kraft Hockeyville does more than anything else is bring the game to the grassroots folks that really care passionately about the sport that don't get the chance to go to NHL games on a nightly or a weekly bases but they follow the League, they care about the League, they have a huge passion for hockey, and I think that's one of the real moments of genius for Kraft Hockeyville is that it allows people to get the real feel for a live NHL experience."
And when fans pack Lakeview Arena for the Hurricanes-Sabres game, they'll be in for a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
"It allows the fans to get up close and basically touch the game," McGuire said. "It allows them to interact with the players and the coaches and the broadcasters. It allows them to feel the speed in real seconds; you're right there, up close and able to touch it. It allows you to feel those things that don't always come across on TV."
It's not only the fans and community that are impacted by Kraft Hockeyville USA. The players and coaches of the participating teams are as well.
"You'll see the outreach whether it from Carolina or Buffalo," McGuire said. "The players really care about bringing these games back to the community since a lot of these players come from smaller communities. It's a cool opportunity for both teams. There's a giveback from NHL players. They really appreciate the small towns where they grow up, where they play, where they were mentored. I think the players really appreciate the opportunity to be part of Kraft Hockeyville."
While an NHL scout in the 1990s, McGuire visited Lakeview Arena.
"In a previous life when I was scouting and coaching, I spent a lot of time all around the country and was in Marquette," he said. "I think more than anything else, it's a huge opportunity for guys who are huge hockey fans like they are in the Upper Peninsula to get up close and personal with NHL hockey."
Last year, the two teams that played in the inaugural Kraft Hockeyville USA game made it to the Eastern Conference Final, with the Penguins going on to win the Stanley Cup. McGuire said he expects successful seasons for the Hurricanes and Sabres, who each has a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff drought. Buffalo last made the postseason in 2010-11, and Carolina in 2008-09.
"I think both teams are going to be legitimate contenders to compete for one of the last two playoff spots (in the Eastern Conference)," McGuire said. "It's not going to be easy for either team -- a lot of things have to go right -- but if you look at both of these rosters, in particular the young players that are starting to assert themselves in the lineup ... both teams are well on their way to fixing what has ailed them for a long time."