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North Bay lives up to 'Hockeyville' title

by Evan Grossman / NHL.com
Chris Thorburn, the former North Bay Centennial, made his homecoming in an Atlanta Thrashers jersey for an exhibition game against the New York Islanders.
NORTH BAY, Ontario –
Chris Thorburn never thought he’d play another game back here again, not to mention dressing for a real NHL contest back in the old barn where he played his junior hockey.

“Not at all,” Thorburn told NHL.com, standing in the same hallway he occupied as an 18-year old junior player. “I haven’t been back here since I played. It’s been six years.”

But Monday night, Thorburn was back as the former North Bay Centennial made his homecoming in an Atlanta Thrashers jersey for an exhibition game against the New York Islanders. It was also the first time his mother got to see him play live, in an NHL uniform.

“Unfortunately I’ve been playing in places that are far from my hometown, and they haven’t been able to see me as much as they’d like, my brothers and sisters,” Thorburn said after the Thrashers won the annual Kraft Hockeyville game, 4-3, in overtime. “But having them come to a place like this where they saw me so many times, playing in an NHL jersey, it was something that I’m sure they’re proud of and it was great to do it for them.”

North Bay, the winner of the Hockeyville contest, hosted the preseason game in front of a sold-out Memorial Gardens crowd that had the building rocking like the good old days, making for an atmosphere that was equal parts charming and electric.

Evan Grossman

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“For an exhibition game, it was lots of fun because there was a lot of energy in the rink,” Atlanta head coach Bob Hartley said. “We knew why we were here, so our guys did an unbelievable job, going to school in the morning and at the morning skate, we talked about what that game meant for the people of North Bay. What was that game? That was NHL in North Bay. At the same time, we wanted to put on a good show. We had a bunch of kids competing for jobs, so I think that in an atmosphere like tonight, it was helping both teams. It seemed like at times, fans didn’t know who to cheer for. So they ended up cheering for both teams and they couldn’t lose.”

The Centennials no longer play here (they moved to Saginaw in 2002), but this city hasn’t lost an ounce of its hockey passion. It’s that love for the game that earned North Bay the title of Hockeyville for the year after winning the annual Kraft/CBC sweepstakes that rewards the Canadian small town that exhibits the greatest commitment to the game. While the OHL team is no longer here, the same passionate fans remain.

That seems to rub off on a lot of people.

“I spent about an hour on the concourse before the game, signing autographs, talking to people, and you get a real genuine sense of the passion for the game,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “and a real pride in North Bay for having accomplished this.”

Thorburn, one of many NHL players to come through here in their junior career, received a nice ovation when he was introduced as a starter for the preseason game, but the biggest ovation was reserved for CBC personalities Don Cherry and Ron McLean, who entertained the crowd during the second intermission from center ice.

“I heard he got a big roar,” Thorburn said of Cherry’s thunderous reception. “Well, he’s been around a lot longer I guess, so he deserved that.”

North Bay, which puts on a renowned pond hockey tournament every year, is home to the North Bay Food Bank and has hosted displaced hockey players two years ago when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, is this year’s Hockeyville winner. The town of 50,000 edged out other hockey hotbeds like Cornwall, Ontario and Smithers, BC to earn the title.

Once the winner was announced on CBC, word traveled fast.

“I didn’t know until my billet from when I lived here actually contacted me,” said Thorburn, a member of the last OHL team to call North Bay home. “I saw it on the Internet and she told me. I couldn’t believe it. To get picked up by Atlanta, and to actually come back and play an NHL game in your old OHL building, in your old OHL city, is pretty cool.”

The Thrashers and Islanders put on quite a show for the 3,500-plus capacity crowd at Memorial Gardens in North Bay, ON.
As the winner -- voted on by officials at Kraft and CBC, the home of “Hockey Night in Canada” -- North Bay got to host Monday’s preseason game. In addition, the hockey-loving burgh received a trophy, the Hockeyville title for one year, $10,000 to upgrade the publicly owned hockey facility, and a feature segment that will air on CBC in Canada.

The Stanley Cup made a visit as part of the festivities, as well as appearances by legendary Islanders alumni, Bryan Trottier and Ken Morrow.

The crown jewel, though, was Monday’s preseason game between the Islanders and Thrashers that filled the local arena to its building-bursting capacity. All of the arena’s 3,500 seats were filled, while the rink was ringed with folding chairs to accommodate as many people as possible. In a town of over 50,000 people, a raffle was held to fairly distribute tickets.

“The best thing about North Bay is overall everyone is real supportive,” Thorburn said. “Even in the high school that I attended, it was always academics first, and they understood the hockey part, too, and they made sure we stayed on track.”

Other North Bay alums that have played in the NHL are Alex Auld, Andy Delmore, Derian and Kevin Hatcher, Nick Kypreos, Chris Neil and Darren Turcotte, who is currently the head coach of the local junior-A team.

As for the Hockeyville game, the passion of the people certainly seemed to rub off on the players on the ice. It was a competitive clash in which many in uniform were fighting for NHL jobs and roster spots within their respective organizations.

I was a big night for the town, it was a big night for those young players, and it was a huge night for Thorburn.

“As soon as I stepped on the ice, from the Zamboni guys to the fans, I developed so many relationships while I was here, just to play in front of them again, it was just a fun time,” he said. “But like you said, I was nervous as heck. I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous for hockey game.”

The packed arena, which is half a century old, was not the type of modern facility the NHL players are accustomed to playing in. It was a throwback experience to their younger days and a reminder of where many of them come from.

“This is what hockey’s all about in Canada. It’s part of the culture, especially in the smaller towns. North Bay has always been a great hockey town, so it was good to play a game like that here,” said Islanders coach Ted Nolan, who grew up in northern Ontario. “A lot of the guys come from small towns like this, so to come to a smaller facility and play a game, I thought was a lot of fun.”

For everyone involved in the event, it was an experience out of the normal grind of the NHL preseason and coming to a mystical place like Hockeyville was a reminder for the professional players and coaches of just how strong the love for the game is. It seems that the smaller the town, the greater that passion generally is.

“Because it’s like family,” Hartley said. “It’s almost like having a game in your backyard. I knew, being from Ontario, any city in Canada you would get that response. At the hotel today, people were chasing us for tickets. We could have had anything we wanted at that hotel this afternoon for two tickets.

“I’m just happy there were no fires in North Bay,” he said, “because probably every firefighter was at the game.”

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