VERNON, British Columbia -- The last time Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic played a game in Vernon, he remembers being "wowed" by the chance to play at Kal Tire Place.
Twelve years later, the roles have been reversed. Lucic is back with the Oilers for a preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings as part of Kraft Hockeyville 2016 in Canada, and it's the people from Vernon that seem to be awestruck by the chance to watch Lucic and his teammates in action.
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"The last time I played in here was the 2004-05 season in the BCHL with the Coquitlam Express and back then, this was the barn, this was the place in the BCHL to play," Lucic said of the arena that is home to the tier-2 junior Vernon Vipers. "Coming back here 12 years later it's pretty cool for me to see something that you almost got wowed by when you were a 16-year-old."
Lucic and his new teammates were certainly wowed by the crowds that lined up to greet their arrival at the morning skate Sunday. Fans lined the sidewalks 10 deep in spots and players spent up to 20 minutes signing autographs and posing for selfies as they made their way into the arena. Close to 3,000 fans packed Kal Tire Place to watch the Oilers and Kings practice.
"You could feel the excitement and it was cool to have a pre-game skate in front of that many people," Edmonton center Connor McDavid said. "Just being in here even for an hour you can see the excitement. In a building like this, where it's going to be packed, you want to have a good showing."
It was already a good showing for John Truscott and his two young sons, Justin and Hayden. The trio arrived at 6:30 a.m., each dressed in a McDavid jersey, and were near the front of the line as the young Oilers star spent close to half an hour signing autographs while he walked into the arena.
"This is surreal," John Truscott said. "Having the NHL here means a lot to the people here in Vernon. There are a lot of very, very dedicated hockey people in this area."
A lot of them live a 25-minute drive away in Lumby, a town of 1,731 people that rallied around the death of popular player and coach Peter Catt to win Kraft Hockeyville in his memory. Catt's two sons, Jace and Linden, will drop a ceremonial puck before the game between the Oilers and Kings, part of a weekend-long celebration of their father's life that included a visit from the Stanley Cup and on-ice clinics with a half dozen former NHL players in Lumby on Saturday.
Players could feel the energy Sunday that helped Lumby win Kraft Hockeyville.
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"The support and enthusiasm in the building this morning was noticeable, a number of players mentioned the energy to me," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "I think the fans will get treated to a really good game tonight and the players in turn will go back to their roots."
Coaches got to go back to their roots too. Kings coach Darryl Sutter said it reminded him of the first NHL game he saw, and shared stories about getting autographs when he was a kid.
"I thought about that this morning coming in here," Sutter said. "My first NHL game was dad took us to the old Edmonton Gardens and it was a preseason game with the Kings and the Canucks and I remember Eddie Shack playing for the Kings. … Good memories."
Sutter talked about knowing a single mom who was bringing her two kids to the game.
"They can't afford to go to an NHL game, they can't drive to Vancouver so they get to come here," Sutter said. "Those kids will remember that forever. I do."
Some may even be inspired enough to one day play with the players they will watch Sunday. Lucic remembered getting to meet Jaromir Jagr after a game in Vancouver back in 1998, thanks to his cousin Dan Kesa, who was playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time. Fifteen years later, Lucic got to play with Jagr with the Boston Bruins late in the 2012-13 season.
"Who knows, Connor is only 19 maybe one of these kids here today will end up playing with Connor one day and he can share the same story with you guys," Lucic said.