O'Leary, a small community in the western reaches of Prince Edward Island, is ready for its star turn as the winner of 2017 Kraft Hockeyville Canada.
"We are going to put our little town on the map," said O'Leary resident Della Sweet, one of the five members of the committee that spearheaded the Hockeyville campaign. "I don't know if it has really sunk in yet, but this is going to go big-time for us. It's all very exciting. For a small town, this is the big show."
As the winners of Hockeyville, a competition now in its 11th year in Canada, O'Leary will receive $100,000 for upgrades to its community rink, O'Leary Sports Center.
The improvements are much needed and most welcome.
"Hockey is our lifeblood in the wintertime," said Jo-anne Wallace, the chair of the five-person committee. "Those rinks really mean something to the communities throughout the winter."
O'Leary Sports Center is home to the O'Leary Minor Hockey Association, which is 195 players strong. It is also home to the O'Leary Maroons, a legendary senior team playing in the four-team West Prince Senior Hockey League. The Maroons won the 2017 WPSHL title on the same night O'Leary was named winner of the Hockeyville competition.
"There was some party that night in O'Leary," Wallace said.
Just as important as the rink renovations, the area gets to host an exhibition game between the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils on Monday (6 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN1). The game will be played at Credit Union Place in nearby Summerside, because the sports center is not capable of holding a NHL preseason game.
But there will be three days of community events in O'Leary, including a hockey tournament, clinics and a skills competition with the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at the rink. There will also be a community celebration at which the Stanley Cup will be the guest of honor.
The game on Monday remains the centerpiece of the activities. The area has been agog ever since a game between two NHL teams became a reality when O'Leary was announced as the winner in April.
Generally, if Prince Edward Island residents want to see an NHL game in person, they have to trek to Montreal (728 miles away), Ottawa (840) or, maybe, Boston (615), Wallace says. Instead, the NHL is coming to them.
"This is something extremely rare for us here on the island," said Wallace, who already has a trip booked to Montreal in October to see the Canadiens play the Toronto Maple Leafs. "This is a dream come true for so many people. Here, professional hockey is not something that we get and we are pretty big fans. People here are getting their dreams come true through this."
Sweet and Wallace knew bringing Hockeyville to O'Leary was a big deal to the town and the surrounding area. They had seen the excitement build a decade earlier in O'Leary's first attempt to win Hockeyville. O'Leary finished second, but the pride in the town created through the campaign was a nice consolation prize. Winning the grand prize has left them nearly speechless.
Each spent part of the past week at the O'Leary Sports Center, handing out tickets to the 835 people whowon the lottery for seats. There were 1,586 entries. Distributing the tickets drove home to Sweet and Wallace exactly what Hockeyville means to their neighbors and fellow West Island residents.
"I must have gotten thanked 500 times," Sweet said. "It never seemed to end."
Grandparents were on hand to claim tickets for grandchildren. Parents tugged little boys and girls into the arena for their golden tickets to an NHL preseason game. Some winners danced right there in the arena after claiming their tickets, Sweet said.
"It was enough to make your heart burst," she said. "I think that is when it really hit home that Hockeyville is coming to our little town."