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Roberval basks in the glow of NHL hockey

by Brian Compton

ROBERVAL, Quebec – A small town in Northern Canada basically shut down on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t the result of a message from the Emergency Broadcast System.

There was no need to evacuate, no need to find those spare batteries, no need to run out and buy bottles of water.

But if you wanted a cup of coffee and a donut from Tim Horton’s on the main drag, this was the time because you were guaranteed no wait in line. Anyone who lived around these parts was too busy celebrating a moment they thought would never come – a moment they’ll reflect on with their grandchildren someday.

The people of Roberval spent months preparing for Kraft Hockeyville 2008, trying to show every hockey fan in Canada that they deserved those 2,198,665 votes the small town received some six months ago. But the blood, sweat, tears and money – more than $300,000 went towards improving Benoit Levesque Arena – felt like a massage once the NHL arrived on the scene on Sunday to help honor this wonderful city.

It was worth every penny and every sacrifice. Three years ago, such a contest didn’t even exist. Three years ago, the idea that the Montreal Canadiens could play a game in such an atmosphere would have been dismissed faster than you c ould get it off the tip of your tongue.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, when a village that consists of roughly 11,000 people all came together to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event. Fathers held their sons and pointed out some of today’s brightest stars. Youppi and Sabretooth walked around the arena to deliver high-fives to children who thought they’d never see their favorite mascots in the flesh. After all, Montreal is about six hours south of here. Yes, Roberval is that far north.

But on this night, it was the center of the hockey universe. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in the house, along with NHLPA Executive Paul Kelly. Both were on the ice for a pre-game ceremony, accompanied by Roberval Mayor Michel Larouche and Ice Village Mayor Jacques Dion. Each introduction meant Roberval was another second closer to opening faceoff.

There was one presentation left. Chris Dawson, the director of North Bay, Ontario (Hockeyville 2007), had to hand the Kraft Hockeyville trophy to the city of Roberval, which Dion so proudly accepted.

“We don’t speak the same language, but we both speak the language of hockey,” Dawson told him.

Once it was translated, Dion’s eyes lit up brighter than the lights that shine on Lac Saint-Jean during the winter months, which provided one of those Hockeyville, and nobody can take that away, nor can the memories from this night ever go missing.

Even if Montreal had lost (the Canadiens didn’t disappoint their rabid fans with a 3-2 victory), Roberval still won.

“This is better than Christmas,” one woman in the crowd said.

The Canadian anthem couldn’t even be completed without an enormous roar from a crowd that couldn’t fit another person without the assistance of butter or a shoehorn. They were excited beyond comprehension to those who attend hockey games regularly, and how could they not be? The NHL was in Roberval. The Montreal Canadiens were in their hometown.

Playing in a familiar rink in front of familiar people, Habs goalie Marc Denis admitted he had butterflies. But he sure didn’t disappoint.

“I was definitely nervous,” he said. “This was my first start in a Montreal Canadiens uniform. I had a lot of friends and family here in attendance. To do it so close to home, in front of my friends and family, it was obviously special. There were definitely jitters.”

There were also moments of disbelief.

“I never thought I’d be back in this region in an exhibition game with the Montreal Canadiens and be behind the bench,” Habs coach Guy Carbonneau said. “It’s always fun. I still have a lot of friends that came down from Chicoutimi and are in the region. To see those people smile and have the chance to see two NHL teams, I think it’s a great experience for everybody.”

The commissioner agreed. With a strong desire to be in attendance, Bettman flew in just to see it with his own eyes and left immediately following the game. He was extremely impressed with the festivities taking place – both inside and in the parking lot.

“This was my first start in a Montreal Canadiens uniform. I had a lot of friends and family here in attendance. To do it so close to home, in front of my friends and family, it was obviously special. There were definitely jitters.”
-- Canadiens goalie Marc Denis

“It’s been a spectacular night,” Bettman said. “Not only=2 0is there great enthusiasm inside the rink, but you go outside and it looks like the whole town has turned out. As popular as the game is, it’s very special when we can connect with a community like we’ve done the last three years with the Hockeyville program. To come to Roberval and see this incredible reception and the excitement in the community is really a special night for everybody.”

When the final horn sounded, the players shook hands at center ice in the always-tremendous show of respect. Both teams then stayed on the ice and presented raffle winners with Canadiens’ jersey that on the back read: HOCKEYVILLE 08. The crowd then received one last salute before the teams headed off to their respective homes.

On this night, though, Roberval was home.

And it felt great.

“It was fun to be a part of,” said Sabres captain Jason Pominville, who hails from Repentigny, Quebec. “Me and Patty (Lalime) were able to go a school today after the pre-game skate, and just being able to see the kids with a smile on their face just made our day. It was a fun event to be a part of. If they ever did it again , I’d be the first to come back.”

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