ROBERVAL, Quebec – While the pre-game pep rally at Benoit Levesque Arena wasn’t slated to begin until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, some people just couldn’t wait.
Slowly but surely, people began to file into the parking lot of the 1,200-seat facility to celebrate six long months of hard work that concluded on Tuesday night when the Montreal Canadiens faced the Buffalo Sabres at Kraft Hockeyville 2008.
Shortly after 2 p.m., teenagers Maxime Dore and Francis Gagnon set their lawn chairs down just behind the gate that separated the large crowd from the monstrous television screen that showed the game for those who were unable to secure a ticket.
How special is this event? Well, Dore and Gagnon were permitted to leave school early by their parents in order to get a good spot in the parking lot to watch the game.
Turns out that other than the 1,200 folks who packed the arena, Dore and Gagnon had the best seats in Roberval.
“Our parents gave us notes so we could get out of school at two o’clock,” Gagnon said. “We came here as soon we as got out of school.”
Other than having a ticket to the game, this certainly was the next-best way to watch the Canadiens and Sabres. Neither Gagnon nor Dore – who often play hockey on Lac Saint-Jean during the winter – has ever been to Montreal, but both are certainly passionate about their Canadiens.
“I’ve never been to Montreal,” Dore told NHL.com. “We’re disappointed we couldn’t get tickets, but these are pretty good seats.”
“I want to go to Montreal this year,” Gagnon added. “But to have the opportunity to have an NHL game here, it’s pretty cool.”
Montreal GM Bob Gainey agreed. While this marks his first trip to Roberval, Gainey was taken aback by the warm reception he received when he arrived at the pep rally to sign autographs for hundreds of die-hard Habs fans.
“These northern places are hockey towns because of the climate,” Gainey said. “There’s lots of winter here. They haven’t heard of global warming. The winters are long and they enjoy their teams. Hockey’s a big part of their culture and their day-to-day lives.”
Much like the players and coach Guy Carbonneau, Gainey admired the passionate fans who showed up on Tuesday morning to watch the pre-game skate. The majority of the capacity crowd hollered for the Canadiens throughout the practice and cheered as if they were watching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
For the people of Roberval, though, Tuesday night was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s hard to completely realize that it’s actually here,” said Jacques Dion, who is the mayor of the ice village in Roberval. “But it shows that all the hard work and the sacrifice was well worth it. It’s hard to think we’ll ever see this again.
“I’m going to try to appreciate the game, because it’s going to be so great to watch these players up close. I can’t believe there will be an NHL game here. I didn’t think they’d actually accept our invitation to play here. But we put a lot of hard work and money into the arena, and we really appreciate it.”
Gainey certainly appreciates the amount of the work that the people of Roberval took on in order to host this tremendous event. On top of the $100,000 the city received from Kraft for winning the competition, Roberval added another $200,000 of its own cash towards renovating the arena.
“The thought has gone into it, probably with the experience of this being the third (Hockeyville) event,” Gainey said. “The security is very good. Everybody is comfortable. You can get close to the players, but it’s not overpowering. The practice was really good. Everyone had a good time, and the players enjoyed it. It’s a good event where everybody’s getting an opportunity to be in touch with the teams they see on TV.”
On Tuesday night, many folks across Canada had their eyes on Roberval for the very first time. For one night, Roberval was the center of attention. The hard work of these citizens has indeed paid off.
“I never thought something like this could happen to Roberval,” Dion gushed. “Even this morning, I couldn’t believe I was being interviewed about it. Roberval is now known all over Canada.”
The people of Roberval have been celebrating ever since winning the award last April. How long they’ll reap the benefits is unknown, but for one day, they got to celebrate the fact that Roberval is the home of the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s a great day,” Gainey said. “I think it sort of represents grass roots. It’s great for our team, since it’s in our backyard. It feels like we’re in our backyard.”
Of course, the only thing that could top winning the Hockeyville competition for the people of Roberval was a Canadiens victory. Gainey understood their passion and simply hoped both teams will give these hockey-crazed folks a night to remember.
“It’s pretty tough on the players … we just opened camp three days ago, and this is our second game,” Gainey said. “The players will play hard. Once the puck hits the ice, they’ll go into their instinctive mode where they play to win. We’d love to win every game, but hopefully it will be a good, entertaining game and the people will have a great time.”
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.