This past April, Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania - home of the Rostraver Ice Garden - earned the title of Kraft Hockeyville USA 2017.
The Kraft Hockeyville USA contest, now in its third year of partnership with the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association, grants $150,000 in arena upgrades to the winner - as well as the opportunity to host an NHL preseason contest.
Fast forward a few months, and on Sunday that preseason contest took place at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pennsylvania. The Penguins played host to the St. Louis Blues in front of an intimate and excited crowd filled with members of the Belle Vernon community.
"The fans were into it and excited," captain Sidney Crosby said. "This is a place we're used to practicing, not having a full rink and playing a game, so it was neat that way. To have people be able to see a game, up close like that, it was a cool atmosphere. A lot of us probably haven't played a game like that in a long time."
The Blues prevailed over the Penguins, 4-1, in front of 2,150 fans. Jake Guentzel tallied just 2:05 into the first period, but the Blues answered with a pair of goals 38 seconds apart in the second period courtesy of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jordan Kyrou. St. Louis' Paul Stastny added an empty net goal, while Dmitrij Jaskin also tallied in the third period.
Both Matt Murray and Carter Hutton manned the crease for the entire duration of the game. Murray collected 43 saves, while Hutton turned away 28 shots.
The Belle Vernon community was brought into the spotlight after Chris Kostic's essay documented how the arena had its roof collapse in the winter of 2010. Kostic, who is the equipment manager for California University of Pennsylvania's club hockey team, depicted the community's resiliency - replacing the roof and restoring the sport in the southwestern Pennsylvania region just eight months later.
The Rostraver Ice Garden, which opened in 1965, was severely in need of renovations to keep the ice rink running, which is home to California University of Pennsylvania's club hockey teams and various high school and youth programs in the arena. Rostraver hosted the Penguins training camp in the 1970s.
One person who has been there since the beginning is 88-year-old Paul Plinta, who refereed at Rostraver Ice Garden for 40 years and wore his black and white striped sweater while basking in the excitement of the day.
"I've never had anything so good happen," Plinta said of the Rostraver Ice Garden being named Kraft Hockeyville USA.
The $150,000 donation by Kraft for arena upgrades has already been put into use, through additions of new LED lights, locker room renovations, protective netting for fans, new piping under the floor and new compressors for the ice cooling system. According to Kim Adams of nearby Elizabeth, Pa., it couldn't have happened to a better owner than Jim Murphy, who has owned Rostraver since 1992.
"We're all really proud," Adams said. "Everyone there, Murphy has always cared about the kids, and that's why he's kept it open so long, even though it does need work. He cares about the kids and everybody appreciates that. Everyone is so proud that Belle Vernon won, that Rostraver won. It's really cool."
Earlier in the day, the Penguins players not in the lineup for tonight's game got on a bus and made the hour-long trip from Cranberry to Belle Vernon for a practice at the Rostraver Ice Garden.
Once they arrived, they walked down a red carpet while being mobbed by enthusiastic fans before entering the building. Which was absolutely packed, with the parking lot filled and members of the community lined up around the barn for the chance to watch the Penguins practice at their local rink. To see just how far their reach goes was eye-opening for the players.
"Even with the little drive out here, there's so much fan support and you see all these people out here who are such die-hard crazy fans," Bryan Rust said. "It's really good to see that support and see that the team does affect a pretty wide radius and see people coming in from all over the place to watch us play and cheer us on. For us as players, it motivates us to do better."
They appreciated the chance to actually get into Belle Vernon and spend time there, especially considering Sunday's game couldn't be played at the rink since it wasn't equipped to host an NHL preseason game. The players loved the atmosphere, with Rust joking that it was fun to get cheers if they made a good play or the "oohs and ahhs" if there was a nice goal.
"Growing up, you play in rinks like this as a kid," Scott Wilson said. "I know I would've loved to have something like this in my hometown. Seeing the kids have a good time and the cheers and stuff during practice was pretty fun too."
It was surreal for Brady Parkinson to watch NHL players practice on the same ice he grew up playing on, and still skates on to this day as a junior forward for the California University of Pennsylvania club ice hockey team.
"It's been tremendous," he said. "I've played here my whole entire life. Played here from high school into college and just seeing the makeover that's happened here and the people and the town, everybody coming out - I didn't even think there were that many people in this town. It's crazy, but it's been awesome."
However, Sunday's game turned out to be the real spectacle, which was broadcast nationally on NBCSN. With Mike Emrick calling the action just a few rows behind the fans and the intermission report operating out of the corner of the rink, the game presented a unique opportunity for everyone participating in the event.
"It's cool, whenever you have an opportunity to play in one of these games, it means so much to the kids and all the families there," Guentzel said. "it's definitely a cool experience."
The unrivaled enthusiasm, pride, and passion that encompassed the Belle Vernon community to win the contest and earn the right to host the game was on display throughout the evening. Being a part of this environment and experience is something that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And while the game on Sunday night only lasted 60 minutes, it was enough time to create memories worth a lifetime.
After the game, players from both teams exchanged autographed jerseys to a large group of the youth in attendance at the event.
"It's something I'll always remember. Just to be so up and personal with the players and interact with them, it's been cool," Isabella, 9, a youth hockey player for the Monongahela Valley Thunder said.
In the Kraft Hockeyville game, both teams were pushing the tempo, with a lot of players looking to earn a spot after training camp. Being preseason, this game isn't actually worth two points, which is fitting considering that regardless of which team celebrated the final buzzer, it is the community of Belle Vernon that emerged as the real winner tonight.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for this whole community for everybody involved," Parkinson said. "Just to be able to see all these people in groves just come out and support hockey, I feel like hockey is up and coming in Pittsburgh and this just helps amplify it because when you put another nice rink in the middle of Pittsburgh, nothing it can do but help."