MARQUETTE, Mich. -The Sabres were greeted to quite a scene when they pulled up to Lakeview Arena for their morning skate on Tuesday, prior to a preseason game against the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a true red-carpet experience, with locals of all ages lined up outside of the rink's entrance to welcome the players to Marquette.
That much may have been expected from a town that was voted as this year's Kraft Hockeyville, USA winner. What followed was a surprise. Once the Sabres were in the rink, the fans poured in behind them to watch the pregame skate. They even cheered for goals on power-play drills.
"I came out to watch Carolina's morning skate and was amazed not only at the people in the stands, but at the energy in the stands and at the cheering of the fans in the stands," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said afterward. "Very few of them have a team in play here. They're cheering for hockey. "
Marquette is a real hockey town. Bylsma played here himself in travel showcases as a teenager and still recognized the banners in the rafters at Lakeview Arena. Just a few years ago, Jack Eichel came through as a member of the National Team Development Program and played against the Northern Michigan Wildcats at their home right down the street at Berry Events Center.
In fact, if you picked a person at random from the crowd on Tuesday morning there was a good chance they could share with you some hockey roots of their own. Take Jim Tallio, for example, a Marquette native who is old enough to remember Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings coming into town to play against inmates at an outdoor rink at Marquette State Prison in 1956. Tallio says he played at the prison's rink several times himself. Not as an inmate, he was sure to point out.
Prior to playing at the prison, Howe and the Red Wings played against the Marquette Sentinels at the Palestra, the arena that preceded Lakeview and stood until 1974. That's the building where Mike Camilli says his grandfather, a chemist, used to be brought into to prevent the rink's cooling coils from rotting. Camilli says people still have pictures of the Palestra in their homes today.
"My son was just saying he was surprised that Marquette won out of all the cities," Camilli said as he watched the Sabres skate. "But I'm not really surprised because it's got a long history of both semi-professional and college and junior hockey. It's really engrained in everybody here."
It's also brought the community together. Charlie Enright volunteered as an usher for the morning skate on Tuesday, and said there were hundreds more volunteers who assisted in cleaning and painting the rink as well as staffing the practices and the game.
Video: Preview: BUF vs CAR (10/4/16)
Enright's father and brother own the Marquette Mutineers, an amateur team in the Great Lakes Hockey League that calls Lakeview Arena its home. Enright said that the community is "ecstatic" to host the game between the Sabres and Hurricanes - not just Marquette, but the entire Upper Peninsula. As for a rooting interesting, he and Camilli were alike in that they said it will be hard to say who they'll be cheering for. Marquette is typically a Red Wings town.
On Tuesday night, they - like the rest of Marquette - will simply be cheering for hockey.
The story on the ice for the Sabres revolves around its top forward line, which is comprised of the team's last three first-round picks. Jack Eichel, making his preseason debut after six games at the World Cup of Hockey, will center Alexander Nylander and Sam Reinhart.
Bylsma said that the original plan coming into camp was to give Nylander time playing on a wing with Ryan O'Reilly. That changed when O'Reilly was picked for Team Canada at the World Cup and played all the way through the championship. Instead, Nylander will have an opportunity to showcase his speed and skill alongside Eichel and Reinhart, who clicked well at the end of last season.
"You've seen him in the preseason, he's created a lot for himself," Eichel said of Nylander. "He's a great finisher with a lot of skill so I think he'll be able to complement Sam and myself pretty well."
70 Alexander Nylander - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
63 Tyler Ennis - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 82 Marcus Foligno
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 22 Johan Larsson - 52 Hudson Fasching
10 Cole Schneider - 27 Derek Grant - 43 Daniel Catenacci
Defensemen: 4 Josh Gorges, 34 Casey Nelson, 6 Cody Franson, 45 Brendan Guhle, 67 Brady Austin, 46 Erik Burgdoerfer
40 Robin Lehner
35 Linus Ullmark
How to watch
The game begins at 7 p.m. and can be seen live on NBCSN, or you can listen live on WGR 550 and hear Rob Ray and Dan Dunleavy on the call.