Kraft Hockeyville USA 2019: Different, more of the same

Jordan Binnington
St. Louis defenseman Colton Parayko (left) and goalie Jordan Binnington get separated from a Detroit player during the third period of the Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Calumet, Michigan. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

Three years ago, I got to be part of a blockbuster event.

After covering and participating in Kraft Hockeyville USA when it came to Marquette, Michigan in 2016, I thought that would be the peak moment of exposure for the Upper Peninsula. An often-overlooked place in the country (especially by the NFL and Mountain Dew), Marquette and the U.P. outlasted several other cities and towns in a nationwide campaign to land $150,000 in upgrades for the aging Lakeview Arena, and an NHL preseason game between Buffalo and Carolina. The game was a dud (a 2-0 win by the Sabres), but the event as a whole was a success. It was something many of us up here will never forget.

Then, unexpectedly, Hockeyville came back.

Marquette, of course, had its big payday already. This time Hockeyville came to Calumet, up in the remote Copper Country of the U.P. Up here, the big announcement on NBC was met with muted excitement.

Honestly, if felt like we were getting a reboot. Remember a few years back when Hollywood decided to start a new Spider-Man saga just five years after Spider-Man 3 was released? It was called The Amazing Spider-Man and it fell short of expectations, which is what usually happens when you re-try something too soon.

When Hockeyville came to Marquette, the hoopla was huge. The entire U.P. got behind it. Reporters from various newspapers and TV channels descended on a town of 20,000, trying to offer their own unique take on the game and the experience. The reporter list in Calumet was much smaller. I was the only newspaper reporter outside the local paper’s staff that showed up; NBC wasn’t even sending Doc Emrick to do play-by-play. When I saw the crew I’d be sitting around, I felt bad. Calumet deserved its moment under the spotlight, but it wasn’t truly getting what it deserved.

For those who’ve never been to Calumet or the CC, it’s on that peninsula that juts into Lake Superior. Marquette gets dumped on when it comes to snow, but the CC bears the brunt of Superior’s wrath come wintertime. Calumet is also significantly smaller than Marquette (around 6,300 or so in population). So is its arena. Lakeview, which used to host the Northern Michigan University Division I hockey team, has a capacity of more than 3,000. The Calumet Colosseum has an official seating capacity of 700, so yeah, things were different this time around.

Calumet’s big selling point to get Hockeyville, like Marquette’s, was its long hockey history. Whereas Lakeview is at least somewhat modern, the Colosseum is the oldest continuous-ice rink on the continent. Built in 1913, it’s a stereotypical small-town arena. Its half-oval shape is that of an airplane hangar (a couple of Cessnas would max out the Colosseum’s capacity), and the bleacher seats are almost practically on top of the action. That makes for a cozy, intimidating interior that’s something to behold.

When my wife and I arrived late on the morning of the big day, the first thing we noticed was where the Colosseum was placed in town. It’s stuck in a neighborhood – like Lambeau Field, at 1/80th the size. We got up to the “media deck,” inside the back area above one of the goals. We were impressed with the view. Reporters are sitting right on top of the action, able to see the entire rink. The only drawback was that we were stuck behind glass, so we couldn’t hear a thing. The lack of an atmosphere would be really disappointing in a big way.

I didn’t come to Hockeyville to provide in-depth coverage. I’d already done that in 2016, in Marquette. Calumet is more than two hours away. I wasn’t expected to give the high quality, ultra-thorough reporting like last time. In fact, I was specifically told not to: no game previews, no interviews with NBC personalities, no behind-the-scenes peek inside the NBC broadcast truck. I went there for fun, and to compare this to the 2016 event. Calumet offered a different experience – but in a good way.

Blues goalies Jordan Binnington (left), Jake Allen (center) and Adam Wilcox (kneeling) take a break during the team’s morning skate in Calumet, Michigan during Kraft Hockeyville USA. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

Just like in Marquette, the two teams held their morning skates in front of fans who didn’t win the competition for game tickets. This was a sore spot for many Marquette residents: Calumet got the region’s favorite team, the Red Wings, along with the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues. Fans in Marquette enjoyed the Canes’ and Sabres’ skates, but there was significantly more enthusiasm for the Wings’ session. While we were getting settled in the media deck, I was told a “Let’s go Wings!” chant erupted before the team came out, which might be the first time that’s ever happened before a practice. I made it down to the ice for the last part of the Wings’ skate. You could feel how happy fans were to see Detroit show up to the U.P.

The passion for the Wings was so massive, fans left the Blues hanging. While I was interviewing Jeff Blashill, Dylan Larkin and Danny DeKeyser (I couldn’t neglect my reporting duties entirely), a good chunk of attendees headed for the exits before the Blues took the ice for their skate. When they did, the crowd reaction was significantly less than enthusiastic.

Whereas Carolina skipped its media session in Marquette (or forgot), both the Wings and Blues showed up on time in Calumet and gave us some good quotes – especially Blashill, a U.P. native from Sault Ste. Marie. The man made it clear that he loves his pasties, a U.P. delicacy, and planned to eat several while he was there. I’m not a big fan of the dish – it’s like a meat- and vegetable-filled mini-Frisbee – but I appreciated his passion for U.P. culture.

After talking to St. Louis head coach Craig Berube and forward David Perron, there was a lot of down time. Three years earlier I was typing furiously during every break I could muster. In Calumet, I had some time to kill. So I appeared on two radio shows while my wife (who skipped class for this event) worked on her homework. Finally, at about 6 p.m., fans started filing in and we got ready for the main event.

Here’s where the atmosphere issues came into play. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (another guy who didn’t come to Marquette) made a surprise appearance to present Calumet with the Hockeyville trophy before puck drop. Here, as with everywhere he goes, Bettman was booed. However, since the media were stuck in what was basically a sound-proof room, I wasn’t sure if the people of Calumet did their duty. Had I known beforehand that he was coming, I would’ve sprinted down there and led the crowd myself, but so it goes.

I may not have been able to hear a thing up there in the box, but I did get to see two unique things to Calumet. Unlike other towns, when Calumet does the national anthem, the color guard skates out on the ice, instead of shuffling to avoid biffing it in front of the crowd. The other was the Zamboni garage. Just about every hockey rink in the country opens the doors wide, like a gate, for the Zamboni to pass through. However, in Calumet, the door slides upward like the garage in an auto repair shop. It’s really cool to watch. From what people told me, it’s a real sense of pride for the town.

Dylan Larkin
Detroit’s Dylan Larkin (71) searches for the puck, while teammate Taro Hirose (67) and St. Louis’ Niko Mikkola close in during the Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Calumet, Michigan. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

The game itself started slow, but late in the period, Detroit’s Anthony Mantha brought the crowd to its feet when he one-timed a shot into the net with the Wings on the power play. Once again, I couldn’t hear a thing, but the crowd did appear to be screaming.

Things picked up in the second period, though. The Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly tied the game at 1-1 by deflecting in a shot by Perron, which was also a fun moment. O’Reilly had suited up for the Sabres when they came to Marquette. He didn’t score at Lakeview, but he became a fan favorite after speaking to kids at one of the local schools. Unfortunately for the Blues, that was their only good offensive moment. Mantha had the highlight of the game 22 seconds later when he created a turnover and beat St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington on a breakaway, sending the crowd into a visible, inaudible frenzy. The Wings’ went on to pad their lead when Michael Rasmussen sent a rebound past a diving Binnington to make it 3-1. Rasmussen made it 4-1 when he deflected Dennis Cholowski’s shot into the net. Needlessly to say, the crowd was highly entertained, especially the kids that NBC interviewed between periods.

The third period was scoreless and uneventful, but the crowd was uplifted nonetheless. The Wings ended up maintaining their 4-1 lead, and the crowd got to see significantly more offense than the last time Hockeyville was up here. When the horn sounded, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered both teams for coming to their isolated corner of the country.

In the postgame presser, Blashill, naturally, was ecstatic. His team put on a great show for the crowd, but the Blues were also in good spirits. Even though they lost, the Blues were aware that this game was more than just an exhibition. It was an important moment for a small community to shine on a national stage and for the U.P. to remind the rest of the country once again that it still exists.

After the interviews were over and my wife and I packed up our things, I watched the local reporters start cranking out their stories to beat deadline. Part of me was envious – I would have loved to write multiple features about the day, but for the most part, I wasn’t because I was just there as a fan. I got to see an NHL game up close again, maybe not as much as the first time, but it was still a moment that I’ll always take with me as my career goes forward.

The Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’” plays at Red Wings games frequently. It’s typically muted for a couple seconds, so fans can belt out the line “Born and raised in south Detroit!” (which, fun fact, is actually Windsor, Ontario). Calumet played that song as well after the final horn sounded, and it was appropriate. Hockey communities fight every year for a chance to hold this event, some of them thinking they probably have no shot of winning it, but Calumet has now proven that if a town of 6,300 people can land an NHL game, just about every town can do it with the right sales pitch.

On the surface, Hockeyville coming to the U.P. again twice in five years may have seemed like a reboot. But instead, it was a different story that just happened to include the same region of the country. Both Calumet and Marquette had their own tales to tell and I’m glad I got to hear both of them.

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