My time at Kraft Hockeyville USA.

Photo by Ryan Stieg
Photo by Ryan Stieg

The crowd slowly filed into the old but refurbished arena last Tuesday night, eager for the main event. They had been anticipating it for months and after a long process, the big game had finally arrived in Marquette, Michigan.

Most of those fans had been in Lakeview Arena before, some back during its glory days of the eighties and nineties where the thin tin roof held in the noise of the raucous crowds that made opposing teams nervous to face Northern Michigan on the road.

However, Lakeview had seen better days since then. The roof was rickety, the compressor didn’t work properly, the Zamboni needed to be upgraded and then there was the smell. It was the foul stench of sweaty hockey gear that lingered around the rink, surrounding it like an invisible cloud that was inescapable no matter where you ventured.

Improvements to the arena had been needed for years, but money is hard to come by in an isolated small town located in the heart of the Upper Peninsula. To be able to complete all of the tasks that the city hoped to accomplish, it would take years unless it received a massive donation to speed up the process. Last April, that’s exactly what Marquette got.

For those that don’t know, there is a competition every year put on by Kraft and the NHL to find the one town in America that epitomizes Hockeyville. The sweepstakes has been going on for more than a decade in Canada. Last year, Kraft decided to create an event in the U.S. and it went over insanely well. Towns across the country put in their bid for the title in hopes of winning the $150,000 jackpot that could be used for modernizing and upgrading their arenas. Eventually, the list was weeded down to 10 towns, then four and finally, one. When the announcement was made on live TV during an NHL on NBC broadcast, the hundreds of people gathered inside Lakeview erupted in cheers. As a result of their win, not only would Marquette receive the money, but it would host an NHL exhibition game in October to cap off the festivities.

So after months of planning and modifications, Marquette was ready to be placed on a national stage. Even though the game between Buffalo and Carolina wasn’t going to take place until that evening, some fans who didn’t win the drawing for free tickets were allowed to watch the two teams’ morning skate inside Lakeview. I arrived at the arena just as the sun was starting to peak over the horizon and fans young and old lined up along the entrance to greet the arriving teams. After obtaining our media passes, my wife and I walked outside to watch the teams come in. Carolina arrived first, and the Hurricanes were mobbed by kids asking for autographs and for pictures with the players. My wife snapped away, getting her own photos for both the newspaper and her collection.

We both followed the players in and made our way up to the second deck to watch the Canes practice. Even though it was only a morning skate, the crowd made sure to cheer nice plays and a slick save by goalie Cam Ward drew a round of applause. Also during this time, I got to interact with the NBC Sports tandem of Doc Emrick and Pierre McGuire — both of whom were ecstatic to be there, as was broadcaster Liam McHugh, whose wife grew up in Marquette. When even the people who were in charge of praising your town to a national audience are excited, you know it’s going to be a fun night.

Buffalo Sabres Hockeyville
Photo by Ryan Stieg

After Carolina wrapped up its practice, I made my way to the media room to wait for them to arrive for interviews. Unfortunately, due to a communication mishap (or in my opinion, sheer idiocy) the Canes skipped out on the media session despite being mandated to do so. I had several difficulties dealing with Carolina’s media relations staff over the past two weeks, so this was not surprising to me at all. While this mess was going on, my wife was off taking photos of Buffalo’s practice. The Sabres were late getting to the arena; their plane had just landed when the Canes arrived at Lakeview. I caught the tail end of Buffalo’s morning skate, where 19-year old phenom Jack Eichel pleased the kids in the crowd with some fancy moves. Once the Sabres were finished, the NHL was desperate to make up for Carolina ditching us by bringing Eichel into the media session along with fellow forward Marcus Foligno and head coach Dan Bylsma. Buffalo was more than willing to offer assistance and respond to whatever we needed. Even though we were all supposed to be unbiased, I got the feeling that most of my friends in the media were starting to pull for the Sabres.

The practice sessions were fun, but it was clear everybody’s focus was on the game. As the crowd started to get settled, I watched some of the Sabres engage in a soccer juggling battle that evolved into an intense one-on-one affair. Even with the game starting in less than an hour, the team was having fun, which was appropriate for a night like this.

As I sat in my chair on the media deck, I had a great view of not only the ice but the people around it. Squished tightly together, they all leaped to their feet when the Hurricanes came onto the ice and gave the team a standing ovation. The cheers began again about 30 seconds later when the Sabres came out of their locker room and didn’t stop until the PA announcer introduced the twin sisters that would sing the national anthem. After a truly awesome rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, followed by another loud ovation (this would be a trend throughout the evening), all I could do during all of this was smile. Ever since I arrived here, I was told that this was a hockey town and it was fully on display.

The first period was kind of a dud with both teams deterred by the goalies. The two main highlights were Carolina ringing a loud shot off the pipe and Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner making a eye-popping glove save that drew a “Wow” from the section in front of me. With the scored tied at 0-0, I made my way out the back of the arena for my fourth writing assignment of the night.

Before the game started, I got a guided tour of the NBC broadcasting truck, where I learned how the process of instant replay worked, how graphics were put together, how the crew communicated with Emrick, McGuire and McHugh, and how scores got put up on the ticker at the top of your television screens. Now I was going back out there again, this time to watch it done live.

It was a different experience watching it all come together. NBC told me that they were hoping a goal would be scored while I was in there so I could write about it. Sure enough, it happened soon after the second period started when Nicolas Deslauriers shot his own rebound past Ward’s blocker. Watching the crew jump into the action quickly and putting together a flawless transition of the replay (they get a shot of the play setting up, a close-up or wide-view of the shot, then a reaction from the crowd) was really cool. The producer joked with me beforehand saying that when it’s perfect nobody notices, but people get upset whenever the crew screws it up. So next time you’re watching a goal scored on TV, keep in mind that about a dozen people just made sure you saw exactly what you wanted to see.

I also got to see the process of replaying a penalty on the screen and what should have been a goal before the first commercial break. During a scrum in front of the Buffalo net, a Hurricane forward tucked the puck under Lehner’s leg pad and into the net. Unfortunately for Carolina, the refs blew the play dead. The puck crossed the line before the whistle. If this was a regular season game, a call might go to Toronto for a ruling from the league’s control room. Since this was an exhibition ruling, the Canes couldn’t dispute it and ask for a replay. Carolina would end up hitting three more pipes during the course of the game, so the non-goal was just another thing to add to a frustrating night.

After my behind-the-scenes look, I made it up to the media deck just in time to watch Buffalo get its second goal when Sam Reinhart deflected a shot by Casey Nelson over Ward’s shoulder. This time, I got to see the crowd’s reaction to a goal and it was priceless. The fans directly in front of me cheered wildly when the horn sounded and the kids excitedly clapped when it was announced that Eichel got an assist on the play. Buffalo later skated into the locker room with a 2-0 lead. Even though the fans were obviously enjoying themselves, I could tell they were hoping for Carolina to make a game of it in the third period.

Kraft Hockeyville USA
Photo by Ryan Stieg

Their hopes were dashed when Lehner continued to shut down the Canes offensively. Later in the period, Carolina’s frustrations boiled over as Brandon Jacobs got into a spirited tussle with a Buffalo player in my corner of the ice. As Jacobs rose from the ice and complained to one of the refs, Foligno skated over and the two almost came to blows. The crowd, especially the inebriated fellows below me, were practically pleading for a fight to break out. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and Jacobs was quietly escorted to the penalty box.

In the final 90 seconds, Ward was pulled for an extra attacker and Carolina continued to ring shots off the posts. One of them almost trickled in behind Lehner. None went in, and Buffalo got a hard-earned win. When the final horn sounded, the entire arena rose in a wave and gave both teams another standing ovation that lasted for a full minute with a few whistles thrown in for good measure. After the players presented jerseys to a lucky group of people — mostly kids of course, including one who got his from Eichel — the crowd slowly made its way to the exits. Some fans seemed hesitant to leave, as if they didn’t want the night to end. Some remained in their seats, either taking some final photos or just taking in what they had experienced not only that night, but over the course of the last few months.

I had to sprint down the hallway to catch some players from Carolina. Once again, we were promised that the Canes would be stopping by the media room. Of course, they decided not to. (Thanks again, Carolina.) I snagged Jordan Staal for a quick interview before I raced back to Buffalo’s press conference. Each Sabres player talked about how happy he was to participate in the event and Bylsma was all smiles when he got in front of the camera. A Michigan native, he was thrilled to find out that Marquette won and that his team would be participating in the game and made sure to say so during the interview.

Once everything was finished I slowly gathered my things, and the wife and I made our way to the exits. Like the fans, I also didn’t want to leave. I’d just experienced something truly magical: a town that loved hockey was handsomely rewarded for doing so. A population of 21,000 banded together for an entire summer to prepare for this massive event and reaped the spoils in one night, watching professional athletes perform right in front of them.

After reflecting on what I saw, I remembered that I still had five stories to write in what ended up being a 22-hour work day. So I reluctantly walked out of the arena. As we made our way to our car, I saw people lining up again outside the Sabres’ bus, hoping to get one last autograph, photo or just a glimpse of the players before they left. Before I started the engine and pulled out of the lot, I made sure to look back at Lakeview one more time. I’ll be coming back there soon for high school hockey season, but this was something that will never happen again in this town. As we drove away, I smiled. I was lucky to be a part of it.

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