Hockey light shines on Twillingate as Senators and Canadiens head east to wrap up preseason


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TWILLINGATE, Newfoundland. – As the afternoon turned into evening on Wednesday in the Iceberg Capital of the World, space was limited inside the venerable George Hawkins Arena.

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The quaint seaside town of 2,200 on Newfoundland’s east central coast was full of pride, embracing the fact that hockey’s greatest symbol – the Stanley Cup – was on display here.

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As a coastal community, also notable as a whale-watching site, it only made sense that the Chalice arrived by ship earlier in the day as part of Kraft Hockeyville’s week-long celebrations. The Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens will take part in exhibition games on Thursday in Gander, Newfoundland. — 90 minutes south — and Saturday in Moncton, NB

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« It all started on Monday with an auction and it brought in another $10,000 for us, » said Twillingate recreation director and former mayor Grant White, who leads the organizing committee.

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“Everyone is so excited. It finally happens. We won the competition in 2020, but it was delayed due to COVID-19 and there was a bit of a wait.

« There was a lot of planning, a lot of organization, a lot of logistics to make sure everything was checked off the list. »

Over the past six months, Twillingate officials have worked closely with the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association to fine-tune the details for this unique event.

The city was also fortunate to have dodged the worst of Hurricane Fiona, which hit the southwestern corner of the province hard in late September.

« We had wind gusts of 80 or 90 kilometers per hour, but that’s normal here at this time of year, » White said.

So let’s continue the show, which included former Senators tough guy Chris Neil and Canadiens star Stéphane Richer, signing autographs next to the Cup inside the arena, which has a unique story in itself. .

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Neil, who hails from the small town of Flesherton, Ontario, always relishes the opportunity to get back to the base of the game whenever possible, and he was in his glory, signing and smiling. He went so far as to sign the sporting colors of the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, acknowledging what the event means to the region.

A major financial windfall came with Hockeyville’s victory. In addition to receiving $250,000 from Kraft for upgrades to the arena, which also serves as a community center, Twillingate has also leveraged that sum for an additional $1.2 million from the governments of Newfoundland and Canada.

The arena can definitely use the facelift. In many ways, « The George » is an inspiring story about the power of community spirit.

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The structure was originally used as an airport hangar in Gander.

« The George » has survived the test of time in Twillingate and will receive a facelift thanks to the Kraft Hockeyville title win. Photo by Ken Warren /Postmedia

It was bought for $1, and volunteers worked two-week shifts to dismantle the building’s framework piece by piece, shipping them all — by train and boat — to Twillingate.

It was later rebuilt as an arena in 1969 and named after George Hawkins, who played a pivotal role in the move project.

With countless cobwebs here and endless roles of duct tape there, the place has somehow survived the harshest wild winter conditions and the trials of time, staying alive as a central meeting place and home to the Twillingate Combines and Island Blades Figure hockey teams. Skating club.

As the Hockey Canada scandal hangs like a dark cloud over the sport in the country, Twillingate and its arena’s history shines a bright light.

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« It really is a great story, » White said. « We get 500-700 fans for some of the senior games. »

The Rideout family couldn’t miss the opportunity to enjoy it all. Ten-month-old Jacob Rideout, dressed in Senators gear, was on hand Wednesday, having his jersey autographed by Neil. Rideout’s parents, Melissa and Nick, and grandmother, Debbie, were also in attendance.

« It’s not often you get to see an NHL game, » said Nick, a lifelong Senators fan who has always been a big fan of Neil. « To bring them this close, for all the families here, as excited as they are, and to see the game in Gander, that’s pretty exciting. »

The arena isn’t big enough to hold an NHL game, but if it were possible, the whole town would head to Gander’s Steele Community Center on Thursday, where the capacity is 1,100. Rideout considers itself lucky to have a pair of tickets to the game in Gander.

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Gander, which housed 10,000 Canadian, American and British servicemen during World War II, was used as a refueling point for transatlantic flights between New York and London.

After the 9/11 attacks on New York shut down American airspace, Gander took 38 civilian flights and the community expanded to accommodate 6,700 evacuees for a week.

This compelling story of community involvement was the inspiration for the hit Broadway musical Come From Away.

None of this comes as a shock to Senators coach DJ Smith, who has experienced first-hand the open-mindedness of Newfoundlanders.

Smith, who played for the St. John’s Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League from 1997 to 2002, fondly recalls how he was treated as a young player.

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« I had the chance to play five years in Newfoundland, » said Smith. « They are some of the nicest people in the world and these (players) will see that. »

Smith is one of the few to have been on the ice in Gander.

“We played exhibition games in Gander,” he said. “I’ve been to all parts of Newfoundland. I drove home, I took the plane, I took the ferry. Five years is a long time, but honestly, every year a family invites you to dinner in Newfoundland. They are the nicest people on earth.

Senators center Josh Norris is also looking forward to reuniting with family members.

His father, former NHL player Dwayne Norris, was a native of St. John’s.

During the final stages of negotiations before young Norris signed his eight-year contract extension this summer, he was vacationing with his family here.

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“My grandmother has a cabin in Gander,” he says. “I have been there several times, just to visit family. It will be a fun homecoming.

Norris admits, however, that he did not previously know that Gander had an arena.

Following Thursday’s game, the Senators and Canadiens will travel to Moncton for their final preseason tune-up before games begin in earnest Oct. 13 in Buffalo.

Understandably, it’s a tense time for bubble players trying to secure a spot in the opening day roster, but Smith also says the trip east offers a breath of fresh air. fresh from the Atlantic Ocean compared to the routine of the long season.

It might just be pre-season hockey, but it’s big business here. The Senators and Canadiens players will receive the red carpet as they arrive for practice at the Steele Community Center on Thursday and the JK Irving Center in Moncton on Saturday.

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A select group of lucky minor hockey players will also have the chance to skate alongside NHL players.

« It’s something different and 82 games is a long time, with a lot of the same things and we’ve never done this before with this group and stayed all night, » Smith said.

“And going back to the community a bit too. We will invite a few teams to our practice and see different things.

On Friday at Elsipongtog First Nation in New Brunswick, Neil, Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier and three-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist Joceylne Larocque will sign autographs.

The star attraction will also continue to be part of it. This time, the Stanley Cup will not arrive by boat. Instead, he will parade down the road, from the Rexton Lions Nursing Home to the Chief Young Eagle Recreation Center, on a float.

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