SYLVAN LAKE — This was the centre of the hockey universe on Wednesday.
If it was ever in doubt, the appearance of NHL broadcasting legend Don Cherry at a special Kraft Hockeyville-organized pre-game tilt between the Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes at the town arena made it official.
Nattily attired as always — this time in a red and green plaid suit — Cherry wasted no time in making friends.
“This place here is Canada as far as I’m concerned,” Cherry proclaimed to thunderous cheers from a standing room-only crowd of about 1,000.
Outside, at least another 1,000 gathered to watch the game on a big screen from the comfort of their lawn chairs. The area around the rink was turned into a giant street party, with games, food, music and plenty of free swag courtesy of the Calgary Flames and Kraft Canada.
“It’s awesome. We’re really loving it,” said Angela Kosolofski, who brought her son, niece and nephew down. They came prepared with lawn chair and a blanket for the big game, which started shortly before 5:30 p.m.
Brandee O’Toole was one of a group of nine adults and youngsters that were gathering downtown.
She was one of the lucky ticket winners and passed it on to her 16-year-old daughter who was “totally pumped” to get in to the game.
“She’s taking her boyfriend, who’s a big Calgary Flames fan.”
Jon Caines was even luckier. He was walking around the site with his son Trent, five, and daughter Hannah, nine, when an NHL representative offered them free game tickets.
“We’re having a great time of course,” said Jon. “It’s exciting.”
The family also took in last Sunday’s Fun Day, which drew about 1,000. Hannah said the bouncy castle was her favourite activity but has enjoyed the whole experience.
“I like how the town came all together,” she said.
Brandon Slade, 10, was another lucky game ticket holder after his mom’s name was chosen in the lottery.
“It was great because it’s a one-in-a-lifetime-thing,” he said as he headed into the arena.
Zach Daniels, 13, was also in the stands.
“I thought it was cool to see the NHL on our ice,” said the Bantam AA player.
“It’s awesome. TV doesn’t even come close to watching it live.”
Sylvan Lake was crowned Kraft Hockeyville by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a ceremony last April.
The town received more than 2.5 million votes defeating runner up Kingston, N.S. by 108,164 votes.
It was the result of a huge community volunteer effort. At the centre of the town’s bid was its compelling tale of misfortune — losing one of its two arenas to a snow-laden roof collapse in January.
Gayle White came to Wednesday’s game prepared in hopes of catching Don Cherry’s eye. She sported a large sandwich board that said: “Don Cherry you tell no lies when it comes to hockey you are so wise.”
Her homage to “Grapes” did not go unnoticed by the colourful personality, who pointed her out to TV cameras.
White said Hockeyville and the collapse of the arena showed the community’s spirit. Down to one arena, families scrambled to car pool to take youngsters to surrounding arenas.
“The town really came together.”
Besides the perk of hosting a pre-season NHL game, the town received $100,000, which has already been earmarked for a new $30-million multiplex.
Sylvan Lake Mayor Sean McIntyre was enthusiastic about the local response to its challenges.
“It’s totally incredible. The volunteers have done an amazing job on bringing the community together,” said the mayor, decked out in a Kraft Hockeyville souvenir game jersey.
“We’re so grateful for the game. We’re so grateful for the $100,000. But the real win, the real benefit to us is the community spirit.”
Kraft Canada’s Irene Daley applauded Sylvan Lake’s effort.
“I’m from Edmonton and just coming back to Alberta and seeing the passion and spirit of Sylvan Lake is just incredible,” said Daley, director of portfolio marketing.
“For them to support a program like Kraft Hockeyville, is really a testament to this community and how passionate they are about hockey, and more importantly, how passionate they are about their community.”