JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper is a strong proponent for the Kraft Hockeyville USA event, contested in Canada for the better part of a decade.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, proved Tuesday night an ideal location to serve as the first-ever Kraft Hockeyville USA.
The historic city, located about 90 minutes east of Pittsburgh, came together in the spring and secured the honor during a nationwide competition. That earned Johnstown the right to a nationally-televised NHL preseason hockey game Tuesday between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning at the famed Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
“I think it’s really important to do this in the United States,” Cooper said. “They’ve done it in Canada and it’s been a smashing success, but to do it in the U.S. and to see what’s going on now is huge for the game.
“You’re probably going to get a little nervous because this is the inaugural event in the U.S., but if this is any indication, it’s a big-time success. Hopefully, they continue because this does nothing but help the game.”
The Penguins ultimately prevailed, 4-2, as fans in attendance had the chance to see superstars like Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Olli Maatta, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Callahan, among others, shine in action.
This event was more than just Tuesday night’s preseason tilt though.
“The hockey world needs to keep growing fans,” Kunitz said. “We need to be able to show people the high skill the game brings.
“Maybe there’s one kid out there who starts skating, then picks up a hockey stick and becomes the next superstar.”
Thousands braved heavy rains during a red carpet event in the morning as the NHL stars signed autographs on their way into the quaint Cambria County War Memorial Arena, which underwent a $150,000 facelift, renovations only made possible because of the contest.
Thousands more packed the historic 4,000-seat facility for the morning skate and the arena was filled to capacity for Tuesday night’s game, overflowing with emotion for NHL action in a city with a steeped hockey tradition that spans more than 60 years.
“This is something special,” Penguins’ defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “You can see how much this means to the community. I think no one in the town of Johnstown is at work today because they’re all either outside, in here watching practice or trying to be part of this.
“It’s so cool that the guys in this room are able to come in and see this passionate community. Guys are excited to be part of this.”
Fans were just as excited.
Aidan Rice, 11, plays for the local Johnstown Warriors, which had a chance to test the Hockeyville USA ice a day earlier at the War Memorial Arena. Rice also had the opportunity to meet Malkin, who autographed his No. 71 replica jersey in the white center of the Penguins’ crest.
“I never met him before,” Rice said, his eyes widening as he recalled his meeting with Malkin, who had the fans in a tizzy when he scored the eventual game-winner in the second period.
“He was tall. It was great to see him.”
Luka Goughnour, 13, of Johnstown, had a puck signed by Malkin and Kunitz.
“I met Kunitz, but never Malkin before,” Goughnour said. “I’m a huge Penguins’ fan. It’s pretty cool, the interactions and just them noticing me and writing their names on my hockey puck is really special.”
For Lovejoy, that’s what it’s all about.
“I think this is how you build fans,” he said. “They’re building young fans. That’s the demographic the NHL wants. You can see the impressions both teams are making on young fans.”
The players appreciated the event just as much.
Stamkos had his photo taken with the famed Hanson Brothers, fabled characters from “Slap Shot,” the wildly-popular cult classic hockey movie, filmed party at the Cambria County War Memorial.
“To have the game here, obviously you see all the support of the fans coming out and really that’s what it’s all about,” Stamkos said. “It’s for the fans, it’s for the people of Johnstown that obviously have worked very hard to get something like this and deserve it.
“You don’t get the chance to see players up close like this every day. It’s great to see the community come together and support an event like this.”
The event was a true celebration of hockey, and not just an exhibition between the hometown Penguins and visiting Lightning. Johnstown was able to capture the spirit.
“This is a special place and we’ve been welcomed so warmly,” Lightning forward Brian Boyle said. “It shows the game is growing and there are passionate fans all over the place.
“We appreciate those fans, and even though the crowd will be predominantly Penguins’ fans, they welcomed us warmly, asking for autographs, saying ‘good luck this season,’ ‘stay healthy.’ It was a wonderful welcome for us.
“It goes a long way and it impressed me.”
It was all part of a successful initial Hockeyville USA celebration. And Johnstown, Pennsylvania was the perfect host.
“I remember when we were approached to do this game and we thought about it internally, ‘do we want to do the extra exhibition?” Cooper said. “And the benefits of what this game means, not just to ourselves, but to the hockey community, the NHL and Johnstown, Pennsylvania far outweighed playing an extra exhibition.
“It’s well worth it and I’m so glad we came to this.”