Even Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ian Cole wanted to see Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania, win the title of Kraft Hockeyville USA.
“For all the people that voted for it on Twitter, I think it’s awesome,” Cole said before the third-ever Kraft Hockeyville USA game. “I certainly voted for it as well.”
And so it came to pass.
After weeks of online voting, the Rostraver Ice Garden in Belle Vernon was named the winner of the 2017 Kraft Hockeyville competition. It was the second time in three years that a Western Pennsylvania community earned the Hockeyville USA honor, following Johnstown in 2015.
And with that honor came a nationally-televised NHL preseason game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and visiting St. Louis Blues, who came away with a 4-1 victory. The Penguins featured captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and a host of superstar teammates, including forwards Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel, defenseman Kris Letang and goaltender Matt Murray.
“It’s nice to have people have the opportunity to see a game up close like that,” Crosby said. “It was a cool atmosphere. A lot of us haven’t played a type of game like that in a long time.”
Though the Rostraver Ice Garden and Belle Vernon community were celebrated, the game itself was moved to the Lemieux Sports Complex, the Penguins’ practice facility in Cranberry Township. But the four-day Hockeyville celebration still centered around the 5,000-seat Rostraver Ice Garden.
Tickets to Sunday night’s game were distributed to members of the Belle Vernon community and the Penguins held a red-carpet autograph signing and game-day practice skate at the Rostraver Ice Garden.
“Growing up, you play in rinks like this as a kid,” Penguins forward Scott Wilson said. “I know I would’ve loved to have something like this in my hometown.”
Additional activities featured Penguins players and assistant coaches Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar, in addition to Blues alumni Al MacInnis and Martin Brodeur, who helped conduct a youth hockey clinic at the Rostraver Ice Garden. There were other highlights, too, including parades and an appearance by the Stanley Cup.
“It’s always fun to get a little closer to the fans,” said Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta. “You don’t get to interact with them that much during the season, but now you get a little more one-on-one time, which lets you know what kind of fans you have.”
Belle Vernon was one of more than 1,300 communities across the country — accounting for nearly 73 percent of the rinks nationwide — that submitted stories demonstrating the community’s passion for hockey.
The Rostraver Ice Garden first opened in 1965 and hosted Penguins training camp in the 1970s. The facility also survived a roof collapse in 2010 because of heavy snow, an event that caused damage to nearly one-third of the structure, putting the rink in need of renovations.
“It speaks volumes to the support that I got from the community,” said rink owner Jim Murphy. “It means a lot.”
The facility, initially a figure staking rink when it opened in the 1960s, will see additional support in the form of $150,000 in arena upgrades as part of its Hockeyville USA prize.
Murphy said arena officials painted the arena floor and installed a new LED lighting system, as the dimly-lit 52-year-old facility came to life with the Penguins on the ice thanks to the bright new addition. Protective mats were also added to the lobby and restrooms in addition to netting installed by the NHL. Murphy also purchased a laser system for the Zamboni, which creates a constant, steady cut, reducing ice thickness and power flow. He also purchased a new piping system for underneath the concrete surface.
“It’s awesome to see, and I’m glad to see they’re getting the arena upgrades, too,” Cole said. “That’s a huge part of it.”
It ensures a healthy hockey home for players like 9-year-old Lori Thompson of nearby Baldwin, who plays youth hockey at Rostraver with the Mon Valley Thunder.
Thompson is a goaltender who was introduced to the game through a Penguins learn-to-play program, before eventually growing to play with the Thunder in addition to the South Hills Amateur Hockey Association as a skater.
Thompson, a fan of Crosby, Malkin, Murray and former Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, prefers playing between the posts.
“When I started at South Hills, I wanted to play goalie, and they let me try, and I liked it,” said Thompson. “I like playing goal because I try really hard and make a lot of saves.”
Ann Marie Thompson, Lori’s mother, appreciated the Penguins’ visit on Sunday.
“They came to us,” said Thompson, whose daughter received the opportunity to sit on the bench during the preseason game. “Not all these kids will get the opportunity to go to the game or interact with a player, so this gives them a great opportunity to see [the Penguins] and maybe keep their drive going to play hockey.”
That drive will continue at the Rostraver Ice Garden.
Murphy, who has owned the rink for 25 years, joined a packed arena Sunday as he watched the Penguins practice with his grandchildren from “Murph’s Pub,” a restaurant that overlooks the ice surface. He’s grateful for the support and relished the opportunity to give back by bringing the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions to the facility.
“It’s huge,” Murphy said. “It’s great for the community, and you can see with the people that showed up. The human interest here, there’s a lot of support. [The Penguins] got behind us and when we got nominated, it blitzkrieged. It went from just a little to a lot, and when we got to the final 10, and then the final four, I started feeling pretty good about it. That’s the first thing I ever won in my life.”
The Rostraver Ice Garden and Belle Vernon community won, too.
“It’s really cool to see everybody out here and obviously we get a ton of support in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas,” Cole said. “They don’t get the opportunity to maybe see us or do something like this very often, so for us to come out and hopefully make a couple kids’ days, I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.