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The competition winner will get $250,000 for arena improvements, which would be a boon for the struggling community.
Melissa Spenard arrived at the Centre Sportif Promutuel in Huntingdon Friday morning with her two daughters and two sons.
The boys (Thies, 10, and Bas, 6) play hockey; the girls (Nelleke, 12, and Mieke, 8) figure skate. Their family uses the arena several times a week from early fall to spring.
That’s why they, and most other citizens in this small town 75 kilometres southwest of Montreal, have their fingers crossed that Huntingdon will be named the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville Sunday during the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.
Huntingdon is facing off against three other communities — High River, Alta., Lafleche, Sask., and Lucan, Ont. — for the honour, which includes the title, the privilege of hosting an NHL preseason game next season, and a cheque for $250,000 for arena improvements.
Voting takes place until Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
“Sure, everybody needs a donation of money, but our arena, we need it more than anything,” Spenard said. “We’re a community that’s been very hard hit in the last couple of years.”
Huntingdon was once home to the Cleyn & Tinker and Huntingdon textile mills. When the mills closed in 2004 and 2005, more than 2,000 jobs were eliminated — a big blow for a community of about 2,500.
“The economic impact has been disastrous,” said Heather L’Heureux, president of the inter-municipal arena committee that submitted the Hockeyville bid Jan. 3 and thanked St. Patrick when Huntingdon was chosen as a finalist March 17.
“We have to keep our ice available for the youth,” she said. “We cannot put (the fee for renting) our ice up like in other arenas to $200 to $300 an hour, because we would have nobody.”
As is the case in many Canadian communities, the arena is more than a sports facility. The town’s profile on the Hockeyville website says: “Every small town has its ‘place.’ In our winters, that ‘place’ is the arena. There’s hockey every day: old-timers, women’s league, school teams, and of course the Huskies. … It’s the arena, and hockey, that brings everyone together.”
L’Heureux estimates that 22,000 people use the arena over the course of the winter, from Ormstown to the east to St-Anicet and Dundee to the west. Nine communities co-own the arena; those nine and two other communities use the facility.
“If we didn’t have our arena, we would have to travel over an hour to play hockey and figure skate,” Spenard said.
Paula Larocque, director general of the arena, logs between 60 and 70 hours a week at the facility. “I do everything except drive the Zamboni,” she said.
Larocque says the Hockeyville prize would help with one of the greatest needs at the arena: replacing the archaic refrigeration system, which was installed 44 years ago.
“I think it’s the oldest one in Canada,” L’Heureux said. “It is on life support.”
L’Heureux was happy Quebec’s recent budget included a $433,000 grant through the education ministry, but knows the nine municipalities that own the arena must match the grant. With a Hockeyville win, L’Heureux would need around $200,000 from those municipalities to make up the difference.
Gaétan Myre is 76 and has been playing in the Friday morning men’s league at the arena beside 60-year-old Gaétan Taillefer for decades.
“We had to use a shovel one time,” said Taillefer of playing 30-plus years ago.
Eric Gibeault, 53, plays in the Friday league in addition to leagues on Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday when he’s not bringing his three hockey-playing sons to the arena.
What would he do if the arena weren’t there?
“I don’t know,” he enthused. “It serves so much more than just the Huntingdon population, because the people that play here come from Dundee all the way to Howick. It’s a huge territory.”
Atom C Husky hockey player Thies Neiwwenhof gave a simple reason why people should vote for Huntingdon in the Hockeyville contest.
“We need the money more than every other place,” he said.
The public can vote to choose the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville winner until 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31. Visit krafthockeyville.ca to vote online; you can also vote in person at the Huntingdon high school and the adult education and community centre. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will announce the winner during the first intermission of the second Hockey Night in Canada game Saturday, March 31.