Hockey Day 'talk of town'

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

Jolly old St. Nick has some serious competition these days for the hearts and thoughts of a struggling Newfoundland town.

Such is the power and prestige of Hockey Day in Canada, which will set up shop in the town of Stephenville, N.L., on Jan. 7 for the CBC's day-long puck extravaganza.

"It's probably surpassed discussions about Santa Claus," Stephenville town councillor Darren Roberts said earlier this week. "That's all the kids talk about here now.

"It's not Christmas. It's Hockey Day in Canada."

Truth be told, Stephenville can use a little of the magic Hockey Day brings to the event's host community. The town of 8,000 on Newfoundland's west coast was badly scarred by floods in September. Mere hours after Wednesday's CBC conference call to promote Hockey Day, word was received that Abitibi-Consolidated is shutting down its Stephenville paper mill, putting more than 300 people out of work.

Yet, while the mill's future lay in the balance during a lengthy labour dispute, several of its employees eagerly signed up to be a part of Hockey Day. It'll be a small town's day in the sun, with the entire country looking on as Ron MacLean and Don Cherry host activities from the Stephenville Dome.

"We're going through some trying times, but it is certainly not overshadowing Hockey Day in Canada. It's the talk of the town," said Roberts, calling it "a once in a lifetime thing."

"I've got a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old. It's all they talk about and it's all their friends talk about."

Native Newfoundlander Bob Cole, Hockey Night in Canada's longtime lead play-by-play voice, still calls St. John's home. He agrees the timing for Hockey Day couldn't be better for the people of Stephenville.

"Hockey Day has taken away the sting, at least for the moment," he said. "It's been a bit of a godsend."

The annual 'celebration of the game' -- which was cancelled by the NHL lockout last season -- is a big part of what the CBC believes is its commitment to grow the game in Canada.

NEW EQUIPMENT

Already, Hockey Day has done its part in Stephenville. With the assistance of the NHL Players' Association, 20 sets of new equipment were delivered to minor hockey players in the town who lost theirs during the floods.

"One kid said he thought he had better equipment than Mats Sundin," said Joel Darling, Hockey Night's executive producer.

Enrolment in Stephenville Minor Hockey has grown from 145 to about 200 since it was announced Hockey Day was coming to town. There has been a 20% increase in the number of hockey officials, Roberts added.

While Stephenville is the centre of the Jan. 7 activities, live CBC remotes will also be set up in Parry Sound, Florenceville, N.B., Winkler, Man., Burnaby, B.C., and Calgary.

Feature stories are also being filed from coast to coast, including one by CBC Ottawa's Dan Seguin, entitled Beating the Odds, about how hockey is helping Kanata's Nadine and Rob Redman raise two sons afflicted with cystic fibrosis.

Of course, there's also an NHL tripleheader -- Senators-Canadiens in Montreal at 2 p.m., followed later by Leafs at Oilers (7 p.m., also in HD format) and Flames-Canucks in Vancouver (10 p.m.).

Throughout the 131/2-hour presentation, though, all roads will eventually lead back to Stephenville.

A town that, perhaps more than any before it, embodies the spirit of what Hockey Day is all about.


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