SUN Hockey Pool

Grassroots hockey fest

KIRK PENTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:08 AM ET

WINNIPEG -- Winkler is ready to take centre stage.

The southern Manitoba city will serve as the host today for CBC's eighth annual Hockey Day in Canada broadcast, and its residents don't plan on letting a forecasted blizzard ruin the show.

"We're excited," Winkler mayor Martin Harder said yesterday. "It's a jam-packed day full of activities, and we're looking forward to it.

"We're a little fearful of (today's weather). When you think of these poor little kids out on all these outdoor rinks that we have in the city, it's going to be a little chilly."

While it might be a little frigid for host Ron MacLean and Don Cherry, HDIC executive Joel Darling expects the annual celebration of all things hockey will continue to take on a life of its own.

"It's grown so much," said Darling, who has produced seven of the eight HDICs. "The reason being is that we've tried to turn it into more than just the 13 hours of broadcast over the last few years.

"Now it's not just the Saturday broadcast. It involves all the clinics and the school visits and all kinds of things like that over the course of the three days."

The festivities began on Thursday with a wide variety of events, including a visit by hometown hero Dustin Penner of the Edmonton Oilers, clinics conducted by Wendel Clark and Cassie Campbell, and hockey games at all age levels.

Tonight's Manitoba Junior Hockey League game between the Winkler Flyers and Selkirk Steelers will even get some airtime.

"There's no doubt the whole town is abuzz," said Emerado Centennial School principal Garth Doerksen. "It's probably one of the biggest events we'll ever see in Winkler for quite some time."

Darling believes HDIC works best in locations the size of Winkler, which has a burgeoning population of approximately 10,000.

"It becomes a few days where it really takes over the town," he said. "When you bring in people like Don and Ron and Kelly and Craig Simpson and Cassie ... in a place like this, they'll see the ACC on television or GM Place and things like this, but they don't get close.

"Wendel Clark's out on the ice right now and working with all these kids and putting them through clinics. He's standing around, and kids can walk up and get his autograph."

Penner, who has gone back to Alberta to play for the Oilers against Calgary tonight, agreed with Darling about HDIC's ability to thrive just about anywhere north of the 49th; he's just thankful his hometown gets its place in the spotlight.

"It's the same thing that draws people to hockey anywhere in Canada. It's the national sport," Penner said Thursday.

"Everybody grows up watching hockey, dreaming of playing in the NHL, and hopefully this will just make a big impact in Winkler and get more people playing hockey."

Those taking in the broadcast on TV will get the best of both worlds: three NHL games involving Canadian teams (a fourth is available on the Internet if you have mastered the art of watching two contests at once) as well as numerous features about grassroots hockey from across the country.

Activities begin in Winkler bright and early this morning, and the broadcast hits the airwaves at 11 a.m.


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