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BATHURST, N.B. — There were no rental cars left at the Bathurst airport when I landed here Tuesday afternoon, so I had to take a taxi to the Canadiens’ morning skate Wednesday at the K.C. Irving Regional Centre.
The driver who picked me up at the hotel was wearing a red Canadiens jersey with “Gallagher” and No. 11 on the back.
“Brendan Gallagher’s my favourite player,” the driver, Kevin Doucet, said with a big smile.
Wednesday night’s Kraft Hockeyville pre-season game between the Canadiens and Florida Panthers is a really big deal, not only for Bathurst, but New Brunswick as a whole.
Renous, a tiny community located about 125 kilometres from Bathurst — won the annual Kraft Hockeyville competition and will get $250,000 in much needed renovations for its 34-year-old Tom Donovan Arena, which is too small to host the game. There were events held in Renous on Tuesday, including a pep rally at Blackville School and a community celebration outside The Renous Rec Centre with former Canadiens Yvan Cournoyer and Patrice Brisebois, along with the Stanley Cup.
“I think every bar in town is showing the game tonight,” he said.
The driver had to drop me off in front of the arena because he couldn’t get into the parking lot, which was jammed. In front of the arena were approximately 2,000 people — the majority wearing red Canadiens sweaters — waiting for the team bus to arrive for the morning skate.
When the bus pulled in around 9:45 a.m., there were screams of excitement as the players, coaches and GM Marc Bergevin got the red-carpet treatment, stopping to sign autographs and pose for pictures while walking to the arena entrance. One of the fans was Don Daley, who made the 55-minute drive from his home in Miramichi with his daughters and some of their friends. He was wearing a red Canadiens sweater with “Lafleur” and No. 10 on the back.
“Guy Lafleur has always been my favourite player and I finally got to meet Kirk Muller, who is my second favourite player of all time,” the 44-year-old said. “I got to shake his hand … I’m just like the kids right now. I’m on Cloud 9.”
Daley also had a ticket to the game.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “A friend of mine won some tickets and asked me to go. This is just great. The fact that Renous was able to do this and win this Hockeyville — and it’s not just Renous, it’s the whole surrounding communities that won. My kids are getting selfies with all the players and having a blast. A lot of kids here from minor hockey … this is the time of their life.”
Some fans were also lucky enough to get tickets to the morning skate.
“There’s a lot of empty classes right now, I think,” Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said with a smile. “I saw a lot of kids out there, so it’s obviously a special day for them and it’s great. It’s a lot of fun for us to be able to come here and see the joy that you’re able to put on a lot of people’s faces.”
The Canadiens’ Jonathan Drouin played junior hockey against the Acadie-Bathurst Titan when he was with the Halifax Mooseheads and wasn’t surprised by the fan turnout.
“This is a hockey town — all the Maritimers love their Canadiens,” Drouin said. “My billets used to watch the (Canadiens) games in Halifax all the time. It’s cool to see. Obviously, they don’t get to see a Habs practice or a Habs game all the time. For us to be here and sign all that stuff for them, its something they’ll remember and we will, too.”
If he wasn’t actually playing for the Canadiens, Jesperi Kotkaniemi could have blended in with the young fans. Instead, the 19-year-old was dressed in a well-tailored blue suit with an open collar dress shirt, a fancy watch and shiny shoes.
What was his reaction when he first saw the crowd?
“I just said ‘that’s going to take a while,’ ” Kotkaniemi said with his smile. “I walked down there, but it was fun. A little bit cold outside, but it went fast and it was fun to see all the kids. They were super happy to see us and it always brings a smile to my face and I like that.”
As a rookie last season, Kotkaniemi experienced first-hand just how far the CH logo stretches with fan support.
“Wherever we went, there were fans everywhere,” he said. “It’s a big organization and we have a lot of history behind us, so I think it’s a privilege to play here. … That’s pretty great to have people out here this early in that cold weather waiting for us. That seems to mean a lot for the people.”
It certainly does.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019