You can call Dryden, Ont., by many names and never be wrong. The forest capital of Canada. Heaven on Earth for hunters and fishermen. That city with the big moose for a mascot (nickname: Max).
But these days, Dryden has one handle and one handle only.
It is the hometown of Stanley Cup finalist Chris Pronger, the local kid who played his minor hockey at the Dryden Arena and is now the defensive mainstay of the Edmonton Oilers, the only Canadian-based team still competing.
That Mr. Pronger has reached the Stanley Cup final after 12 years in the National Hockey League is reason enough for the good people of Dryden to celebrate.
That the Oilers may win, thereby assuring a summer visit from hockey's most celebrated trophy, has sent this Northwestern Ontario outpost (population 8,300) over the moon.
"It's pretty exciting for the city," gushes Mayor Anne Krassilowsky, who lives two blocks from where Mr. Pronger grew up. "We're so excited we can hardly stand it."
That sense of giddiness prevails elsewhere across the land because the Oilers boast a roster of Stanley Cup hopefuls from some of the most unassuming places known to Mapquest. Centre Jarret Stoll was born in Melville, Sask. Netminder Dwayne Roloson is from Simcoe, Ont. Defenceman Marc-André Bergeron is from St-Louis-de-France, Que.
Small-town Canada has long been the hotbed for NHL talent and has provided perhaps the best lessons in geography. How else would Canadians know of Floral, Sask., without it being the home of Gordie Howe?
Flin Flon, Man., has the bragging rights to Bobby Clarke. Inverness, N.S., rolled out Al MacInnis. Parry Sound, Ont., is where Bobby Orr grew up. Murray Harbour, PEI, claims Brad Richards and Thurso, Que., has Guy Lafleur.
Throughout the nation, hockey heroes, especially those who have fought for and won the Cup, have put their hometowns on the map better than any cartographer.
Come playoff time, small-town fans cheer and cry with the sporting sons who may have moved away but still carry their city's honour. Even after Stanley Cup euphoria has subsided, town officials assemble permanent monuments to commemorate the successes and inspire others.
"The reaction to hockey people and the game is very Canadian," says veteran broadcaster and hockey historian Dick Irvin, best known as the voice of the Montreal Canadiens.
"Foster Hewitt used to say, 'Hello Canada and hockey fans,' " Mr. Irvin says, doing a remarkable imitation of the legendary broadcaster. "It wasn't just Toronto. It wasn't just Vancouver, Winnipeg. It was Canada. That's the key, I think. Everybody feels a part of it."
Case in point: The road sign at the village of Val Marie, Sask. (pop. 134), welcomes visitors to the prairie dog capital and the gateway to Grasslands National Park.
But take a quick trip around this community in the southwest corner of the province and there are signs everywhere indicating Val Marie is most proud of one thing: Bryan Trottier comes from here.
On the highway, there's an aging billboard with peeling paint dedicated to Mr. Trottier. The local rink bears his name. Inside, there's a Trottier trophy case. The visitor centre has more Trottier memorabilia. Recently, a billboard went up on the main street listing Mr. Trottier's many accomplishments, including his six Stanley Cup wins as a player and another as an assistant coach.
Vickie Reid went to elementary school and high school with Mr. Trottier and she remembers him being as dedicated to hockey as he was to his studies.
His influence on local hockey and his role as an ambassador for the village continues, she explains. Nor has he forgotten his roots.
During a reunion last July to celebrate Saskatchewan's centennial, Mr. Trottier brought the community what it craved: the Stanley Cup.
"That was just magic," recalls Ms. Reid, who has been involved with the Val Marie recreation board for years. "He stood there all day for two days with people wanting their pictures taken with him and the Cup."
The Stanley Cup, which had never before been to Val Marie, was made available during last season's NHL labour dispute. Ms. Reid figures the trophy will never be back. Then again, gifted players have shown they can come from any place, big or small, as long as there's ice.
"In small towns," Ms. Reid notes, "there's not a lot to do in winter."
Indeed. Just to the north of Val Marie is the even smaller village of Cadillac (pop. 95), which also displays its hockey pride. Beside the village's welcome sign is a hand-painted billboard that reads, "Home of Mark Lamb. '89 '90. Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup Champion's."
It's of no consequence, it seems, that Mr. Lamb's birthplace is just to the east, in Ponteix (pop. 550), the place most often referred to in the hockey press as his hometown.
Weathered billboards and monuments dedicated to players of bygone eras dot the Canadian countryside, but the tradition has gained steam in recent years.
"A lot of it has to do now with the fact these small towns now get to see the Stanley Cup," Mr. Irvin explains.
"I have mixed emotions about that, being an old-timer, but at the same time, it means so much to the people."
According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, players were first allowed to spend a day with the Cup in 1995. But in light of several well-documented misadventures, there are now strict rules about where the trophy can go. Strip bars, casinos and skydiving, for example, are out of the question.
Whatever the regulations, Dryden is beside itself in anticipation of a Stanley Cup visit. To outsiders, the stopover city between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay is best known for its pulp-and-paper mill, which has undergone major downsizing, as well as for the 1989 plane crash that killed 24 people.
To locals, though, theirs is the place where Mr. Pronger and his older brother, Sean, grew up playing pond hockey and watching Hockey Night in Canada while dreaming improbable dreams.
"I don't think I ever told friends or other people growing up that I was one day going to play in the Stanley Cup final," Chris Pronger says.
"You have dreams, of course. When we played street hockey, we were in the Stanley Cup final. But the main goal back then was to just make it to the NHL."
Now the goal is to become a Stanley Cup champion, a distinction that will delight not only Mr. Pronger and his family but the thousands back home who will follow his every move and dream their own dreams, beginning tonight, with the first game in the playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"Oh my gosh, wouldn't we be excited?" Ms. Krassilowsky says of an Oilers victory and what it would mean to Dryden. "It would absolutely be just outstanding."