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Fans react to a hit in the corner during the first period of the game between the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Fans react to a hit in the corner during the first period of the game between the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)


NHL returns to its roots, at least for a night Add to ...

This year's Kraft Hockeyville celebration was a reminder that small-town hockey is one more vanishing piece of Canadian culture.

Oh, there were the usual features of this joint promotion between the food company, the NHL, the NHLPA and the CBC, which handed off the telecast of a preseason game Tuesday between the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres to TSN. The town arena in Dundas, Ont., is standard for its type - a smallish 190-foot by 80-foot ice surface overlooked by a wood-panelled room with dozens of pictures of local championship teams going back more than 50 years. The Sabres and Senators were stacked two deep on the tiny players' benches.

Hundreds of schoolchildren pressed their noses against the glass, beginning with the morning skate, for a look at the big-time players. Their cameras really started humming a few hours later when Don Cherry and Ron MacLean showed up.

Downtown Dundas, with its sprinkling of Victorian buildings, harkens back to the days when the small town was king in Ontario and the real powers were the Orange Order and the Mason Lodge. But today's reality is that Dundas no longer technically exists. Like many of Ontario's small towns in 2001, it was swallowed up by the big city next to it thanks to then premier Mike Harris's amalgamation plans. In this case the big gulp came from Hamilton, whose city limits began where those of Dundas ended.

That might be why Dundas received more than a million online votes to win the Kraft Hockeyville competition this year (it is the promotion's fifth year) over standalone small towns such as Bishop's Falls, Nfld., Stanstead, Que., Cranbrook, B.C., and Lawrencetown, N.S. By winning the competition, Hamilton/Dundas received an NHL preseason game between the Senators and Sabres plus $100,000 to spruce up 60-year-old J.L. Grightmire Arena (it used to be called the Dundas Arena, but when big bad Hamilton was about to take over, the town leaders hastily renamed it after a local luminary).

But this is not to chastise Hamilton for horning in on a bonanza intended for smaller burgs. Considering the way the NHL has treated the city over the years, you can't blame it for pulling a fast one.

As a matter of fact, public enemy No. 1 in these parts, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who thwarted Jim Balsillie's attempt to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, turned up at the game. Aside from a few boos, Bettman escaped unscathed, as the capacity crowd jammed into Grightmire's 980 seats proved to be small-town polite.

Senators general manager Bryan Murray hails from Shawville, Que., which sits about an hour northwest of Ottawa and finished well behind Dundas in the voting. Murray snickered knowingly when the Hamilton voting connection was pointed out - "Yeah, exactly, that was the difference" - and then started talking about how hockey has changed in all of the little towns across Canada.

Mike Harris wasn't the first guy to think about amalgamation. A whole bunch of minor hockey administrators beat him to the punch, creating elite teams in bigger communities.

"It used to be minor hockey was huge in Shawville, as I'm sure it was here," Murray said. "Now, with the advent of triple-A teams, all the best players are recruited and taken to [bigger cities] Minor hockey has been affected in many small towns across the country, including here.

"When I was growing up and for many years after that, hockey teams in villages like Dundas and Shawville could go play Hamilton teams and compete. Now, the best players are recruited because triple-A teams are sponsored and they get equipment and whatever else. So they leave."

Dundas, it must be noted, may have lost some talented children over the years but is still a small-town hockey power in one respect. The Dundas Real McCoys have been a big noise in senior hockey for years. Former NHL players such as Rick Vaive and Todd Harvey have taken turns as Real McCoys at Grightmire in their final hockey days.

There were a few Real McCoys sweaters among the dozens of minor-hockey team windbreakers in the crowd as fans crowded around both players' entrances to the rink.

"I think it's awesome," said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, a proud son of Warburg, Alta., population 696. "Considering I'm from a small town, it's great to get back into small rinks again."

Then someone brought up one of the sponsors, and Ruff grinned.

"The first thing I think of is mac and cheese. You mention Kraft, I think every hockey player grew up on a little bit of mac and cheese."

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