Hockeyville USA was more than just an NHL pre-season game. Sure, that was the finale after a weekend full of amazing activities, but it was more than just a hockey game. It was about community. It was about pride. It was about history.
I was lucky enough to attend the game last night and it was a surreal experience. I have not seen the arena that excited or full since 2004 when WKTV televised a Clinton vs. New Hartford high school game. As soon as I stepped out of my vehicle and started walking towards the arena I could feel the excitement in the air. That intensified by 100 as soon as I stepped foot in the arena.
Hockeyville USA Pre-Game
As soon as I made my way up the stairs into the lobby I could hear the excitement ricocheting off the walls. I stopped briefly to talk to a friend and then made my way to my seats – Section 10 right by the Zamboni Entrance. I walked past Jeremy Roenick and Kathryn Tappen from NBC Sports right outside the upstairs lobby. Jody Shelley and his Columbus radio co-host were sitting on wooden stools in the walkway under the press box on the penalty bench side. I assume because there was nowhere else to set up in the small arena.
The press box was full with three NBC Sports cameras. Under the press box was where Brendan Burke sat to call the game. There was another camera in the press box on the players bench side. I noticed camera guys hanging out in the corners of the arena as well as in the Zamboni well. The shooting room was transformed into a makeshift media center. There were three to four folding tables covered in laptops with name tags hanging off the edges of the table. The whole zamboni end of the rink was lined with tables up along the rail where media members sat on their laptops throughout the game. There was also a pretty nice spread of food, but I wasn’t lucky enough to score a free meal.
Hockeyville USA: The Game
I’ll be honest, once the game started it was pretty quiet in the arena. I wasn’t expecting the same atmosphere as a Utica Comets game, but thought there would be a little more excitement from the crowd. Maybe it was because everyone was in awe watching an NHL game in the old Clinton Arena, or because there was no team allegiance involved, but it was a little disappointing. I did hear an attempt at a “Lets’ Go Buffalo” chant near the end of the 1st from some kids, but that was about it. Despite the lack of intensity from the crowd the game was very exciting.
I was pleasantly surprised by the speed of the game. I have been to NHL games in the past, but it never seemed as fast as last night. I think being confined in a smaller area probably attributed to that. Instead of being 15 rows up in an 18,000 seat state of the art arena, I was 3 rows up in a 2,000 seat, 50 something year old arena. Everything just seemed faster. The passes were crisp, shots fast, and goalie reactions even quicker. Definitely the closest I will ever be to an NHL game…and it was FREE! Both teams picked up the pace in the 3rd as Buffalo tried to claw back from a two-goal deficit but it was too little too late. At the end of the game a select group of fans made their way to center ice. Players from both teams presented them with autographed jerseys which I thought that was a nice touch.
I did notice a lot of social media buzz about empty seats during the game. When I looked around at the start of the game I barely saw an empty seat, if any, and the standing room only was full all the way around. The seats looked a lot more empty during the second and third, but the rail was more full. The seats are smaller than typical stadium seats like what the Utica AUD has to offer. I think this may have contributed to people deciding to stand instead of feel crammed into their assigned seat.
I will say there was 4 empty seats in front of me for the entire game and no one ever showed up to sit in them. I was sitting in a section with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (humble brag), families of the four on-ice officials, and other individuals who were given tickets directly from the NHL. I am going to assume whoever those tickets were for decided not to make the trip. It is unfortunate because I personally know 40-50 people who would have killed to attend the game.
After Hockeyville USA
The only other negative, which I didn’t really care about, was the fireworks. In my opinion they should have waited a little bit longer to start shooting them off. I could hear them going off and there was still a pretty decent crowd inside the arena. Some young ones were complaining to their parents about missing them, but like I said not a big deal to me.
I got lucky and parked in a family friend’s driveway three or four doors down from the arena. We didn’t stick around for the fireworks and left immediately following the game. There was no issue with traffic which was kind of surprising, but I think the majority of the people hung around to catch the fireworks show following the game.
After I got home I turned on the game to see how the old barn looked on television. In a way it was more surreal than actually attending the game in person. I have always watched live games at the Clinton Arena, but never have I ever sat on my couch with a cold beer in hand watching one broadcast on National TV. I immediately felt a huge sense of pride to have spent my entire life skating on that ice knowing millions of people likely tuned in.
The intermission piece by Doc Emrick was amazing. He captured the history of the village and arena perfectly and once again, made me proud to be from Clinton. The Clinton High School hockey highlights were awesome because I remember being at that game. Then the team went on to win the state championship which I was also in attendance for. All of the little special pieces about Clinton and its history just helped drive home how much of a hockey community it is.
Overall, the whole Kraft Hockeyville experience was an amazing one. The weekend events were interesting and fun, friends of mine who attended the dinner with Roenick at Hamilton College had a great time, the families who greeted the players and watched practice all enjoyed it and last of all the game itself was a once in a lifetime experience.
The NBC team did a great job of putting small town Clinton, NY on the map and showing the rich hockey history associated with the community. I’m sure there are a hundred more Clinton, NY’s out there and I look forward to learning about all of the Kraft Hockeyville USA winners to come. From here on out I will always tune in to the Kraft Hockeyville games now that I know and understand how important it is to the community. Clinton was Hockeyville long before Kraft unrolled that 2018 winner banner on the Village Green. Clinton has been Hockeyville since the days of Albert Prettyman and the Clinton Comets. Clinton will always be Hockeyville.