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Jeremy Roenick calls Kraft Hockeyville the most ‘gratifying thing’ he’s ever done

USA Hockey’s bright future depends on small communities.

NHL: Preseason-San Jose Sharks at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, a record-setting 12 American-born players were selected in the first round of the NHL draft.

It was a good sign that American hockey is growing stronger at a steady pace. To help it along, a number of initiatives are leading the way at the local level across the country.

The most notable of these is Kraft Hockeyville, a partnership between the NHL, NHL Players’ Association, and USA Hockey to renovate hockey rinks across the country. The initiative has helped 82 communities and spent nearly $3 million in rink upgrades since its inception as a Canadian program in 2006. This is the third year for the USA program.

Inclusion is key: any community across the country is able to nominate their local rink at Kraft Hockeyville’s website. A rink in Amarillo, Texas is among the submissions, as are rinks in Washington, Ill. and many other states across the country. Luckily, $335,000 in prizes will be split between ten rinks. You can keep up with community discussions on social media with the hashtag #KraftHockeyville.

Nominations close on March 10.

We spoke with former NHLer, USA Hockey member and current NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick about his involvement with the program and the state of American hockey at the local levels.

SBN: How did you get involved with Hockeyville?

Roenick: I guess they needed someone passionate behind the game and passionate behind USA hockey to go out there and make sure that the message gets relayed. And that message is making hockey strong across small towns. I mean we've done some real, real special things.

Kraft is really going out across the country to find America's most passionate hockey community. I think that says something. It shows the fans and the people that love the game of hockey and want their kids to be exposed to it, want their community to be exposed to the rest of the United States, how much they love the game.

And the winner gets $100,000 to upgrade their home arena, whether it's towards a new Zamboni or better ice or better facilities … Some of these arenas around the country are really old and really need some tender loving care. Hockeyville is reaching out to make sure that the grassroots of hockey across the country are put out there to thrive.

SBN: Looking through some of the submissions on the website, there were a lot of variations. Some of them were from community leaders and some of them were from kids.

So which is better to hear from? I imagine both are inspiring in their own way.

Roenick: Well, it can come from either. The first two winners came from parents or grandparents of youth players that made submissions to explain why this is so important to their family and their kids. I would have to think it’s really inspirational to get a letter from a kid, from a child who’s involved in youth hockey programs, who skate in their local arena. That could go a long way.

But it also helps to push your community to get involved. It’s not just about one person, or one story. We want to show the passion that the people and communities have around hockey and around these youth programs. It’s all about everybody pitching in. It’s a really cool aspect of the competition that brings people together.

SBN: When you visit these communities, does it remind you of how you started playing the sport?

Roenick: Oh, absolutely. We went to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the first year. Johnstown is a small, industrial town. Obviously, [there are] a lot of blue-collar workers that work from paycheck to paycheck.

And to watch the transformation of their local arena, with all the money that was put in, the pride that they have and to see the kids’ faces when the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning came running through their town ... signing autographs and playing in the arena that they skate at.

To tell you the truth, it’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve done in sports.

In Kent, Michigan, they had such a cool parade. Every kid that was associated with the youth program, close to a thousand kids, were out there. It was really cute to see the kids on slopes, on fire trucks. It's a celebration of the game, of the sport, and it's a celebration of community outreach that all bands together.

SBN: So this Hockeyville contest has gone on in Canada since 2006. The United States didn’t get involved until two years ago. Did the immediate level of engagement from this country surprise you?

Roenick: Yeah. I think [the organizers’] expectations early on were very small. They were hoping that they would get 10 percent of the country's arenas to be involved.

They actually had 75 percent of the arenas get involved in this competition. It was the most gratifying, surprising and awesome turnout that they could possibly imagine.

SBN: United States teams in non-traditional markets are strong right now. You look at the Dallas Stars, the Florida Panthers, the Tampa Bay Lightning ... all teams competing nearly every year. How important is local growth in those communities to keep the sport thriving there? You can plant the seed with a team but hockey has to grow around it, right?

Roenick: For sure. And again it's all about bringing attention, too, to communities that many people don’t even know exist yet.

Like when the Phoenix Coyotes came to Arizona in 1996. We built an entire hockey program. Eighteen years later, we’ve produced the No. 1 draft pick in the NHL, Auston Matthews, who’s now lighting up the National Hockey League.

So it’s important to A) expose kids to hockey and B) to make sure the right people are in there to teach and build a program. And then it needs to be supported by the community. And Kraft Hockeyville is now doing it on a national scale. That’s what’s important. It’s going to continue to create top prospects … we set a record for most American-born players drafted in the first round last year.

We’re alive and well and growing.

SBN: Do you think it's important for the NHL to go to the Olympics just simply to expose more fans to the country's best players on a higher stage?

Roenick: One hundred percent. I think the Olympics are the biggest sports stage in the world. The Olympics are meant to showcase the best athletes in each sport. The best. And the best athletes in hockey are NHL players. Not college players, not minor league players. The NHL players.

And if you want the best product or platform, you’ve got to go with the NHL guys. I understand the business, I understand the economic dynamics of having to [travel] as far as the NHL does. It stops the league for two weeks. But I think the overall benefit of what they get out of it totally dominates (any other reasons).