LUCAN, Ont. – The last time Nazem Kadri walked through these doors he was a kid with big dreams and next to no access to the NHL.
The Kadri family made the 30-minute drive north from their home in London on multiple occasions so that he could participate in tournaments at the Lucan Community Memorial Centre. Back then, they never would have imagined a night like Tuesday – when he’ll return to the 1,600-seat arena on Main St. with the Toronto Maple Leafs to face the Ottawa Senators.
The teams are opening their exhibition schedule here as part of Kraft Hockeyville, the national contest Lucan claimed earlier this year that included $250,000 for arena upgrades and will see the building packed with local minor hockey players to watch a pre-season Battle of Ontario.
“I would have been in awe,” said Kadri, when asked what an event like this would have meant to him as a kid. “I would have loved that, just to maybe try to get some signatures and meet some of the players. That would have been a dream come true for me.
“You try to see it from that perspective [now]. I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
There will be an added shot of enthusiasm in the air with John Tavares playing his first game since joining the Leafs as a free agent on July 1 – making him one of four London Knights alumni participating along with Kadri, Mitch Marner and Ottawa’s Alex Formenton.
The Senators lineup will include regulars Matt Duchene, Bobby Ryan, Mikkel Boedker, Thomas Chabot and newcomer Dylan DeMelo, who was acquired as part of the package Ottawa received from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson trade. The 25-year-old defenceman was also raised in London and is plenty familiar with the surroundings he’ll find in his Sens debut.
“I actually drove through Lucan right before I went to San Jose for training camp because I wanted to see how the arena was doing,” DeMelo told the Ottawa Sun. “I used to skate there as a kid a few times. They’re doing a great extension to the arena, and, if I get to play in that game, that would be great. It would be really nice.”
Lucan finished ahead of finalists High River, Alta., Huntingdon, Que., and Lafleche, Sask., in the Kraft Hockeyville contest. The township boasts a population of 4,700 people and saw fans flock to the community centre when Wendel Clark, Chris Kelly and Bryan Smolinski signed autographs there on Saturday and the Stanley Cup visited Monday.
The demand for tickets to Tuesday night’s game was so high that 1,200 people are expected to watch from a viewing party outside.
It’s safe to say the 40-plus-year-old arena has never witnessed an event quite like this one. They have already put the prize money to good use with new dasherboards and a new scoreboard, but it’ll be a trip down memory lane for a couple players now accustomed to playing in front of 18,000 people or more.
“I know it well,” said Kadri, who now owns a house a short drive from the rink. “It’s a little small from what I remember. … For a community like Lucan I’m sure this is a huge deal for them.”