BELLEVILLE, Ont. – Brooks Laich could tell as soon as the Washington Capitals got off their bus Saturday morning how big of a deal this was.
They were arriving at Yardmen Arena to play the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL’s pre-season opener as part of the Hockeyville event that takes the game to a small town in Canada.
“There was about 300 kids outside the rink lined up and I was there once,” Laich said. “I know how they’re feeling, I know how important it is.”
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green were there for the Capitals, and Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian for the Jets. Star power was prevalent in the game, won by the Capitals 4-3 in a shootout in front of a packed house in Belleville.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Green, who scored the shootout winner. “We didn’t know what to expect, and the city welcomed us with open arms. We had a lot of fun today, yeah. It was exciting.”
Kane knew the teams would put on a show for the event celebrating the nearby town of Stirling-Rawdon, Ont., and they did, with the Jets star doing his part by scoring twice. Kane was playing on a line with off-season trade acquisition Devin Setoguchi and top prospect Mark Scheifele, an experiment of Claude Noel’s that seemed to work quite well.
“I thought me and Seto established some good chemistry and Scheifs did a good job of distributing the puck,” Kane said. “Playing with Seto was great. Me and Seto seemed to find each other pretty well out there. It’s only one game and it’s going to be nice to grow, as this pre-season goes on heading into the regular season, together.”
Six goals on 82 shots made for plenty of entertainment for the capacity crowd of over 3,000. The goaltenders were brilliant, but the back-and-forth play was at least partially the product of rust in the first pre-season game for both teams.
“It was a little more offence than defence for what we’d want but that’s what happens in pre-season, games are pretty wide open,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It’s good to get back in that rhythm with those skilled guys on the ice to remember why it’s so fun to play against the best in the world.”
But even a lacklustre, low-scoring game would’ve meant everything in this community, that Washington defenceman Jack Hillen said “appreciated” seeing this level of hockey in person.
“I think sometimes as players, too, we forget really how important the NHL is to people and how delicate it is to be in the NHL,” said Laich, who did not play because of a left hip flexor injury. “It’s just a really, really cool experience.”
Fans were almost robbed of the chance of seeing Ovechkin play a full game. He took a high stick to the face from Jets defenceman Ben Chiarot in the first period.
Ovechkin was down on the ice for some time before skating to the bench and going down the tunnel. He returned to the game a couple of minutes later.
“Ovi always seems to come out of it,” Green said. “He looks mangled but he’s always OK. I guess that’s why they call him the Russian machine.”
Ovechkin did not speak to reporters after the game, though he tweeted a photo of himself with the message that he “just had plastic surgery.” Washington coach Adam Oates said he thought Ovechkin got a couple of stitches in his lip.
Oates said Ovechkin was fine “considering” how it could’ve been much worse.
“It was a very scary one,” Oates said. “Obviously don’t want to see that from anybody. He was skating at the guy, you knew the angle of the stick you knew that had some force behind it and obviously could have been a scary moment.”