'Heart of the community:' O'Leary gears up for Kraft Hockeyville contest

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'Heart of the community:' O'Leary gears up for Kraft Hockeyville contest

O'Leary, P.E.I. is bubbling with excitement as it gears up to battle for votes in the Kraft Hockeyville 2017 competition. 

The community is one of the top 10 in the contest and is the only finalist in the Maritimes. 

Students at O'Leary Elementary School have been making paper jerseys to show their passion for hockey. 

"I think it would be pretty awesome for the community to win something," said 11-year-old Colton MacDonald. "It's been very overwhelming for a lot of classmates … Some of them really want to host an NHL game right. Some of them play hockey so they understand, right." 

Excited students

"I think it would be pretty awesome and I think my brothers would love it too because they're really into hockey," said 10-year-old Bridget Wallace. "The class has been talking about it since we've been nominated."

Grade 6 student Jacob Lewis said hockey is the community's "thing." He said he's been waiting years to see an NHL game in person and would love to see one in his hometown. 

The community is already guaranteed a $25,000 dollar prize to upgrade the O'Leary Community Sports Centre, just for making the top ten. But it's hoping to be in the top two, which would mean another $100,000 for rink upgrades and the top prize — the opportunity to host a preseason NHL game. 

"It would mean a lot to the community," said 12-year-old Kira Costain who watches the senior 'C' games most weekends at the arena. She said her mom started jumping up and down when it was announced O'Leary was in the top 10.

"She was so happy." 

'Rink is just a big part of everybody'

Della Sweet, a member of the committee that submitted the town as a Hockeyville candidate, managed the rink for 12 years. She hopes other small towns feel a connection with O'Leary and vote for it. 

"The rink is just such a big part of everybody, just their memories of growing up," said Sweet. "It seems to connect everybody in town … when it comes to the rink we all have a real passion and love for the place." 

She said the prize money would be used to upgrade the entryway, lobby, canteen, and bathrooms, with a particular focus on improving accessibility. The funds could also be used to create a warm area for spectators.

Going to the rink by horse and sleigh

Thelma Sweet, 82, remembers coming to the rink by horse and sleigh to watch games. She said the community has worked for years to keep the rink in operation. The rink even blew down at one time and volunteers came together to rebuild.

"Sometimes it was difficult. We wondered if we were going to lose it, but we always came through with the support of the community," said Thelma. "This place is the heart of the community." 

Thelma said the arena was where people met — with Maroons players inviting people to skate after games. 

Florrie Turner, 90, played at the rink on an all-women's team in the 1950s, a rarity at the time. She still remembers winning the Island championship over Charlottetown — and enjoys reminding her girlfriends in Charlottetown of it. 

"Lots of fun, I played centre," said Turner.

Voting kicks off with free pancake breakfast

People in the community say it's special to be nominated again. O'Leary was one of the Hockeyville finalists 11 years ago and many of the same volunteers are taking another run at it.

The community will kick off voting on March 12 with a free pancake breakfast at the legion from 8 to 10 a.m. Voting for the contest begins at 10 a.m. AT and organizers at the breakfast will have their devices on hand to show people how to vote online.  

The community is hoping to get votes from all over during the 39 hours of voting as the population of O'Leary is only about 860 people.

Voting can be done on the Kraft Hockeyville website and wraps up on March 14 at 12:59 a.m. AT. Winners will be announced on Hockey Night in Canada on April 1.