Kraft Hockeyville USA, in its sixth year, awards one winning community a once-in-a-lifetime experience for hockey fans. El Paso, Texas, and the El Paso County Events Center were selected as the winner after an online vote in 2020, but festivities were not held due to COVID-19. The rink received $150,000 in upgrades, and there will be events and player appearances prior to the Dallas Stars hosting the Arizona Coyotes in a preseason game at El Paso County Events Center on Sunday (9 p.m. ET; NHL.com). NHL.com staff writers William Douglas and David Satriano are in El Paso to provide all the sights, sounds, highlights and news leading up to the game:
Stanley Cup arrives at rink
The Stanley Cup arrived in El Paso, and its first stop was the El Paso County Events Center. The Cup was placed at center ice, where El Paso Rhinos players got to admire and take pictures with it.
“Seeing the Cup is a breathtaking experience,” said forward Alex Krause of the Rhinos, who have junior teams in the North American Hockey League and the El Paso Hockey Association. “There’s nothing like it. You only get the opportunity to do that so many times in your life, and it was a really special moment for me to see it and be around it and be part of it, and it’s something I’ll never take for granted and cherish for a long time.”
Hockey long has been a part of El Paso, where the Rhinos were founded in 2006, and winning the title of Kraft Hockeyville USA has only strengthened the community, forward Jordan Zelenak said.
“The community loves the game down here,” Zelenak said. “To have them get the reward of seeing the Cup and everything that the NHL is is unbelievable for them and for everyone that is going to be here for the years after we are here. … It just means so much to this (Rhinos) organization they’ve built over the last 20-30 years to bring [it] to El Paso. Every kid when they’re growing up, they want to win the Stanley Cup, and to be able to see it now in person, it’s a breathtaking experience.”
The Cup was a pleasant surprise for the Oberle family. Heather Oberle’s husband got her into hockey, and he has been deployed in the U.S. Army since May. Heather and their three kids got to see the Cup.
“I wish my husband could be here because it was meant for him, but because of him we’re able to do this,” she said.
Son Liam, 12, is a fan of the Colorado Avalanche, who won the Cup in 1996 and 2001. He found the Avalanche players’ names on the trophy.
“It’s a cool experience to be seeing the Stanley Cup,” he said. “To be around it personally. Really cool experience.”
Cup visits Fort Bliss
Following the rink, the Cup made a visit to the Army base at Fort Bliss, the largest military installation in the United States.
“I’m a big hockey fan because of my best friend,” Sgt. Andy Close said. “He got me into it a couple of years ago and [I’m] just loving it ever since.”
Close, who said he didn’t touch the Cup, is a Stars fan whose favorite players are Jamie Benn and Anton Khudobin.
“It’s insane, I can’t stop smiling,” he said. “It’s just such a big piece of history and for it to be in this small town of El Paso, it’s kind of a blessing.”
David Casey, an Army infantryman, said seeing the Cup was special to him because he grew up playing hockey.
“You dream of seeing it, you dream of holding it and touching it,” he said, “and to finally be in the Army and be off of work … we had to see it.”
Casey, an Avalanche fan who grew up in Minnesota and Denver, said he made sure to be at the base as soon as he heard the Cup was going to be there.
“First Stanley Cup, I was 6 years old,” he said of Colorado’s 1996 championship. “My dad got me into hockey. … Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg were instrumental to me falling in love with hockey.
“[Seeing the Cup] makes me more nervous looking at it and touching it than actually talking to women. Spent years watching other players win it, dreamed of winning it on my own when I was younger, so it’s beautiful.”
Community food drive
The community activities began when Kraft Hockeyville USA Cares hosted a food drive for El Pasoans Fighting Hunger.
From Sept. 15-28, the El Paso Rhinos collected canned goods and nonperishable food donations, which were dropped off at the El Paso County Events Center. Kraft Heinz also supplemented the donation to ensure more families in the greater El Paso area have food.
“Giving back to the community is a huge part of being a Rhino, and being able to help in any way is a great reminder that we are a part of a wonderful community that has done so much for our organization,” El Paso forward Jordan Zelenak said.
The Rhinos play at El Paso County Events Center, which was refurbished with the $150,000 prize money for winning Kraft Hockeyville USA. It went toward expanding the entryways, replacing the lights with energy-efficient LED lighting, renovating the restrooms and replacing the roof.
But Wednesday was more about helping the community than enjoying the updated arena.
“The food drive was a great opportunity for our organization to give back to the community that has been supporting hockey in El Paso since the 1990s,” El Paso forward Alex Krause said. “It was truly a heartwarming experience.”
On Thursday, a community celebration at San Jacinto Plaza will include the Stanley Cup, alumni from the Stars and Coyotes, and a mariachi band.