The Winter Classic is dead; the Cornwall Classic lives on

Michigan’s loss is Cornwall’s gain.

While the NHL chopped the Winter Classic Friday in the latest ugly chapter in the NHL lockout, the city of Cornwall is busy rolling out the red carpet for its own version of NHL hockey on Monday.

“We’re excited,” Cornwall Mayor Bob Kilger said Friday, speaking about the charity game scheduled for Monday featuring Ottawa Senators players and others from around the NHL. “Under the circumstances, I think it’s a great gesture. I give credit to the players to doing something positive and trying to make the best of what’s happening.”

Senators Chris Phillips, Chris Neil, Zack Smith, Marc Methot and ex-Senators Jesse Winchester and Shean Donovan have all confirmed they will be playing Monday. They are expected to be joined by Brian Gionta of the Montreal Canadiens, Steven Gionta of the New Jersey Devils, Tyler Kennedy of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Derick Brassard of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Grant Clintsome of the Winnipeg Jets. Tickets are $20 and players will also be available for autographs.

The Cornwall game is the first of at least five games in the First Assist Charity Classic tour, being organized by former NHL player and coach John Chabot. The players will fly into Thunder Bay on Nov. 12, followed by a venture to the Northwest Territories for a three-game tour in Yellowknife, Inuvik and Hay River the following week.

Kilger, a former NHL referee, whose son, Chad, played played 714 games in the NHL, says in a perfect world, Cornwall would have had months to prepare for a game, as is typically the case with big-league exhibition games. Yet he understands how quickly the charity contests came together.

“With no NHL hockey going on, it’s an opportunity for people to see these guys, and it’s a great way to do it, for charity,” he said. “This game has created some excitement in the community.”

Proceeds from the Cornwall game will go towards First Assist – a cause which has Chabot has championed for years – as well as for the Max Keeping Foundation.

First Assist is a mentorship program allowing First Nations children, typically aged 11-13, with an opportunity to travel to Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal to experience big city life. Circumstances in the north are often difficult, but the aim of the program is take away a youth’s fear of leaving in order to pursue positive opportunities following high school.

Chabot also believes the appearance of NHL players will provide a spark to the areas.

“It’s not just a chance to play hockey, it’s a chance (for NHL players) to see areas they normally wouldn’t see, and also for a lot of the fans who would never get a chance to see NHL players and to see NHL players playing on the ice,” Chabot said. “I think it’s going to accomplish a bunch of things. It’s making some good out of the bad.(of the lockout).”

Neil, who grew up in Flesherton, Ont. (population 700) says he wished he had the opportunity to meet NHL players when he was a child, but he now feels “fortunate that I’m able to do this.”

Smith says the games will serve a dual purpose.

“It’s fun to start playing some games, some competitive hockey,” he said. “Being from small town in Saskatchewan, I can speak for the people from Cornwall and up north. There are a lot of things you can take out of this and when we go up to the Northwest Territories, we will have some opportunities to do some things outside we wouldn’t normally have a chance to do.”

While the games will be no contact, Phillips is anxious to get involved in some spirited battles.

“We just want to play hockey, that’s what we do, that’s what we miss and right now we’re being locked out of that situation,” said Phillips.

Fans hoping to see bone-crunching checks and fights might be disappointed, but Phillips says NHL players are a competitive bunch in all situations.

“I think (the level) will be between an All-Star game and a real game, somewhere in the middle,” he said. “We’re all still preparing to be ready to go when the NHL starts up, so it’s not a shinny game. It’s going out to improve on our conditioning and game shape and I think it will be played at a pretty high level.”

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