DECATUR – Ashton Anderson summed up the feeling of hundreds of people who came to the Children’s Museum of Illinois on Saturday afternoon to learn whether Decatur would be named “Hockeyville USA.”
“I’m happy, and I’m sad, but it’s better than nothing,” Anderson said.
While the city came up short in its bid, it still will receive money to help renovate the Decatur Civic Center.
After weeks of anticipation, Decatur finished second in the Kraft Hockeyville USA contest to Johnstown, Pa. The winner of the contest receives $150,000 for renovations to its hockey facility as well as a chance to host a National Hockey League preseason game. Despite the loss, Decatur has already earned $75,000 for renovations by advancing through the first two rounds of voting.
Decatur was among 18,000 entries into the competition and was selected as one of 10 finalists. The vote tally was not released, though an NHL news release stated more than 20 million votes from across the country were counted during the contest.
Excitement was high throughout the morning, as hundreds of residents found their way around a tight parking situation to set up at the children’s museum, where games and other festivities were readied for the announcement to be made live during Saturday afternoon’s NHL playoff game on NBC.
Camera crews were set up on a stage, as those in attendance danced and used their thunder sticks to keep energy levels high before the announcement.
Among those keeping the good times going was Joanie Foster, 71, who danced with mascots and anyone else to the electronic music that blared from the DJ booth.
With a thunder stick in one hand and a bell in the other, Foster said she was ready to make some noise.
“I’m just gonna ring this bell, regardless of the results, because Decatur is a winner,” she said.
The bell could be heard as the announcement came in, as could the sound of sighs and ‘thunder sticks’ being popped as the crowd’s excitement deflated.
But Mayor Mike McElroy saw nothing but winners as he took the stage soon after the announcement.
“You’re looking at one of the proudest mayors you’ve ever seen,” he said. “You’re all winners in this community.”
McElroy later said he was moved by the sheer amount of support he has seen in the past few weeks, as signs encouraging residents to vote in the contest could be seen on nearly every block.
“It really caught the imagination of the community,” he said.
Along with the increased sense of community pride, Jason Habrock was proud that hockey in Decatur has received more attention on a local and national level.
The drive for votes could be found not only across Decatur, but also on social media, as accounts from the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks, bitter rivals in the NHL, encouraged their fans to support Decatur’s bid for Hockeyville USA.
“I’m so proud of our players, coaches, volunteers and all those from around the world who have supported us over the past few weeks,” said Habrock, president of the Decatur Youth Hockey Association.
Even before the start of the contest, participation in youth hockey leagues had increased by 20 percent, with about 150 players. Officials hope that the increased awareness and excitement generated by the contest will draw in more players.
“I cannot even imagine what next year is going to be like,” Habrock said.
While there has been word that the money won could be used for upgrades to the locker room or to improve the sound system in the arena, Habrock said no decision has been made by the association, though he said the conversations would begin shortly and be open to the community.
The money won could have been more, but Habrock said it is better than nothing.
“That’s $75,000 that we did not have three weeks ago,” he said.
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