Event organizer Chris Campanelli, center, drops the ceremonial puck for fellow organizer Kerry Shea, left, and NHL great Joey Kocur at last weekend's Red Wings alumni hockey game at Howelsen Ice Arena.

Drew Stachnik/courtesy

Event organizer Chris Campanelli, center, drops the ceremonial puck for fellow organizer Kerry Shea, left, and NHL great Joey Kocur at last weekend's Red Wings alumni hockey game at Howelsen Ice Arena.

Eugene Buchanan: NHL stars descend on Howelsen for benefit game

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— The sign in the window of the Storm Peak lift shack seemed oddly out of place, considering the Colorado Avalanche’s stellar season. “Let’s go Red Wings!” it read in bright red letters.

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Eugene Buchanan, magazines editor

While the message might not have hit home with Front Range visitors — who likely still recall 1997’s “Bloody Wednesday,” when Darren McCarty got the best of Claude Lemieux, and goalies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon dropped the gloves — it did for members of the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association, who were here for the weekend to play a benefit game for the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association.

Visiting pucksters

• George Bowman: Secretary of the Red Wing Alumni Association, Red WIngs practice goalie, grandson of Red Wings star Scotty Bowman and PGA professional.

• Eddie Mio: Two-time All American goalie from Colorado College, whose NHL career includes stints with Edmonton Oilers, Red Wings and New York Rangers.

• Dennis Hextall: Center who once led the Minnesota North Stars and Oakland Seals in scoring and penalties. Named to two All-Star teams and played his last four years with the Red Wings where he served as captain.

• Peter Klima: Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers in 1990, who defected from Czechoslovakia to play for the Red Wings in 1983. His 20-year pro career from 1981 to 2001 placed him on six NHL squads.

• Mike Knuble: A Stanley Cup champion with the Red Wings whose NHL career included stints with the Rangers, Bruins, Flyers and Capitals.

• Joe Kocur: Four-time Stanley Cup champion (three with Detroit, one with the Rangers) and one of the most feared enforcers in the league. Charter member of the “Grind Line” and “Bruise Brothers.”

• Wayne Presley: Chicago Blackhawks draft pick in 1983 who played 13 seasons in the NHL, also including stints with the Sabres, Rangers and Maple Leafs.

• Lorne Knauft: Played for eight leagues, including the Adirondack Red Wings, Flint Generals and Detroit Vipers.

The idea was the brainchild of local electrician Chris Campanelli, who attended a similar benefit in Aspen last fall where he befriended NHLer Wayne “Elvis” Presley.

“He said they’d love to come to Steamboat, on one condition,” Campanelli said. “We do it during ski season. All the alumni are pretty big skiers.”

Campanelli then brought the idea to McKnight Irish Pub & Loft’s owner and fellow assistant high school coach Kerry Shea, who grew up playing hockey in Detroit.

“His eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store,” said Campanelli, who revered Red Wings goalie Eddie Mio as a youngster.

After lining up sponsors such as C&C Electric, McKnight’s, E3 Chophouse, the city of Steamboat Springs, B&K and ESPN Radio, they set a date and began planning an event to bring more hockey firepower to the Yampa Valley than it ever had seen before.

Silent auction items at Friday’s welcoming party at McKnight’s hinted at the event’s prominence, including tickets to this year’s Masters, the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards and even L.A.’s Playboy Mansion Halloween Party. Locals also bid on the last spot to play with the Red Wings in Saturday’s benefit game.

As well as hanging onto bids, attendees also were hanging on to stories told by the sport’s greats, including four-time Stanley Cup champion and NHL enforcer Joey Kocur — who struck a fighting pose for anyone wanting a photo — goalie Eddie Mio and former Red Wings captain Dennis Hextall. Visiting players also told tales about the day’s skiing and fly-fishing outings, with Lorne Knauft scoring a hat trick by catching the most fish under the eye of local guide Colin Taylor. The late-night shenanigans ended with Shea nearly having to rename McKnight’s “McKocur’s” after losing to Kocur in pool.

Before the next day’s big game, many of the players went snowmobiling — where, instead of digging pucks out of corners, they dug snowmobiles out of snowbanks — while others traded their skates for skis. My role: guiding Hextall around the mountain, complete with a boot hike up to Gate C.

“I’ll pay you back for this in the corner tonight,” the former goal and penalty leader for the North Stars said. “Might want to keep your head up.”

On the lift, he told a story about holding his stick up at neck level to thwart a charge, knocking his adversary out for 20 minutes.

From there, it was on to the benefit game at Howelsen, where I was thankful Hextall was assigned to my team. Joining me in the local contingent were Realtors, gallery owners, builders, salesmen and more, all more than willing to pony up a paycheck to play with the sport’s stars. In the locker room, sticks came out of bags as readily as the Ben-Gay, with even a few local high school players on hand to hear such time-tested banter as, “Remember, the beer’s always colder when you win.”

How did I fare in my debut with NHL greats? Not bad, I guess, save for getting pick-pocketed by Peter Klima for the tying goal and blowing a wide-open pass from NHL great Mike Knuble, who registered more than 1,000 games in the show. I also was subjected to every Kocur trick in the book, including thrusting his stick blade into the back of my pants to control me like a marionette.

In the end, the white team bested red, 10-5, but the real winners were the 500-plus fans in attendance and the Youth Hockey Association, which received $7,500 from the festivities.

“We couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” said Shea, touting the weekend’s bluebird and powder days, camaraderie and local support. “The boys felt like they were part of our community.”

Afterward, the action moved on to E3 Chophouse, where the reveling continued without two minutes for roughing. And there, their thoughts about this hockey hamlet of ours truly broke out of the ice.

“It is a great town,” said Rolf Nilsen, an alumni and former Nordic jumper from Norway. “Especially for a Norwegian.” Added Knuble, who skis once per year at a Michigan resort he likens to Howelsen. “It looks like a great place to ski with family.”

All in all, it was a weekend of old friends, powder skiing, fly-fishing, snowmobiling and, oh yeah, a little old-time hockey thrown in for good measure — and all for a great cause.

“We had a blast,” said association secretary and goalie George Bowman, adding that organizers already are planning a return next year. “Steamboat was one of our best experiences ever. The town should be proud of doing what it takes to help youth hockey.”

But I still have to root for the Avs in the playoffs.

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