MANCHESTER - Usually, seeing professional hockey involves some long term planning and several hours of driving to the nearest venue. But on July 27, professional hockey is coming to Bennington County when Riley Rink hosts the Pro-Am Hockey Fund-raiser presented by the Bennington Autism Task Force.

This year about 20 professional hockey players from the National Hockey League (NHL), American Hockey League (AHL) and European Pro Leagues will descend on Manchester to participate in the 7 p.m. game.

Last year's game - the first time the event was held - raised $7,000 and this year Chris Ams, the president of Riley Rink, said the goal is to reach $10,000.

New Jersey Devils left wing Stephen Gionta (left) takes a shot on goal during last year’s Pro-Am Hockey Fundraiser presented by the Bennington Autism
New Jersey Devils left wing Stephen Gionta (left) takes a shot on goal during last year's Pro-Am Hockey Fundraiser presented by the Bennington Autism Task Force at Riley Rink. Gionta will be one of about 20 professional hockey players that will be participating in this year's game on July 27. (Courtesy Photo)

About 200 spectators attended the inaugural game last year and Ron Marcellus - the founder of the game and one of the organizers of the event - said they are hoping to double attendance and possibly bring in as many as 500 people.

"What I'm encouraged by [is] throughout the whole winter people would come up to me in the supermarket or a restaurant and say, 'I had a great time last summer. I hope you do it again,'" said Marcellus. "So, I really think we're going to get a lot of people back and some new hockey people and fans."

Proceeds from the event will benefit not only the Bennington Autism Task Force, but the Jonathan Levin Scholarship Fund. The fund was started in the name of Barbara Levin Riley's son in the early history of Riley Rink following his death.


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The fund provides scholarships to eligible children ages four- through 18-years-old for recreation fees and equipment.

Two of the players that have been confirmed for this year's game are Washington Capitals center Mathieu Perreault and New Jersey Devils left wing Stephen Gionta - both of whom played in the first Pro-Am last year at Riley Rink.

Both are in the early stages of their careers. Gionta first made his debut on Nov. 4, 2010 in a 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers. He also had one of his better games against the Rangers, scoring his fourth professional goal and adding an assist in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals to record his first multi-point playoff game on May 23, 2012. Perreault's breakout game came against the Boston Bruins when he recorded his first hat trick against goalie Tuukka Rask on Jan. 24, 2012.

Another player that has committed as of this point is right wing Greg Mauldin who plays for HC Fribourg-Gottéron of the Swiss NLA, according to the Keith Sullivan - a friend of Marcellus - who is helping organize the event and is responsible for bringing in the professional talent.

"If you look at the way the NHL draft has gone now teams are going to Switzerland this year more so than ever," said Sullivan. "The league is well financed, it's a good league and he's on the top team. They won the regular season and lost in the Finals."

About eight to 10 amateurs will be participating in this year's game. Among them will be Burr and Burton Academy Headmaster Mark Tashjian; Bob Wendell, a veterinarian in the Manchester area; John Sisters who owns a horse and donkey farm in Danby; Jim Thibodeau, a noted volunteer in the Bennington area and Dorset's Jay Leach. Marcellus may also be participating, Ams said.

To participate, each amateur will either have to pay $300 or raise the money through sponsorship.

One difference in this year's game will be that the goalie positions will be filled by professional athletes whereas last year's were amateurs.

While the allure of the game for the professional players comes from how much money they can help raise and who is playing in the game, Sullivan said the game was a good one for spectators as well.

"This event is a good thing I think to bring in. In the past they've had the Bruins alumni there, which is great, but you get to see current NHL players play now, the level of conditioning, the speed, the strength along with guys in the American League and guys that play in Europe," he said.

The concept for the game originated with Marcellus and has a deep personal connection. Marcellus and his wife Mary Kate - who is the chair of the Bennington Autism Task Force - have an autistic son. In December of 2011, when the first game was held, the Autism Task Force was a new organization with very little money. As a result, Marcellus invited several local amateur players to play a pick up game and volunteer.

The event was a success. There were 25 players who participated in the first game and the event raised about $1,200. About six months later, Marcellus ran into Sullivan who at the time was a scout for the Winnipeg Jets. According to Marcellus, Sullivan suggested the idea of having NHL players come to the area to play a game during the summer.

"A month later we're on the ice," said Marcellus. "We got a combination of NHL guys, AHL, European pros and 10 of the original local volunteer players."

Scheduling a date for the game though often proves to be the most difficult component of the event and is usually one of the last things to be finalized.

"That's the biggest headache is finding the right date to do it on between the fact that we have summer ice here and we have various commitments with camps and things like that plus trying to get the right time that fits with some of the pros and everything," said Ams.

According to Marcellus, finding a date that potentially works for some of the NHL players in particular proves to be big challenge as well.

"A lot of players are checking their calendars," said Marcellus. "Like the Bruins players went late in the season, had the playoffs, had the Stanley Cup run and they're probably going to need a break whereas some of the guys on the teams that got knocked out early they're already thinking about training."

As part of the fund-raising event on July 27th there will also be a silent auction with signed jerseys available as well as a chuck a puck event to help raise money.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 12-years-old and under. Children three-years-old and under will be admitted free of charge.

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