If you were to survey Woolwich Minor Hockey players about their favourite NHL team, you’d hear the usual suspects: The Leafs. The Flames. The Penguins. But for a few hours last Sunday, they were all shouting, screaming Atlanta Thrashers fans.
Some 1,500 fans erupted into cheers as the Thrashers skated onto the ice of the Dan Snyder Memorial Arena Oct. 18. The Thrashers took a detour between games in Buffalo and Montreal to honour former teammate Dan Snyder and see the rink named for him.
For the young fans who crowded around the entrance to the dressing rooms and pressed up against the glass, it was a chance to see just how big and skilled NHL players are, and to get shirts and sticks autographed by their heroes.
“For me, that’s what it was for,” said Dan’s mother LuAnn Snyder. “For those reactions and for those kids to be up close [to the players]. They were a lot closer than they would ever get to those players in an NHL rink.”
After practice, some of the players handed over their sticks to eager fans, including superstar captain Ilya Kovalchuk, who collected stray pucks to toss to outstretched hands.
Nolan McLaughlin, who plays left wing for the Woolwich minor atom team, was handed a stick by fellow left winger Slava Kozlov.
“When they were going on the ice, I was sitting at the front and he just gave it to me,” said a thrilled McLaughlin.
The day was especially exciting for Nikkila Gould and her daughter Alyssa Booth, who came decked out in Thrashers jerseys. The two hockey fans moved to Cambridge from Valdosta, Georgia about a year ago.
“We were the only Atlanta Thrashers fans in Valdosta,” Gould laughed, “because no one likes hockey there.”
While they often made the four-hour drive from Valdosta to the Philips arena to see the Thrashers play, they’d never met the players in person; they had to move to Cambridge to do that, Gould chuckled.
The event raised more than $1,700 for Friends of Hockey, which helps pay for the costs of registration and equipment for kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to play.
Organizers were worried they would have to take the costs of renting the facility out of the donations, after Woolwich Township council declined to waive the fees, but Elmira Farm Service stepped forward to donate the rental costs.
Elmira Sugar Kings coach Geoff Haddaway, one of the organizers of the event, said the team went above and beyond what anyone expected them to, staying past their scheduled departure time to make sure every kid in line got an autograph.
“They stayed longer than they said they were going to, they put on a good show for the practice, showed that they had some fun and they seemed like they genuinely cared,” Haddaway said. “You saw the real affection between [general manager] Don Waddell and the Atlanta Thrashers and the Snyder family, and how that extended to our whole community. To me that was the most impressive thing.”
Haddaway asked Matt Langen of the NHL Players’ Association how the Thrashers practice compared to other events the NHLPA has been involved with.
“He said this doesn’t happen anywhere else. The Toronto Maple Leafs don’t go practice in Oakville; it doesn’t happen. So they have nothing to compare it to, but he said it was outstanding.”
LuAnn Snyder, who greeted each of the players with a hug, said she was touched to see the team’s game-day jerseys hanging in the minor hockey dressing rooms.
“Usually they just wear different colours for practice and they decided they wanted to wear their game-day jerseys. They thought it would mean more to the people there.”
The enjoyment on the players’ faces was genuine, Snyder said.
“When you play in the NHL, they have such a set routine; everything’s so tightly scheduled and scripted. Not very often do they go off the schedule. And when they have a day like that, to go off the schedule, they just love it.”