Even though it "Finnish-ed" badly, (yes, a bad Canadian World Junior pun) I hope everyone enjoyed a great festive season.
Being Canadian, of course, hockey plays a huge part of the holidays and the 8-year-old group of house league Penguins I coach is no exception. Thanks to the fact that our assistant coach, Greg Schell, is the minor hockey development coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a bunch of Penguins saw their first NHL game over the holidays — and in a private box no less. A group of twenty Penguins, coaches and parents made the trek down to the Air Canada Centre for the Saturday, December 21st tilt between the Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. Save for a brief moment when they decided to test their vast athletic abilities by going "up" on a "down" escalator, the boys were very well behaved. In fact, as soon as we arrived in the box to watch the pre-game warm-up you could have heard a pin drop, as the kids stared down in wide-eyed wonder at their hockey heroes who, up until now, they'd only watched on a TV screen.
There's something about an NHL pre-game warm-up that fascinates young hockey players. I grew up out west and attended one of my first NHL games at the old Stampede Corral, the initial home of the Calgary Flames after they relocated from Atlanta in 1980. Our seats were in the Philadelphia end that night and, as a goalie myself, I kept a close eye on Flyers netminder Rick St. Croix, who is now the goalie coach for the Maple Leafs. As his sharpshooting Flyers teammates such as Bill Barber and Bobby Clarke fired pre-game pucks at him, St. Croix literally screamed at the top of his lungs in an attempt, I surmised, to get himself pumped up for the game. His primal screams, however, could have also been an indication he was truly afraid of getting decapitated, as I couldn't believe how hard NHL'ers could fire the ol' rubber.
Another impressive feature of a real, live NHL contest is the amount of food available to be consumed, and our hungry Penguins may have set a new record. Pizza, Coke, multiple buckets of popcorn, and enough "M and M's" and Skittles to choke Carlton the Bear; the Leafs mascot who, by the way, stopped by our box but didn't say hello because, well, mascots can't talk.
The Penguins, on the other hand?
Hopped up from their journey to junk food heaven, the lads didn't stop screaming for their beloved Maple Leafs to run the hated Red Wings right out of the rink. Love or hate the Leafs (and there are plenty of folks in both camps) you've got to admire their loyal fan base and a number of our kids showed up at the ACC decked out in blue and white gear.
We definitely witnessed an exciting, high-scoring affair but, sadly, the Leafs ended up losing to Detroit in a 3-2 shootout. However, the Penguins are pleased to point out the Leafs returned the favor by besting the Wings in a 3-2 shootout during the spectacular NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
The Penguins, meanwhile, sporting a 7 and 3 record, returned from their holiday break last weekend primed and ready to drop the puck on the second half of our season. But before hitting the ice, we went around the room and asked each kid to report on their favourite gift from Santa this year. When we got to our leading scorer, a little magician on skates named Kei Hagiwara, he didn't hesitate at all.
"My favourite Christmas gift," said Kei, "was going to the Leafs-Red Wings game with the whole team."
A nice underline to the statement that hockey and the holidays definitely go hand-in-hand.
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