Former NHLers hit ice in Pla­cen­tia

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BY NI­CHOLAS MERCER nmercer@cb­n­com­pass.ca

Hockey fans of all ages in Pla­cen­tia were treated to quite a show last week when a group of NHL alumni hit the ice for an ex­hi­bi­tion game with a group of lo­cal play­ers at the Unity PARC Arena. Led by Stan­ley Cup cham­pion Ray Bourque, the NHLers grace­fully moved around the ice and pro­vided plenty of high­light reel plays.

Shar­ing the ice with some of your child­hood idols isn’t al­ways the eas­i­est thing to do.

Just ask Danny O’Keefe. He and a dozen other lo­cal Pla­cen­tia hockey play­ers suited up last Tues­day to play with and against NHL alumni at the Unity PARC Arena in Pla­cen­tia.

Top names like Ray Bourque, Gary Lee­man and Al Iafrate, to name a few, took to the ice for the ex­hi­bi­tion match.

“There were times when I caught my­self be­ing a fan out there,” O’Keefe said mo­ments af­ter the fi­nal horn sounded and play­ers from both teams met at cen­tre ice for a group photo op. “The game was a great bit of fun. They treat you like you’re one of the boys.”

It was not O’Keefe’s first skate with a former pro hockey player. He’s pre­vi­ously taken part in the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s now-an­nual Hockey He­roes tour­na­ment held in the metro re­gion.

For this game, he donned the fa­mil­iar red and blue of the New York Rangers and scam­pered around the ice with the No. 6 stitched to his back. O’Keefe lined up next to the gar­gan­tuan Mathieu Dan­de­nault and across from a former Toronto Maple Leaf, the bearded Gary Lee­man.

The former 50-goal scorer for the Leafs was a favourite of O’Keefe’s grow­ing up.

“I’m a Leafs fan,” he said proudly, his chest puff­ing out at the men­tion of the sto­ried fran­chise. “It’s a child­hood dream grow­ing up … it was in­ter­est­ing.

“I got a pass from Lee­man, so that was great.”

The ac­tion on the ice is only half of the ex­cite­ment at th­ese kinds of events. There is also the fan ex­pe­ri­ence. For adults, it’s the thought of see­ing and in­ter­act­ing with play­ers they grew up watch­ing and ad­mir­ing. De­pend­ing on the team they played for, you may had a strong dis­like for them.

The line­ups to get into the dress­ing room af­ter each pe­riod was teem­ing with adults hold­ing var­i­ous items in one hand and a sharpie in the other. Mixed in be­tween ex­ited young­sters, the adults en­tered the room one-by-one and one-by­one they ex­ited with enor­mous smiles on their faces.

For Wil­liam Neville, see­ing some of the Bru­ins leg­ends skat­ing on his home­town ice against his son Jamie, who was in goal for the home­town team, was some­thing else.

“It brought me back to when I was younger and I used to watch them all the time,” he said mo­ments af­ter the game fin­ished. “It was great to see them in Pla­cen­tia.”

It’s as much about their adult selves as it is about the big kid liv­ing in­side of them.

As for the chil­dren, they hung off se­cu­rity gates, arms out­stretched aim­ing for just one touch of hockey play­ers they weren’t alive to watch play in their prime. They couldn’t pos­si­bly ap­pre­ci­ate the de­fen­sive ge­nius of Bourque or the of­fen­sive wiz­adry of De­nis Maruk, but there they were bright-eyed and in awe of what they were wit­ness­ing.

They’d heard the sto­ries from fa­thers, moth­ers, grand­par­ents and sib­lings, and now they were liv­ing it. O’Keefe saw plenty of the play­ers he coaches in the stands and per­haps on the ice be­tween the first and sec­ond pe­ri­ods when the pros bat­tled the Pla­cen­tia In­ter­town novice lions.

“I think it’s fun for them and its fun for us,” said Bourque. “A lot of them never saw us play, but kind of know about us. It’s nice to see them light up when they come into the room. They take pic­tures and their par­ents talk to them about when we used to play.

“Now, with tech­nol­ogy they can go on, look us up and kind of see some things. It’s pretty neat.”

“You get a lot of kids here. A lot of them I coach,” added O’Keefe. “It’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The game brought more than a few smiles to faces of any fan of hockey that found them- selves in­side the arena this evening. There were cellys from the pros, great saves from both goal­tenders and some pin point pass­ing. At times, it seemed like the pros had a sixth sense on the ice.

They would throw pucks around al­most blindly and they’d hit their in­tended tar­gets on the tape.

“Ray Bourque and the guys, they’re phe­nom­e­nal fel­las,” said O’Keefe. “They’re good for the kids and they’re good for the area. It’s just tremen­dous.”

PHO­TOS BY NI­CHOLAS MERCER/THE COM­PASS

Pla­cen­tia Lions player Michael Gam­bin moves in on Alumni de­fence­man Al Iafrate.

Former Bos­ton Bru­ins cap­tain Ray Bourque plays keep away with the puck dur­ing the first pe­riod.

NHL Alumni Ray Bourque and Al Iafrate watch a pair of novice play­ers, from left, Landon Ker­rivan and Hunter O’Keefe, move around the net with the puck.

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