Zebras Care giving kids a different view of officials

Thursday, 11.25.2010 / 9:00 AM
Magalie Lafrenière  - NHL.com Staff Writer
NEWARK, N.J. -- How many hockey fans out there would love to throw a snowball or 10 at an NHL referee or linesman?

Matthew Villacis, 9, lived that dream Monday night as he took aim at linesman Mark Shewchyk, standing in front of a goal in the Zamboni bay at the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils.

"One of the kids wanted to see where the snow was and so for something fun to do, I played goalie," Shewchyk told NHL.com. "I knew he would love that. I try to have fun with the kids."

In this case, there were no game misconducts for throwing something at an official. Instead, Villacis and three of his teammates from Hockey in Newark were the guests of the on-ice officials for that night's game between the Devils and the Washington Capitals.

It was all part of Zebras Care, a charity initiative sponsored by the NHL Officials Association. The program, in collaboration with the League and its member teams, allows local children to attend an NHL game and meet the linesmen and referees.

With American Thanksgiving around the corner, Monday's visit gave the officials -- Shewchyk, linesman Tony Sericolo and referees Marc Joannette and Rob Martell -- a little more to think about than your average visit.

"It is a special time to give back," said Sericolo, who co-chairs the charity with linesman Brad Kovachik. They are aided by a committee of seven other NHL officials. "We're doing a lot in each of the cities now, and around the holidays it's extra special. But every time we do a visit, it feels like a holiday and we're giving back."

Monday in Newark, Villacis, along with Che Williams and brothers Jason and Joshua Seabra, were all smiles as they entered a room to which few outsiders are allowed entrance.

"My favorite part was going into the locker room and seeing all the equipment," said Williams, 13. "And also to see what they go through day-to-day."

The four officials handed out Zebras Care gift bags, as well as mementos and game tickets provided by the Devils, to the four boys, who peppered the officials with a rapid-fire stream of questions.

After posing for a few pictures, the contingent headed for the ice.

A goalie himself, Villacis couldn't contain his excitement at being so close to the crease of New Jersey star goalie Martin Brodeur and dragged Martell and Sericolo by their hands to get a closer look.

"We told him that's where Marty Brodeur stands for two periods, so he asked if he could go over and touch it," Martell told NHL.com. "We said sure and we walked him over and he touched both posts and he gave the posts a little hug and he said, 'Good luck Marty.'

"I didn't have the heart to tell him Marty was hurt and wouldn't be playing for two weeks, but he also said his second favorite player is the back-up goalie (Johan Hedberg), so it worked out and the goalie got a shutout."

In fact, Hedberg recorded a 5-0 shutout against the high-flying Capitals.

Similar scenes have played out across the NHL during the five years Zebras Care has been in operation. But there is always a new wrinkle that keeps the officials eager for the next visit.

"I always enjoy doing them," Joannette told NHL.com. "I know looking at these kids that at some point in my life I was in their position and you look up to people that are already in the NHL. It's nice to see the glow in their eyes."

Seabra, who listened intently to the officials during the 15-minute visit, admitted he had become a fan of the officials.

"My favorite part was talking to them," Seabra, 14, said. "You see how their experience was and they said it's also like being a pro. You have to take many levels and sometimes you think referees don't know nothing about hockey and they just go and ref a game. They actually know a little bit about it and they were playing when they were our age, too, so they had the same experience."

The officials admit it's always nice to show the human side of the men who don pinstripes at NHL arenas across North America.

"I told them to enjoy the game, but to make sure they cheer for the refs now," Martell said. "No more yelling at the referees now that they've met us. They are different hockey fans now because they are on our team. We'll see how far that goes."

For Hockey in Newark coach Keith Veltre, Monday's activities were a great reward for the four children chosen to take part in the visit because of their commitment to school and to hockey practice.

"Our program prides itself on creating unique opportunities for these kids, opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have," said Veltre, whose Hockey in Newark teams are part of the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program. "It's very important. It's something they'll remember for the rest of their lives, just to come down here and meet these guys."
It's just as memorable for the officials, all of whom walked away with smiles from the visit. Shewchyk also had a bit of snow in his hair, courtesy of the snowballs from Villacis.

"For them to come into our room and see them laugh and smile and joke around kind of puts it into perspective of what we do for a living," Sericolo said. "It means more to us than it means to the children, because we look back as we step onto the ice and say, 'Let's go.' It makes you feel good about where you are in life, and if you can really reach out and help children, it brings a smile on everyone's face, I think."

Follow Magalie Lafrenière on Twitter at: @NHLmagalie
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