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Hitmen able to learn from Flames, inspire local kids

Wednesday, 04.25.2012 / 9:00 AM / Hockey Skills presented by Canadian Tire

By Aaron Vickers - NHL.com Correspondent

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Hitmen able to learn from Flames, inspire local kids
Players for the junior hockey team get to learn from watching their Scotiabank Saddledome neighbors while they also serve as inspiration for area youth in Alberta.

CALGARY -- If there is a Calgary Flames practice going on at the Scotiabank Saddledome, chances are you don't have to look too far to find several members of the Western Hockey League's Calgary Hitmen peeking in.

Sharing the rink with the Flames, the Hitmen get to see first-hand on a daily basis what it takes to play professionally at hockey's highest level. It's just one of the many perks to being roommates with an NHL franchise.

"Obviously it's really cool," said Brooks Macek, a draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings. "You get to see them almost every day. You get to see them practice and see how hard they work on and off the ice. Seeing them walk around, they're professionals."

Jaynen Rissling, eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft, said the model Flames defensemen have set for him and the interaction between members of the Flames and Hitmen has given him more self-assurance as a player.

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"The Flames have been really good to us," he said. "It's a confidence booster knowing those guys are trying to make face time with you. You get to see what they do and what you can do to get better."

The benefit certainly isn't lost on netminder Chris Dreidger, who will join Rissling as part of the 2012 draft class.

For Driedger, the big developmental advantage of sharing facilities with the Flames comes in the way he gets to see Miikka Kiprusoff and other elite NHL goaltenders prepare in a position the 17-year-old hopes to hold one day.

"It's awesome," Driedger said. "Miikka is one of the best goalies in the world. Just being able to watch him and his mental preparation before games and his overall composure is pretty unbelievable. We've got to watch (Roberto) Luongo and (Cory) Schneider and (Semyon) Varlamov. There have been some pretty good goalies I've got to see and it's interesting to see how they take practices and all that. It's good to see the difference between here and the pro level."

Having the Flames in house is a big resource for Hitmen coach Mike Williamson to have at his disposal. Finishing his third year behind the behind the bench in Calgary, Williamson hasn't had to hassle his players into put in the extra work of paying attention to how NHLers conduct themselves both on the ice and around the rink.

In fact, it doesn't take any persuasion at all for members of the Hitmen to come down to the arena early to take in NHL practices.

"Every day we encourage our guys to get here early and watch them practice," Williamson said. "It usually doesn't take much encouragement. It's a great resource just seeing how those guys prepare every day and how hard they work. You're always pushing at this level to get the guys to try to learn, when they visually see that it's a lot easier."

The wide-eyed, sometimes sheepish look on the face of the Hitmen as they watch the Flames are the same faces they see when the junior team reaches out and into the community.

"It's kind of cool to be that," Dreidger said. "I remember when I was that age and looking up to the guys. It was so cool to see how professional they were. It's really cool to be that guy for the kids. It's cool to remember that you were the little kid there."

The parallel between what the Flames epitomize to the Hitmen and what the Hitmen represent to young kids in the community is evident. While many of the players on the junior team are striving to become what members of the Flames are, many Novice, Atom and Pee Wee-aged players hope to one day make it to the major junior level.

It's a clear link to Macek.

"We look up to the Flames and the younger guys can look up to both us and the Flames," Macek said. "It's pretty cool to be a role model for the younger guys. We just try to set a good model for them to follow."

The same model the Flames have already set for the Hitmen.