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Playing with the big boys

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

BROSSARD – When it comes to making dreams come true, the Canadiens truly are in a league of their own.

On Friday, Michel Therrien’s troops invited players and coaches of the Conquérants des Basses-Laurentides Pee- Wee AAA squad to take part in a practice session at the Bell Sports Complex in preparation for the upcoming Quebec City International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament set for Februrary 11-22. Kevin Brodeur’s Blainville-based contingent will be the Canadiens’ official representative at the 56th edition of the event, which remains the largest minor hockey tournament in the world.

“It was important to me. It’s important to give back. We’re in a position where we can put a smile on young peoples’ faces. The organization made the decision to practice with the kids. It was an easy choice. It was fun for the coaches and the players. It’s fun to see their reaction. It’s something they’ll remember for a long time,” offered Therrien, who was pleased to see 18 Habs suit up for the workout, which also included a friendly game pitting the Conquérants against their idols along with a shootout that featured Carey Price and Dustin Tokarski in goal. “The attitude of our players really impressed me. All the credit goes to them. They like to give back to the community. I’ve got the luxury of coaching some really good people.”

On this day, 17 youngsters were the beneficiaries of an initiative spearheaded by Therrien, who was hoping to send the Conquérants to Quebec’s capital region on a serious high. Needless to say, the Canadiens’ bench boss achieved his objective.

“It was incredible. We expected something fun for the kids, but the Canadiens went all out. They went even further than we thought. We thought we were invited to a practice and a few guys would be on the ice and talk to the kids a little bit. In the end, there was a game and a shootout. P.K. fought with my son on the ice. I’m sure it was the best day of his life,” praised François Gaudette, whose son, Noah, was among the lucky Pee-Wee players to hit the ice on the South Shore after the Canadiens’ concluded their morning practice. “Hats off to the Canadiens. We were anticipating a good experience, but not something quite like this.”

Interestingly enough, many of the players inside the Canadiens’ locker room are veterans of the tournament themselves, so they know just how special it is to earn the right to travel to Quebec City this time of year for some serious on-ice competition and a unique atmosphere. When the offer to take to the ice alongside them was brought to their attention, they simply couldn’t refuse.

“I remember when I went to the Pee-Wee tournament there. It was a great experience. You’re kind of on the big stage. You get your hockey cards and everybody is asking you for autographs. For an 11 or 12-year-old, that’s pretty amazing. That would’ve been pretty cool when we were younger, just before we went to the tournament, to go out with the Toronto Maple Leafs,” offered Mike Weaver, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Brampton. “You could see their faces when we came out on the ice. They probably weren’t smiling for me, and more for P.K. and Carey. But, it was  great.”

Like Weaver, Brendan Gallagher still vividly recalls his Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament experience, which included many memorable moments - along with one he’d rather soon forget.

“A lot of the guys were talking about just how many of us did play in that tournament and how much fun we had. I think I still have all of the pins that I collected and a lot of memories as well. I remember every game and the teammates that I played with. That’s what minor hockey is all about, building those memories. Certainly, that tournament is one of them,” confided Gallagher, who donned the colors of the Burnaby Winter Club (BWC) Bruins at the event about a decade ago.

“There is something [in particular] I wouldn’t like to relive, though,” added Gallagher with a smile, while being pressed by defenseman Nathan Beaulieu to share one of the tougher moments in his young hockey career. “I was having a pretty good game. I had a five-point night going. We were down 6-5. I had a breakaway with 30 seconds to go. I was feeling pretty confident going into it. Unfortunately, I blew it for the team. The puck ended up in the corner. I still have a bunch of buddies on the team and they won’t let me forget it. It’s something that lives with me to this day.”

While Gallagher’s Bruins might have come up short all those years ago, Dale Weise believes the Conquérants are in great shape to battle it out for Pee-Wee hockey’s top prize.

“Some of these kids are unbelievable. To have that kind of talent at that age is amazing. It’s just incredible to watch some of these kids. Probably two or three kids out there have better hands than half the guys on our team. It’s impressive,” mentioned Weise. “It’s so cool for them to be able to come out and play with us. You see the smiles on some of our guys’ faces and you’d have to think it was even more fun for us.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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