MONTREAL - When the NHL schedule was released last June, there was only one game that really interested Nicholas Phelan.
The 31-year-old Calgarian was eager to see when his beloved Canadiens were going to be making their annual regular-season appearance at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
This game was going to be different, though, because Nicholas and his wife, Jessica, were bringing along their newly adopted children for their very first taste of NHL action.
Five-year-old Paulius and three-year-old Erika are Lithuanian siblings the Phelans brought to Canada in July 2019, and Nicholas wanted to make certain they'd be Canadiens fans from the start.
"I purposely held them back from going to any game until Montreal was in town. I couldn't risk them getting excited about the Flames scoring some goals here," said Phelan with a laugh. "I needed to keep them away until I could get them to a Habs game."
Mission accomplished. The whole gang was there on December 19 to watch Claude Julien's contingent register a remarkable 4-3 overtime win courtesy of Max Domi's unassisted marker in the extra frame.
It was the perfect finish to an experience the entire Phelan clan won't ever forget.
Paulius and Erika proudly sported the Canadiens jerseys Nicholas and Jessica had presented to them shortly after the Lithuanian courts approved their adoption, and the good guys came out on top.
While the back-and-forth nature of the contest was fun, of course, Nicholas especially relished watching the pregame warmup with Paulius in his arms.
The youngster had really taken to hockey since arriving on Canadian soil, so witnessing the action in person took everything to a whole new level.
"When the players stepped out onto the ice, he just froze. It was like something came over him," recalled Phelan. "He knew he was wearing Shea Weber's jersey, so when I pointed Shea out to him he went very quiet. And then I pointed Carey Price out to him. Those were the two names that stood out. When he saw them wearing the same jersey he was wearing, he was thrilled."
Jessica actually captured Paulius' genuine amazement to perfection with this photograph that Nicholas posted on his social media accounts to commemorate the event.
It just doesn't get any better than this.
"There was something about that moment where you could see the expression on his face when he saw Shea Weber. I was grinning ear to ear the entire night just to see how excited he was," remembered Phelan. "To know where he kind of came from and the opportunities that he's going to have in Canada, it was amazing. I was like - "This is something he would've never experienced." To see how joyful and happy he was, it really overwhelmed all of us that night."
According to Nicholas, Paulius was even high-fiving fellow Canadiens fans whenever the visitors put the puck home.
He says Erika wholeheartedly appreciated the outing, too, but "she definitely enjoyed the popcorn more." How adorable is that?
Like her brother, though, Erika adores being on the ice. They both take skating lessons once a week, and Paulius plays hockey once a week as well.
The activity has proven to be an important part of their overall integration process into Canadian life.
"With Paulius, he just kind of took off. The main thing for us is just seeing his confidence growing as he's learning different things, and he's so happy just being around the other kids. The communication barrier between him and children around the neighborhood is still a very real thing. His English is getting much better, as is Erika's, but when they're out on the ice, they're just skating and playing with everybody," explained Phelan. "With hockey, Paulius has found something that's very inclusive. He's just a part of a team. He's got all these different friends there that he loves playing with."
Safe to say that Paulius and Erika have come a long way since they were first introduced to our national winter sport by Nicholas and Jessica in their native country.
On their very first trip to Lithuania, the couple made certain to pack mini-sticks in their luggage hoping to play a game or two at the orphanage where their future children resided.
"Lithuania is a very big basketball country. Even in the orphanage, they had a basketball court for the kids to play. But it was a very unique thing for them to learn how to hold the sticks. They were holding them by the blade at first. I think there was a curiosity there, and that really helped," explained Phelan. "When we got back to Canada, it started with a little street hockey set. We would go in the street with him. Paulius was always curious about the game."
And now he can't get enough of it. This father-son duo takes full advantage of the time difference to watch as many Canadiens games as possible on TV, and a trip to the Bell Centre is already on their to-do list.
What matters most, however, is that both of the Phelan children are thriving in their new surroundings and their futures are exceptionally bright.
So what's the best part about being a dad, Nicholas?
"Just seeing them grow and the strides they make, and seeing how much they love their parents. To feel that myself, it's been the best part of fatherhood," concluded Phelan. "It's amazing to see just how much they've developed in the seven months they've been home now. That's what it's all about. They're doing very well, and we're very proud of them."