I was looking through the photos of last night’s Capital City Crew final ice practice
of the season, a practice that was hosted at the RBC Center by Eric Staal, and I noticed one common theme, a lot of smiles.
Some of the kids found out on the way to the rink that they would be skating with Eric Staal, and quickly the word spread through the locker room as they prepared to take the ice. The hockey knowledge of all of the Crew players has greatly increased over the past seven weeks, but perhaps it has increased more than I realized.
I was tying the skates of one Crew member and he asked me if it was true that Staal would be on the ice. After I confirmed his wish, I asked him how much he knew about Eric. He went on a three-minute rant that included his upcoming birthday, all of his brothers and their playing locations and several key highlights of Staal’s young career.
Also to the pleasure of the Crew members, they were able to take the ice as soon as their equipment was ready. They did not have to wait for the figure skaters to finish and this allowed for some of the first real “free play” by many Crew members.
As Eric answered some of the media’s questions, the kids were busy going through drills to prepare for the arrival of the big guy and to get acclimated to the new rink.
Once Eric joined them on the ice, several camera crews in tow, we were a little nervous that the kids would lose a little focus.
That was not a concern as every player wanted to showcase their skills for Eric.
We asked Eric to give a small demonstration to show what true NHL speed and power looked like. As we expected, his speed and power was quite impressive for the young hockey players (and the older coaches). The Crew quickly showcased that they have all learned the universal hockey clap of slapping your stick on the ice.
What was truly great though, is that several kids felt that Eric’s skill and talent level is attainable. Their confidence while trying a new sport has easily been the most impressive thing to watch.
Once Eric was done with a small skill showcase, he mixed it up with the kids as they scrimmaged. As they came back to the bench, each was quick to brag about who received a pass from Staal or who scored or had the best shot.
At one point, Eric put on a stick handling display that was both impressive and terrifying. He stick-handled through every kid on the ice, some twice, but did so without a helmet and pads. The kids fully enjoyed it…but there were a few of us who worried about our job security if Eric injured himself. I had to remind myself that he was a professional.
As practice neared an end, one of our most improved skaters, Hykeem, decided he was going to play goalie. After making a few sprawling saves, he made the highlight save against Eric Staal that left Hykeem smiling for the rest of the night.
Eric took a team photo with the Crew, all of the coaches and Stormy before offering a few words of encouragement to the group. He then left to a rockstar departure as many of the kids wanted to give him a hug in thanks.
Afterwards, Eric commented on how far the kids had come in seven weeks and how impressed he was by their abilities. He seemed to truly enjoy his time on the ice with kids who were playing solely for their love of the game.
Eric left as all of the kids and coaches did…with a big, kid-like smile.