Anthony Vela was always close to the ice when he was a New York Islanders season ticket holder.
But plexiglass and other people always got between him and the action and no matter how close he was to guys like Clark Gillies or Pierre Turgeon - nothing compares to actually being on the ice with them.
On Saturday afternoon, Vela took a pass from Turgeon and roofed a backhand while wearing the Islanders crest - living out a longtime dream at the team's inaugural four-day fantasy camp. Afterwards, they went for beers.
"It's better than I imagined," Vela, from East Northport, said. "I'm playing with the guys I grew up watching, Gillies behind the bench. Playing with Turgeon, which is awesome. He looks like he can still play really well. It's amazing."
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The first fantasy camp featured alumni from every era, with Billy Smith, Gillies, Ken Morrow and more representing the 70's and 80's, Pierre Turgeon and Steve Webb representing the 90's and Shawn Bates, Mark Parrish and Eric Cairns representing the 2000's. Die-hard Islanders fans came from far and wide, across the United States and as far as Red Deer, Alberta in Western Canada for the immersive experience.
The alumni, current Islanders coaches and celebrity guests like ESPN radio's Alan Hahn, were dispersed among four teams in a round-robin tournament, giving fans the chance to play with and against their favorite players. Taking a pass from Turgeon, getting coached by Doug Weight, or fending off a Matt Carkner pickpocket - from the bench - those are the life-long memories.
ESPN Radio's Alan Hahn on the Isles Fantasy Camp
"It's great because you never know when you'll have a chance to do this again," Vela said. "I'm trying to savor every moment."
"They're happy to be on the ice," Turgeon said of the campers. "You tell them good job and you can see the smile on their face and it makes a difference. We enjoy this."
The fun continued off the ice. On Thursday, the campers and alumni were taken in a fantasy draft to create their teams. Friday was a chance to get to know the Islanders over a few beers and listen to old hockey stories. Gillies was the undisputed king when it came to telling stories and he had the campers and younger alums hanging off his every word. In some respects, this was just as much a camp for the Islanders as it was the fans.
"I was pretty excited to come back and meet some of my old roommates and teammates, but I wasn't expecting to have so much fun with the generations of Islanders," Mark Parrish said. "It's all the stories that happened in the locker room, on the road, on a plane, on a bus, wherever it might have been. To hear the different generations of travel styles and personalities has been my favorite part."
The camp also included a chalk talk with Islanders Head Coach Doug Weight and a Sound Tigers Head Coach Brent Thompson - a private coaching session and chance to ask the coaches questions. Weight answered inquiries about the power play, penalty kill, breakouts and offered insight seldom given out to fans.
Weight, who remembers what it meant to him as a teenager to be able to talk to Steve Yzerman, wanted to make sure the fantasy campers had that same connection and experience.
"It's great to see all the guys come back, but it's also great for the guys who come in and are in the camp, just meeting their heroes and the guys they looked up to," Weight said. "We're making it as real as we can and it's been a lot of fun.