ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals locker room was filled with children's laughter and cheers following their practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Friday.
Although the Capitals were preparing to play the Florida Panthers at Verizon Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CSN-DC, FS-F, NHL.TV), this was not a usual workday. They were hosting children from Make-A-Wish's Mid-Atlantic chapter, whom they are sponsoring as part of the Capitals' Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night on Saturday.
"For the families that are here, it's a special day for them, but it's probably more special for us," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "It's a dose of reality, a dose of a great smile. Something non-hockey, which is good."
Each of the Capitals 23 players, Trotz and owner Ted Leonsis were paired with a Make-A-Wish participant who visited the locker room prior to a Hockey Fights Cancer skate. For the skate, the players wore lavender Hockey Fights Cancer jerseys with the last name of the child they were paired with on the back.
They will wear the jerseys again for pregame warm-ups Saturday, and then the jerseys will be auctioned off to benefit Hockey Fights Cancer. The Make-A-Wish children also will be at the game to cheer on the Capitals.
"It's amazing," forward T.J. Oshie said. "[With] the hardships that these kids and these parents have to go through on a daily basis, to see a smile on their face brings a lot of pride and a lot of joy to the game that we love and that we have the privilege of doing every day."
There were plenty of smiles in the locker room and on ice from the children and the players.
Captain Alex Ovechkin was paired with Connor Durgin, a 7-year-old hockey player from Chesapeake Beach, Md., who has battled cancer. They chatted about hockey, Durgin noted how much Ovechkin was sweating after practice and Ovechkin gave him a set of his signature yellow skate laces.
Defenseman Nate Schmidt was extremely popular among the children after he got down on the carpet to play with Amanda Bures, a 6-year-old from Parkville, Md., who has leukemia. Durgin got in on the fun by jumping on Schmidt's back.
Later, Schmidt and Trotz each took a turn skating with Bures and carrying her around the ice.
"She's having an amazing time," Bures' mother, Lori, said. "This has been our first real event. We're only about a month and a half away from being done with treatment, so it's been a fun celebration to kind of look forward to having treatment done, but being able to kind of be recognized and celebrate with the people that are standing out. We were lucky enough to work with Nate, and he was a great partner.
"[Amanda] doesn't have a lot of words, but she has a lot of spunk. So he got right down and played with her and it really meant a lot that they were willing to meet her where she is, which is really important because she's not just a kid with cancer, she's a kid with Down syndrome, too."
Defenseman Karl Alzner showed 15-year-old Nitin Ramachandran of Oak Hill, Va., around the locker room, and the two played pingpong before heading out to the ice.
"Karl Alzner is one of the nicest guys I've ever met," said Ramachandran, who is battling brain cancer. "I've never skated before. I lost my balance completely, but he helped me on the ice and he took me around for laps."
All of the players interacted with the children on the ice, helping them skate and pushing some around on sleds in between posing for pictures and signing autographs.
"These are the [days] that are pretty cool," defenseman Taylor Chorney said. "Having a son now, I think it totally changes your perspective on it. I can't even imagine what these parents are going through and what these kids are going through, and if you can go out there for even five minutes and put a smile on one of these kid's faces, that's really what it's all about."
Oshie has inspired a new hockey fan in Addy Flint, an 8-year-old from Alexandria, Va., who is fighting cancer. After watching Oshie score a goal in the Capitals' 4-3 overtime victory against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, she sat with him in the locker room on Friday and talked about how she enjoys drawing.
"The great thing is Make-a-Wish is so amazing with these events that really it's not about the cancer, it's not about all the treatments, it's just about having a great time and making wishes come true," Flint's father, Tom, said.
Wearing her red home Capitals jersey with Oshie's name and No. 77 on the back, Addy Flint was almost inseparable from Oshie on the ice and acknowledged she didn't want to come off when the skate was over.
"It was really fun," she said. "We skated around on the ice rink and in the locker room we talked about [the win over the Jets]. I've never really watched hockey. It was my first time and it was super fun."