The NHL, at its core, is a business. To spend your life immersed in the business of hockey, however, you have to love the game -- and you have to have loved it since your young days skating on backyard rinks in the dead of winter.
As Canadian Tire looks to find the most skilled youth hockey play in Canada, a group of NHL alumni who have spent their life around the game are getting the opportunity to participate and educate the young children who are hoping to be the stars of tomorrow. And for retired NHLers like Marty McSorley
, Dale Hawerchuk
and Marcel Dionne
, having the chance to skate with those kids can make them feel young again.
"I really enjoy putting my skates on and going on the ice to begin with," McSorley said. "But to go on with kids that are so motivated and so fired up, it kind of renews your own love for the game to be on the ice with these kids. There will be times when the doors will open and the zambonis will come out on the ice, and we're just starting to have fun."
"I really enjoy putting my skates on and going on the ice to begin with. But to go on with kids that are so motivated and so fired up, it kind of renews your own love for the game to be on the ice with these kids. There will be times when the doors will open and the zambonis will come out on the ice, and we're just starting to have fun." -- Marty McSorley
In September, the NHL and the Canadian Tire Hockey School announced the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills Competition, a series of 15 regional competitions and hockey clinics that seek to find the most-skilled junior hockey player in Canada. The championship of the competition will be held in Ottawa during the 2012 NHL All-Star Game weekend. The regional qualifiers, which concluded on Dec. 16 in St. John's, NL, were held in cities ranging from large to small as both males and females aged 7 to 12 competed in fastest skater, shooting accuracy, puck control and passing accuracy competitions.
While the event is a competition, it also seeks to educate youth hockey players on the skills the game requires, and McSorley, Hawerchuk and Dionne were among 24 NHL alums to participate in doing so.
"It's great to see the enthusiasm of the kids," Hawerchuk said. "What impresses me is how enthusiastic they are to do each drill, and as they watch players go through the competitions, you can see their minds ticking about how they might be able to do it quicker or faster or more accurate."
Few people are better to learn hockey from than those who have accomplished great things in the best league in the world. Hawerchuk and Dionne have 1,249 goals and 1,931 assists between them while McSorley has twice gotten his name on the Stanley Cup. The reputations of the alums involved let the kids participating realize they are learning from the best, and the lessons imparted are valuable ones.
McSorley said that he focused on teaching the kids about the importance of working on their game every day as well as the need to adapt to the increased pace of the game at higher levels.
Hawerchuk hammered home the lessons of focusing on controlling the puck rather than aiming when you shoot at the net because, as a seasoned player realizes, the net does not move.
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Dionne focused on teaching kids to raise the puck, while reassuring them that the skill of doing so comes with age as their bodies get larger and stronger. Of course Dionne also noted the pratfalls that can come when a retired NHL player has to put his reputation on display for the participants and their parents, who watch excitedly.
"The amazing thing is when they ask you to do it," Dionne said. "It's pretty tough when you don't hit the target. You tell them, 'NHL Hall of Famer!'"
Dionne, now 60, can probably be given a mulligan if his shot isn't quite as sharp as it once was, but with guidance from NHL alums like him, the children participating in the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills Competition may someday develop a sharp shot of their own. And with the ubiquitous presence of Canadian Tire in Canada's youth hockey, all of those competitors will have a similar vein to connect with as they continue to develop their game.
"Canadian Tire has been ingrained in hockey for as long as I can ever remember," McSorley said. "People talk about getting equipment and other things over the years, and all across the country Canadian Tire would come up. It comes up with guys in the National Hockey League, alumni and even the kids now. It's fun to see that relationship continue."
That connection is one more level that the alums can relate to the participants about, and for some like Dionne, who recalls meeting Yvan Cournoyer
at the age of 12 and then facing him in the NHL eight years later, the opportunity to learn from NHL alumni will have a significant impact on their hockey futures. How far those futures go for some of these players is anybody's guess, but Dionne predicted that several of the participants in the skills competition will be playing junior hockey in just a few years.
And who knows? Maybe the game's next great star was in their midst.
"They're there," McSorley said. "They don't know it yet, but they're there, and they all want to believe they're that person, and that's what's great about the game.
"Tomorrow's stars are in that crowd. They're just having fun like everybody else."