-- The 2009-10 NHL season unofficially got under way Tuesday afternoon at the NHL Store Powered By Reebok during a visit by Philadelphia Flyers
defenseman Chris Pronger
and Boston Bruins
goaltender Tim Thomas
More than 200 people crammed the store to hear Thomas, the 2009 Vezina Trophy winner, and Pronger, the 2000 Norris Trophy winner and 2007 Stanley Cup winner, talk about the upcoming season, which will see the pair oppose one another on Jan. 1, 2010 in the Bridgestone Winter Classic at Boston's Fenway Park.
After an interview session hosted by ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer E.J. Hradek, the floor was thrown open to questions and Thomas a shot in the pads from Gabriel Hall of West Philadelphia.
"After we beat you this season, what else are looking forward to this year?" Hall said to Thomas.
Thomas is perpetually mild, courteous, thoughtful and decent, but Hall hit him where he lives.
"I think you're getting a little ahead of yourself, fella," Thomas retorted.
Hall is part of a group that plays hockey under the leadership of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. His sister, Gillian Jackson, 13, also attended. She's a defenseman and goalie. She likes the Ed Snider Foundation approach because it puts emphasis on giving young women an opportunity to play. She's on a girls' team and also plays on a mixed in-house team.
"That's awesome to me because we don't have to worry about the guys picking on us," Jackson said. "This way, girls get the attention."
Jackson said she was "forced into hockey" by her brother but now she loves it.
"Was that your brother that asked Thomas that question?" Jackson was asked.
"Oh yeah," she said.
"Were you proud of him?"
Thomas has heard worse and he rolled with the punch, laughing as hard as anyone, while Pronger did all he could not to dissolve in laughter.
One young player, Matthew Von Dollen, with the American Special Hockey Association program asked Thomas if he was better than New York Rangers
goalie Henrik Lundqvist
, a player who has been generous with his time with the program. Thomas, who asked several times on other questions if he should give "the politically correct answer," was direct in responding that goaltender is the most team-dependent position in hockey.
"If those guys in front of you can't stop the puck from getting in on you, there's not much chance you will," Thomas said, and then had some very nice things to say about Lundqvist.
Both Pronger and Thomas were asked about their formative hockey years and how they grew to love the game. Both spoke of long winter hours spent playing the game on ponds, outdoor rinks and the streets. Both said it was a love for the game that grew inside them.
Pronger talked about playing in minus-20 degree weather until nearly midnight, night after night, in the remote western Ontario logging town, Dryden, where he grew up. When asked if having an older brother (former NHLer Sean) helped, Pronger said, "You get pretty tough pretty fast when the older kids are beating on you."
Teresa Horn, 20, of New Boston, N.H., near Manchester, has given herself a difficult assignment, attending New York City's Hunter College while remaining a strong fan of the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots. Horn was unafraid to wear her Bruins' T-shirt on the streets of New York City. They grow them tough in New Hampshire, like Tara Mounsey, one of the heroes of the 1998 U.S. Women's Olympic team that won the gold medal. Mounsey was the 1996 New Hampshire high-school player of the year while competing against boys.
"She's one of my heroes," Horn said. "She's from Concord and she skated at Tri-Town Arena in Hooksett, where I played for the Lady Monarchs. She's part of the program there and a big idol of mine. I'm here to see Tim Thomas
, one of my favorites. He's so humble and so talented. I've been rooting for him for a long time and I felt like he wasn't being recognized so I'm so happy for him this year. He finally got what he deserved."
Horn played one season at UMASS-Boston, for coach Maura Crowell, before "retiring." She was asked if she would change allegiances to make life easier in New York.
"No!," said Horn who, like most New Englanders, would turn to sand if someone put a Rangers hat on them. "I will never change."
Dylan Garcia doesn't change either. He's Rangers' Blue all the way. Dylan, 11, has been playing with Ice Hockey In Harlem for six years, since his mom, Gayle, signed him up. He plays wing and some defense and was asked if he liked the way Pronger plays.
"Eh, a little," he replied. Did you like him more before he joined the Flyers?
In the same vein, he said Thomas was good, but not as good as Lundqvist.
Meanwhile, Andrew Scaraiti of The Bronx was getting a well-deserved teasing from his friends, John Tabone of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, and Dan Melillo of The Bronx, a right winger for the White Plains Plainsmen out of Ebersole Ice Rink. Melillo and Tabone have their heads on straight, but Scaraiti roots for the Pittsburgh Penguins
"Because they like the Rangers," Scaraiti said, pointing to his friends, "I like whatever team they don't like."
Suspected of being a complete contrarian, Scaraiti was asked if he also roots for the Dallas Cowboys.
"No, I'm not that bad. I'm here to see Chris Pronger
. I like the hard hits." So now he's cheering Flyers. Melillo is incorrigible, but his friends seem to like him.
Xavier Alonso of Stony Point, N.Y., who plays left wing at Sport-O-Rama in Monsey, N.Y., was also there to see Pronger. He wanted to ask him what it was like to play in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final but didn't get the chance. He was asked what he thought of Thomas? "One of the best puckstoppers in the NHL," Alonso said.
There was also a large contingent of players from the USA Hockey-affiliated American Special Hockey Association, including goalie Max Maksimyadis, the 2008 USA Hockey Disabled Player of the Year, who asked Thomas how he developed his style.
"Maybe it's because I never had a goalie coach until my first year as a professional," said Thomas, who had already twice been named an All-American at the University of Vermont by then. Thomas went on to a lengthy discussion of how to get better as a goalie.
And speaking of goalies, Jackson is thrilled that the Flyers will have a minority player in net, Ray Emery
. It's been a great year in America, with the election of the first minority president, Barack Obama, and Emery's arrival is icing on Jackson's Flyers' cake.
"It makes me feel like I can reach that goal," Jackson said.