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Hanifin, draft prospects bond with kids at clinic

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin considered it unusual that young, aspiring hockey players would even think of calling him Mr. Hanifin.

But that's what happened on Thursday when Hanifin and five other top North American prospects eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft took part in a Top Prospects Clinic here at the Panthers Ice Den, the practice facility of the Florida Panthers.

"They were calling me Mr. Hanifin and I looked at them and said, 'Hey, call me Noah because I'm just 18 years old,'" Hanifin said. "They were young kids out there but a lot of them could skate and had some good moves. It's great to see the future of USA Hockey. It just shows the how much the hockey in this country is spreading; it's awesome."

The draft will take place Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports) and Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, TVA Sports) at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

In addition to Hanifin, the top draft-eligible prospects participating in the clinic were Erie Otters center Connor McDavid, Boston University center Jack Eichel, London Knights center Mitchell Marner, Kingston Frontenacs left wing Lawson Crouse and Erie center Dylan Strome.

The prospects helped instruct and lead 54 children aged 8- to 15-years-old, who are each involved in either the Junior Panthers travel program or the Ice Den recreation program. It was a chance for the kids to gain some knowledge and a better understanding of the game they love.

"Hockey is alive and well in Florida and it's been growing rapidly over the years; the better our NHL teams do, the better our growth," Junior Panthers travel hockey administrator Cindy Friedman said. "We added an under-18 team this year, something we haven't had in three years. Our under-16's still wanted to play and continue playing close to home, so the U-18 team has really worked out well."

Friedman said that the programs at the Ice Den include former NHL players, such as Marco Sturm, Denis Shvidki and Petr Sykora.

"These kids will go home and tell everybody about what they did and that's great," Friedman said. "Our 'Learn To Skate' program has been bursting at the seams."

Hockey in Florida has seen a gradual rise in popularity in recent years. In 2008-09, youth participation in hockey reached 10,340. In 2014-15, the number increased to an all-time high 12,505. The 10-year growth rate dating to 2003-04 is under 50 percent.

McDavid, No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters eligible for the draft, said aiding the kids took him back to his younger years.

"It was cool to be around kids who want to play hockey; it's nice and they love the game as much as we do," McDavid said. "I guess we'll always be connected that way. I guess that's the beauty of hockey. We have a kind of bond that brings everyone together so whenever we're out there on the ice, whether you're 5-years-old, 10-years-old, or whatever, it doesn't matter. You kind of have that connection with them."

Eichel, No. 2 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, considers it important to help promote the sport to younger players whenever he gets an opportunity.

"It's fun; I like doing stuff like that," Eichel said. "It's good to give back. When I was in their situation I think that would have been something that would have meant the world to me. You have to put yourself in their shoes, it's a lot of fun to be out there.

"They'll remember that for the rest of their lives."

Marner, No. 6 on Central Scouting's final North American rankings, enjoyed the opportunity to instruct players with the help of Eichel and Strome at various points throughout the one-hour session.

"It was a lot of fun; I know when I was a little kid I loved meeting NHL players and talking to them," Marner said. "As much fun as it was for them, it was fun for us. We got out there, got to meet them, joke around, have some fun. That's the goal, have fun. It's our week to enjoy ourselves. We worked all year for this one week and we're just having fun with it."

Several of the participants told Crouse, No. 5 on Central Scouting's final ranking, that they will be cheering him during the draft.

"A lot of them said they were going to the draft," Crouse said. "I guess they're all hockey fans because they're playing. They're staying up on the draft and I'm sure they're hoping for the best for all of us."

At the conclusion of the clinic, a group picture was taken and each participant had their jersey signed by each prospect.

"I never had that situation," Crouse said. "I'm happy for those little guys. There were a couple great players out here. It's fun to get out there and have some fun with the little guys. I remember when I was in their shoes. They're lucky to have a couple top prospects out there."

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