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NHL alumni make kids smile at Kraft Hockeyville

by Magalie Lafreni?re
DUNDAS, Ontario -- Monday in Kraft Hockeyville was all about putting smiles on kids' faces. The four NHL alumni members representing the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres -- Dave Andreychuk, Brad Marsh, Danny Gare and Shawn McEachern -- visited the local Dundas elementary schools and McMaster Children's hospital.

"It's always nice to have an opportunity to go into and talk to somebody and say, 'Hey' and give them a picture with a former NHL player or with Peter Puck or Sabretooth," said Gare, who was a 50-goal scorer with the Sabres. "It makes you feel pretty special."

The day started off early with the schools visits. The alumni paired up in twos, brought along a mascot and entered the school gyms to the screams of kids all decked out in yellow "Dundas is Hockeyville" jerseys with Stompin' Tom Connors' "The Good Old Hockey Game" playing in the background.

The schoolchildren had opportunities to ask many many questions such as "What is it like being a famous hockey player?", "What's your favorite movie", "Why did you retire?", "What was your favorite team growing up?", "Do you have kids?" and Andreychuk's favorite question of the day, "Who was your inspiration as a kid?"

"Those are the answers that kids need to hear about," said Andreychuk, who in fact attended an elementary school in the same school board system as his visit to St. Augustine's School. "Listening to their parents and my inspiration being my Dad, to me that kind of question was neat."

Russ Powers, Dundas' councilman with the city of Hamilton, noted that the schools have been preparing for the visits and Kraft Hockeyville.

"The teachers have incorporated the history of hockey into their programs," said Powers.  "The history of Dundas, the history of Kraft Hockeyville, the history of hockey, it's just become part a bonus syllabus. I never had that when I went to school."

The players also spoke about their careers and superstitions and one wonders if that after this visit if the children will be tying up their right skate before the left skate just as Marsh did in his days as a Senator.

The visit ended on an especially high note at St. Augustine's as names were drawn by Andreychuk and Marsh to see who would attend the following day's morning skate. The final winner happened to be 5-year-old Elena Chmura, who attends school in a wheelchair and breathes with help from a respirator.

"People thought it was planned, but they picked out the name. It was just special that she was recognized," said school principal, Judy Santi-DeRubeis. "She's also a twin and I really thought it was nice that they gave me extra tickets so that her nurse and her twin can go to see the practice, too."

Her students worked hard voting during the Kraft Hockeyville Campaign and were extremely excited about having former NHL players coming to their school.

"I think it was great," said the principal. "Especially with Dave (Andreychuk). He is a graduate of our school system, so it's nice for kids to see that they can do anything that they want to do."

Andreychuk was just pleased to spread his words of wisdom and was as excited as the kids to be there.

"It was fun," Andreychuk said. "I was saying to Brad (Marsh) on the way out that if I was a young kid and two NHL players came to our school, I'd be excited too. It was good. When we walked in and they were all cheering for us, it was kind of neat."

From the schools, the four ex-players and their mascots headed over to the Children's hospital, where they were greeted by another room full of smiling children. Most of them dragged their IVs and their mothers along the corridor not wanting to miss these special guests.

Sixteen-year-old MacKenzie Mundell, who was at McMaster for cystic fibrosis treatment, was thrilled with the visit.

"It gives us something to look forward to, something to get us out of the room," she said. "It's nice. It's really nice."

Mundell was busy securing autographs, but even though she was the one staying in the hospital, the autographs weren't for her.

"They’re for my brother. I'm not the hugest hockey fan, but my brother, he's a goalie and he would really love to be here today," she said.

The alumni also made visits to the patients who weren’t well enough to leave their rooms.

In one room they found 11-year-old, Zach Newman and his mother, Carli.

"It is really cool, he was excited,” Mom said. "When they have a bad day, it means a lot and it's really special that they come around to the rooms if they can't come out. We really appreciate it."

Zack wasn't feeling well at all that day; he's been in the hospital for 16 weeks. But as Gare and McEachern left his room he was all smiles and looking for a spot on his IV pole to hang his new autographs.

The NHL alumni did many visits in their days in the NHL, but it doesn't necessarily get easier for them.

"It's different as you get older. When you first start playing, you don't have kids but as you get older and have your own kids, it really touches you," said McEachern, who spent six seasons with the Senators."I think it's great to come to meet not only the kids, but the parents. It weighs a lot on the parents as well."

"The teachers have incorporated the history of hockey into their programs. The history of Dundas, the history of Kraft Hockeyville, the history of hockey, it's just become part a bonus syllabus. I never had that when I went to school."
-- Russ Powers, Dundas Councilman

For Andreychuk, visiting McMaster Children's hospital isn't a new thing. He brought the Cup for a visit in 2004 and through his foundation he's raised money for the neo-natal unit, where his sister is a nurse.

"When I saw on the schedule that we were coming here I was excited about it, knowing that I’ve been here before," said Andreychuk. “It's a little different to be coming back into Canada and going to a hospital. You get invited into every room, everybody knows hockey, and everybody knows who you are. To me this is what it's all about, putting a smile on kids’ faces that aren't feeling too great. It was a good day."

It was a good day for all four of the alumni whose Kraft Hockeyville experience came to a close today.

"It was a lot of fun. It was unique, you know, coming to a small town like this, "said McEachern, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins.  "To have two NHL teams play and to do all the clinics with a bunch of different kids and then we went to the park and signed some autographs and then over to the hospital. It's been a fun experience and I wasn't aware of Dundas before I came here, but it's a very nice place. The people are really nice to us."

The local boy, Andreychuk echoed McEachern’s statement, but for him it was more about having a good time in a place he loves.

"It's been really great, said Andreychuk."I'm glad that I was back. I really realized that this community is rallying around minor hockey. It's been fun. There are all kinds of towns all over Canada that would love to have this here and it would be fun to go back and do Kraft Hockeyville."

Follow Magalie Lafrenière on Twitter at: @NHLmagalie

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