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NHL players look right at home at the poker table

by Shawn P. Roarke
LAS VEGAS -- Cards have always been part of the fabric of hockey life, dating back to the all-night train rides during the National Hockey League's Original Six Era.

So it was little surprise that a bunch of NHL players didn't look at all out of place on Tuesday as they mixed it up with some pretty distinguished poker pros at the Rio Hotel -- home of the legendary World Series of Poker -- at the NHL Charity Shootout Presented by

Current players Sheldon Souray of Edmonton, Wayne Simmonds and Dustin Brown of Los Angeles and Jimmy Howard of Detroit were joined by Nashville coach Barry Trotz and former players Matthew Barnaby, Mark Napier, Jeremy Roenick and Eddie Olczyk in a set-up that pitted them against three online qualifiers, three poker pros and a few celebrities in an 18-player field.

The pros, though, weren't just any pros. No, the trio in this tournament couldn't have been more accomplished.

Vanessa Rousseau is considered one of the most accomplished women players on the professional tour and has more than $3 million in total earnings. Dennis Phillips finished third in the 2008 WSOP main event, outlasting more than 7,000 other entrants. Joe Cada, the third pro, only won the 2009 WSOP main event, pocketing a cool $8.5 million after outlasting 6,493 other players.

While we can't reveal who won because the tournament will air at a later date, let's just say that the pros had their hands full with the puckheads, many of whom play whenever they get the chance.

"We play a little poker on the plane as we are traveling around, so you get some good matches there when you are on some road trips," said Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell, the champion of last year's inaugural event.

As champion, he was a target for his Flyers teammates during a season that ran well into June as the Flyers fell just two wins short of claiming the Stanley Cup. But he admits he probably learned the most going up against Arron Asham, another of the team's power forwards.

"He's a loose player and likes to call everything, so he ends up catching more times than not," Hartnell said.

Roenick, a 500-goal scorer forward turned hockey broadcaster, plays a ton of poker these days.

"I'm quite avid actually," said Roenick, who made last year's final table. "At home, I'll play two or three times a week at the poker club in the casino (in Scottsdale). I play a lot of poker.

Edmonton defenseman Souray doesn't play nearly as much -- but like Hartnell, hones his skills during the long road trips that define life in the Western Conference.

"We have friendly games on the plane -- more to kill time than anything," Souray said. "We have a young team in Edmonton, so there are not big-money games or anything."

Tuesday's event wasn't for big money either. In fact, all of the participants were raising money for their respective charities. And on that front, the event was a huge success no matter how the all-in plays turned out for individual players.

"I was really a novice at it, so it was interesting sitting near a couple of pros, especially when they went head to head in hands," said Trotz, who played for Best Buddies Tennessee, an advocacy charity for children with Down Syndrome. Trotz's 9-year-old son, Nolan, has Down Syndrome. "It was a really good experience and I think this is a great experience for the players and the NHL and we're all doing good things by raising money for charities."

Not surprisingly, though, some puck talk was able to percolate among all the checking, raising and folding.

Hartnell received a ton of congratulations for making it to the Stanley Cup Final, but it was clear that the disappointment of failing to claim every player's ultimate hockey goal still haunts him almost two weeks to the day since Chicago lifted the Cup at the Wachovia Center.

"It still stings every time you think about it or whatever," Hartnell said. "It's almost time to stop the mourning, I guess, and get back in the gym and use our experience and what happened to get motivated for next year."

The fact that the Stanley Cup was on display just inside the entrance to the Palms Casino Hotel – site of Wednesday's NHL Awards Ceremony – did not help with the healing process, though.

"I saw it this morning when I came over and would have been nice to go over and give it another kiss," Hartnell said. "But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and hopefully we can use it as fire for next year."

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