OTTAWA -- Hunter Williamson clutched his graduation certificate from the Ottawa Senators Learn to Play program and showed it off to his father, Mark.
Hunter, a 4-year-old from Pembroke, Ontario, was part of a graduating class of 70 children who received their certificates from former Senators forward Rob Zamuner, representing the NHL Players' Association, along with former center Bryan Smolinski and former defenseman Chris Phillips, fellow Senators alumni who mentor children in the program.
They gathered for the ceremony on a rink beside the Aberdeen Pavilion in Lansdowne Park as part of the pregame celebration prior to the 2017 Scotiabank NHL100 Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
Hunter's favorite part of the program: "Doing the backhands," he said.
The Learn To Play program, developed jointly by the NHL and the NHLPA, introduces children aged 4-8 to hockey in a fun and positive setting with minimal time and financial commitments. The program provides first-time participants with free head-to-toe equipment, weekly sessions of age appropriate on-ice instruction and certified coaching, led by National Hockey League Alumni, in a safe atmosphere.
The on-ice programs have been developed in conjunction with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada.
"We heard about the program through word of mouth up in Pembroke and did a little more investigating online through the Sens website," Mark Williamson said. "Once we saw it, we jumped at the opportunity to be part of the program.
"For us it was a great because it was a low-cost way to introduce him to the game. For the $100 to invest in it, it was awesome to get him fully outfitted and out on the ice. He learned a ton about hockey. The big thing that we saw with him was the improvement in his skating.
"He came home and he wanted to play in the driveway and just shoot the puck. Soon playing in the driveway wasn't enough and he wanted to be on the ice. He got really excited every week and then the culmination with Chris Phillips coming onto the ice with him, and Chris was there with him 1-on-1 on the ice for a while."
The presence of Phillips, who played 17 seasons in the NHL, all with the Senators, was commanding.
"You could see he's looking up at him a bit starstruck," Williamson said. "[Hunter] he knew he was an Ottawa Senator. He just had an absolute blast."
"It's all about the fun," said Smolinski, a 15-year League veteran who played three seasons with the Senators. "It all starts with the little Senators. If you can get them to have fun, they are going to become fans."