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'Try Hockey For Free Day' a smashing success

by Davis Harper
NEWARK, N.J. – During his first hockey experience three seasons ago, Matty Villacis sat with his father in the Prudential Center and watched the New Jersey Devils. In goal, Martin Brodeur was regularly stoning the opposition on his way to setting five major goaltending records that season.

Matty was mesmerized.

On Saturday, Villacis found himself in the crease of the Devils' Amerihealth Pavilion practice facility, stopping opposition shots much like his hero. Villacis, 10, was one of more than 40 hockey neophytes to take the ice in Newark on Saturday, and one of more than 10,000 nationwide to participate in USA Hockey and NHL's inaugural Come Play Hockey Month initiative. Saturday's Try Hockey for Free Day put a focus on introducing -- or re-introducing, as in Villacis' case -- kids to the sport for the first time.


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"I loved every part of it," said Villacis, who was helped by a volunteer coach with his skates after the clinic. "My favorite part was the scrimmage at the end, because I got to test my skills in goal."

On hand to administer the event were some of hockey's greatest living legends, including former Devils Ken Daneyko, Grant Marshall and Bruce Driver. Willie O'Ree, who became the first black player in the League back in 1958, was rink-side in his current role of ambassador for Hockey is for Everyone, along with Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello.

"I just think it's great for these inner-city kids to get out on the ice and get introduced to a sport they might have never had an opportunity to play before," O'Ree said. "I think there's going to be more rinks like this, more boys and girls are going to get on the ice. I think the bottom line is having fun, and I think these boys and girls are having fun today."

The large group of youngsters wasn't the only ones on the ice with permanent grins. Those presiding over the clinic -- Daneyko, Marshall, Driver and other volunteers from the Devils organization -- were having just as much fun. Daneyko, still affectionately known as "Mr. Devil", could be seen advising on everything from basic skating technique to the art of the slap shot.

"I'm the big kid out there," Daneyko said. "Some of these kids have skated a couple of times, some it's their first experience. It's a lot of fun, especially when you see them making progress just from the start, to an hour or two later when we finished."

Villacis' father, Javier, was one of many parents surrounding the rink, shouting encouragement and snapping photos. He said his son's involvement in hockey -- Matty is a regular with Hockey in Newark and the New Jersey Rockets -- has helped him excel beyond the rink.

"Not only does it help him on the ice, but also with friends and school, because of the mentality," the elder Villacis said. "You must always concentrate. You must always be sharp for everything."

Elsewhere on the ice, Elle Perry was wielding a stick for the first time. Her mother said Perry, 5, has skated before but never touched a puck. After a slow start, the diminutive Perry reported she had two goals.

"She almost had a hat trick," added Matty, the defending goalie, shaking his still-masked head as he left the ice.

"This whole experience is just a great first start for these kids," said Perry's mother, a sentiment reflected by the smiles both on and off the ice.
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