For every Penguin fans across North America, it would have been a dream to skate alongside Mario Lemieux in a hockey game.
That dream came true for 64 lucky players over the weekend. The first-ever Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp was held Jan. 4-8 in Pittsburgh with proceeds to benefit the Mario Lemieux Foundation, which raises funds for cancer research and Austin’s Playroom Project, an initiative that creates playrooms in medical facilities.
While Lemieux was the headliner, the camp also featured a long list of hockey greats as instructors with Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, 1980 U.S. Olympic gold-medal hero Mike Eruzione and former NHL players Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet, Bill Guerin, Gary Roberts, Jay Caufield and Tie Domi.
“It’s been a year and half or so since we started thinking about it. It’s another fundraiser for the foundation,” Lemieux said. “No better way than to get back on the ice with a few of my friends and amateurs, who have a chance to come to Pittsburgh, play five or six games and see the Penguins play a couple games.”
“We spend our time watching these games on TV and wonder what that would feel like or what would we do if we were out there,” said Jake Polochak of Canonsburg. “It’s a fantastic, top-notch event that they ran. It beat every expectation that you would have. If you miss the chance to do it next, you’ll miss a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
|Mario takes a faceoff at his Fantasy Hockey Camp |
On Wednesday the campers signed a fantasy contract and received top-end equipment for the camp, including helmet, gloves and customized Penguins jersey featuring their name and number. They were assigned to teams and mingled with the NHLers.
“The first night was pretty awesome; they gave us a private meeting with Mario. We signed a contract. It was pretty surreal to finally meet him,” said Colin Tasker, who came all the way from Regina Saskatchewan for the camp. “Everyone says I’ve been smiling the whole time on the ice. It’s hard not to.”
“They’re excited. They want to meet you and hang out,” Recchi said. “It’s great. It’s not just here. We’re spending time with them on a personal note. That’s nice as well. I wish I had something like this growing up.”
The camp started Thursday morning with a practice session at CONSOL Energy Center. But it wasn’t just a typical practice. The instructors were Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, assistant coach Tony Granato and goaltending coach Gilles Meloche.
The three Penguins coaches didn’t take it easy on the campers, putting them through a rigorous practice similar to that which the current Penguins players must endure.
“They started with Dan Bylsma and the staff, going through drills that the Penguins run every day,” Lemieux said. “Then having a chance to play with some old pros. It’s a lot of fun.”
Following the practice it was time to play some games. The campers dressed in the locker room with the alumni. And with them by their side on the bench and on the ice, it was time for some serious competition.
“It’s unbelievable. You don’t want to mess up because Mario made it clear before the game he wouldn’t tolerate that,” joked Polochak. “It would be your last shift if you made his magic look bad.”
|USA hockey icon Mike Eruzione gets in the game. |
“You could tell they enjoyed being a part of it, just as we were,” said US hockey icon Eruzione said. “None of us have done this before either. It’s really fun. Even when Mario scored you could see the ‘wow’ on their faces.”
The players even played some outdoor hockey at the Penguins Pond on South Side on Saturday morning. All in all, everyone had a great time and helped out for a good cause.
“The fact that the players treated us like their buddies. they were so accessible and gracious,” Polochak said. “There wasn’t a single meal a player didn’t sit at your table and share stories that they had. They were in the locker rooms with us. They hit the nail on the head.”
“Raising money for the foundation is always a great cause for cancer research,” Lemieux said. “We try to do as much as we can with the foundation. We have to keep raising money. This is just another way to do it.”
Brian Dolan summed it up best:
“It’s been awesome. I get to play with Mario. It’s great to play with all of these guys and go head-to-head with NHL guys. That’s the fantasy."