For a young hockey player, there aren't many things better than being on the ice and playing the game. Except maybe when that same hockey player is on the ice receiving passes from James Neal.
That dream was a reality for 100 youth players on Saturday, as the Nashville Predators All-Star winger hosted his second annual James Neal Hockey Clinic presented by Delta Dental of Tennessee to support Make-A-Wish of Middle Tennessee.
Neal was joined on the ice by fellow Preds teammates Ryan Johansen and Austin Watson at Ford Ice Center and teamed up with Preds hockey school coaches to provide instruction to the participants, complete with on and off-ice activities, followed with an autograph session.
When Neal became a member of the Preds in 2014, he looked for a way to get involved in the community, and giving back to the game's future stars has become a perfect fit.
"It's for a great cause, but just to be able to skate with the kids is awesome," Neal said. "Hockey is growing a lot in Nashville, and there are a lot of different kids with different skill levels. Just to see the smiles, enjoy the game and to give back a little bit, it's a lot of fun."
Johansen made his first appearance as a guest instructor at the clinic, and while he joked any tips he could offer probably wouldn't be very beneficial, he couldn't help but think back to when he was the young player, hoping to make it someday.
"We did a lot of camps over the years, but I never did anything where I got to be out with NHL players," Johansen said. "Just seeing some of these kids' faces lighten up and glow when they look you in the eyes, it's a pretty cool feeling. We were all kids, and it was my dream to play in the NHL, so it's great we get to interact with them."
Neal's involvement in the community, as well as with Make-A-Wish, is something he takes to heart, consistently mentioning his fondness for the city of Nashville and those who also call it home.
"It's a great foundation, a foundation that changes a lot of people's lives," Neal said of Make-A-Wish. "If you have a chance, go and see the Make-A-Wish Foundation online. It's a great cause, and then the city's growing, the fanbase is growing and there's an excitement around the Nashville Predators. It's awesome to be a part of."
While a couple of hours may not make or break a skill set on the ice, one word of encouragement from a favorite player can make the difference, inspiring children to continue playing the game, and perhaps one day, give back themselves.
"It's awesome that players like James Neal and Make-A-Wish work together and put on things like this," Johansen said. "It's so great for the communities and kids growing up. It's all about having fun and chasing their dreams, and for them to be out here with us, the players who are living our dreams, it's special."