James Neal knows how to put the puck in the net – his 20-plus goals in each of his first seven NHL seasons are proof – and on Saturday afternoon, he passed some of that knowledge down to a group of up-and-coming skaters.
The Nashville Predators forward hosted the James Neal Hockey Clinic presented by Delta Dental at Ford Ice Center, in conjunction with the Nashville Predators Foundation, to support Make-A-Wish of Middle Tennessee. Players ages 7-14 took to the ice, as well as dryland, for various drills and games, with the help of Neal and some special guests. Preds forwards Colin Wilson and Gabriel Bourque, as well as goaltender Carter Hutton were also on hand to coach the young participants.
“With how hockey’s growing in Nashville, getting sticks into the kids’ hands and getting them skating is a lot of fun,” Neal said. “It’s great for the guys to be able to come out and do this, and it’s a lot of fun for me to put it on.”
It was difficult throughout the afternoon to tell who was enjoying themselves more – the professional hockey players or the next generation of stars. From some intense, but playful, one-on-one stickhandling battles to autographs and a pizza party after the fact, there was no shortage of smiles, obstructed by a mouthguard or not.
“It was a great program,” said Jay Jackson, whose 9-year-old son Luke participated in the clinic. “For the kids, just getting to be out there with the players was phenomenal, and it looked like they had a lot of fun. It’s a huge inspiration for the kids to get to meet the players up close and personal. I don’t know of any other professional sport that has that kind of involvement.”
“The players handle themselves very well with the kids, and they’re very approachable which is nice to see,” said Andy Sallee, father of Andrew. “Sometimes you don’t see that in professional sports, but it always seems like hockey players are very approachable and pretty humble overall. This was a great experience.”
When posed with the question of why he likes hockey, Andrew, whose favorite part of the afternoon was getting to skate right alongside Neal on the ice, had a simple answer: “I just really like hockey.”
Neal is hoping that sentiment holds true with kids across Middle Tennessee and plans to host a similar clinic for years to come.
“It was a great turnout,” Neal said. “Growing the game in Nashville is fun because when I first got here, the fan support and playing at Bridgestone Arena was already awesome, so it’s just going to get even better.”