Eugene Melnyk positively beamed as he cast his eyes toward the magical winter wonderland he'd once again created for more than 100 children.
Christmas indeed came four days early for this happy group of underprivileged youngsters, as they spent a joyous hour scampering around the polished ice at Scotiabank Place. Every one of them wearing a brand new pair of skates, an Ottawa Senators jersey and a helmet, all of it donated by a generous team owner who eagerly anticipates this day each and every year.
For the fifth straight year, Melnyk, his family and Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa (CAYFO) threw open the doors of the Senators' home rink and invited a group of youngsters into the building for the annual Eugene Melnyk Skate for Kids. The weather outside was frightful but the occasion was clearly delightful for one and all involved.
"You can't describe it," Melnyk said when asked about the joy the day brings to him, his wife Laura and their two young daughters, Anna and Olivia. "I go around and look at the kids' faces and see those smiles and it just puts you into the spirit of the season. It rockets you into it, put it that way.
"It's very, very emotional and a really great thing, in my mind, to do for people who are less fortunate than most kids. It's something I remember and look forward to each year."
Many of the children were wide-eyed as the big moment arrived and for some of them, it was the first time they'd ever tried to skate. But even as some of them tumbled to the ice and hauled themselves back up, the wide grins and laughter never went away, thanks in great part to a group of friendly Senators staff who helped make their day fun.
"I don't even know how to stop yet," one youngster said as he gleefully whizzed by.
Spartacat, the Senators' ambassador of fun, was on hand for the day, along with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus. To celebrate the impending 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship, Melnyk also provided each child and their family with four tickets to a tournament game. After their time on the ice, the children were treated to a pizza lunch at Local Heroes Hockey Country Lodge.
Sens Foundation honorary chair Max Keeping said the kind of generosity displayed by Melnyk at this event each year means the world to these children.
"We're talking about tough times. We forget that these kids live in tough times all the time," said Melnyk. "For them, the power of the message that a stranger thinks enough of them to throw them a party on NHL ice, provides them with skates and a sweater and headgear and tickets ... that's just so overwhelming for them.
"Every year, when we do this, we'll (hear) after the skating session the kids saying 'do we have to give the skates back now?' They can't quite believe that somebody wants to give them the skates ... These kids, in many cases, live not very well. To have a pair of skates, a new pair of skates? Think about it, it's just so powerful."
That's the thought Melnyk had in mind when he came up with this idea five years ago.
"I wanted to find out and figure out what would be a great thing to give back to the community, especially to children. I have two little ones of my own," he said. "I remember as a kid just dreaming about skating on Maple Leaf Gardens ice. I thought if we could do that, it's something that would be a memory of a lifetime.
"What these kids are getting today is a memory of a lifetime."
Melnyk's mood was further heightened the night before, when the Senators pulled out a 5-4 overtime victory over the Dallas Stars at Scotiabank Place. While his team currently stands 12th in the Eastern Conference, Melnyk is steadfast in believing they'll be a major force before the season is done.
"We've got 50-plus games to go and I really believe, without question, that this team is going to be a major contender as soon as they start playing (more) like they did (Saturday) night," he told a group of media. "I truly believe that we will end up in the top four in the conference. Just watch this team. You're going to be very, very surprised.
"It's only 30 games into the season and we will be a Stanley Cup contender. Mark my words, just give them some time. And that time is now."