ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — When news spread that the Ottawa Senators were going to be participating in the 2011 Kraft Hockeyville event in Newfoundland, there's little doubt nobody was happier than Sens forward Colin Greening.
Greening, who burst onto the scene in Ottawa last season with 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 24 games, grew up five minutes from the Mile One Centre, where the Senators will face the Winnipeg Jets tonight (4 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). Never could he possibly have fathomed that he'd ever get to play an NHL game in front of family and friends in his hometown, but thanks to Conception Bay South's triumph in the Kraft Hockeyville competition, Greening is about to have an unforgettable experience.
He'll also have a wonderful opportunity to thank his family for all the sacrifices it made so he could follow his dreams.
"It'll mean a lot," the 25-year-old told NHL.com after this morning's pre-game skate at Mile One Centre. "Anytime they see me play, it's a big deal. I don't get home too often. I was here for about two weeks in the summer. So anytime I can get home and get a home-cooked meal, it's nice."
Newfoundland has produced several quality players in recent years and saw its first resident win a Stanley Cup in 2008, when Danny Cleary accomplished the feat with the Detroit Red Wings. Michael Ryder brought Lord Stanley to the province this summer after helping the Boston Bruins win a championship in June. Professional hockey is also returning to St. John's this season as the Jets' top affiliate will play its home games at the Mile One Centre.
"It's big — hockey here is huge," said Greening. "I know sometimes you forget about Newfoundland because we're so far east. We have our own time zone. But hockey's big here. Everyone here is born on skates. We're proud Canadians, so it's great to have Hockeyville here and to get another AHL team."
Greening admitted he was inspired by Cleary, who grew up in Carbonear. After failing to stick with Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix, Cleary finally found a home in Detroit and has been one of the club's most consistent players since 2006. Greening was just beginning his collegiate career at Cornell University and thought, "If he can do it, why can't I?"
"He was really the one that started it all for us," Greening said of Cleary. "I remember when he made it with Detroit, guys like myself were still trying to make it. I think he gave us that little extra incentive where we looked at him and saw how successful he could be. We realized that if he could do it, perhaps if we worked hard enough we could do it as well. I think he was probably the catalyst for everything. Hopefully there will be more Newfoundlanders to come."
Greening admitted that being so far east puts aspiring hockey players from Newfoundland at a disadvantage. Just like Cleary told NHL.com last week, teenagers from this province really don't have much of a choice but to leave home if they plan on ever playing in the NHL. Greening left when he was 17 — first to Upper Canada College in Toronto, then the Nanaimo Clippers of the B.C. Junior Hockey League — and made his NHL debut last season with the Sens.
"I think just geographically, that's just the unfortunate part about it," said Greening, a seventh-round pick (204th overall) by the Senators in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. "I knew that if I wanted to move on to the next level, I would have to leave. As sad as it is to leave your home, if you want to try to make it in hockey, that's just the sacrifice you're going to have to make. For me, it was my choice."
"We're rooted in reality here. We're modest people. Colin is still the same. He came home this summer and all his friends were talking about how he's still the same and he hasn't changed. I think that speaks volumes about him. We're just proud that he's rooted and he's going to follow his dreams as long as it lasts. You milk it as long as you can. We'll certainly be in his corner." - Fred Greening,
Hockey continues to grow in Newfoundland and there are more hockey camps available to kids in the province now as opposed to when Greening was a boy here. Still, he doesn't believe there will ever be a time when a Newfoundlander won't have to leave home in order to increase his chances of playing in the NHL one day.
"To be honest, I don't really see it," he said. "Just where we are and you can ask the financial officers here in Newfoundland, this is going to be tough. You're flying in and out every time. It's different than a bus. When you get into the mainland in Ontario, they have all the teams right there. If you want to get good competition, you're really going to have to get off the island. It's not a knock on Newfoundland at all. It's just where we are geographically."
That's what makes tonight so special not just to Greening, but to all Newfoundlanders who will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an NHL game in their province. And, of course, it will be extra special to Fred Greening as he gets to watch his son play at the sport's highest level in his hometown.
This is the kind of stuff normally reserved for Hollywood.
"It's hard to describe," said Fred Greening. "But we're rooted in reality here. We're modest people. Colin is still the same. He came home this summer and all his friends were talking about how he's still the same and he hasn't changed. I think that speaks volumes about him. We're just proud that he's rooted and he's going to follow his dreams as long as it lasts. You milk it as long as you can. We'll certainly be in his corner."
Indeed, this is a dream come true for Colin. But it's a dream come true for dad, too. Fred Greening admitted that when the puck drops Monday night, he'll be thinking about all the sacrifices that were made along the way so that his boy could play the game he loves.
"I think it's a big deal when your kid makes the NHL," said Fred. "The fact that he makes a premier league, that's a big deal. The only exposure we get to an NHL team is by watching it on Hockey Night In Canada or NHL.com. But it's great. We're so happy for Colin. It's a big deal for him. He's worked so hard, as they all do. He went away when he was 17 and he took the education route (at Cornell), which we were delighted with. That worked out for him. It turned out the way we had hoped for and I'm sure he had hoped for, too. We're just so happy for him."