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Rockland rolls out big welcome mat for Senators

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators

ROCKLAND — On a wintry Ottawa Valley morning, Daniel Alfredsson and the Senators quickly warmed up to a serious case of rock star treatment.

"I was watching the news this morning and (pop sensation) Justin Bieber was on the Today show," the Ottawa captain said with a grin as he reflected on the screaming throng of more than 2,000 that greeted the Senators for an practice session at the Canadian International Hockey Academy. "I was the first one on the ice and I almost felt the same way.

"It's pretty nice to share a practice like that."

The Senators didn't let the first significant snowfall of the season get in the way of their visit to the CIHA, a prep school opened a year ago near the banks of the Ottawa River which combines education and hockey in a unique environment. But earlier this morning, the school's arena was filled with the excited yelps of children from nearby schools bused in for a chance to sneak a peek at their hockey heroes.

"It's a long season and any time you can break it up this way and have a little music and some fun, it's always a great morning," said Senators centre Zenon Konopka. "It's really beneficial for them and for us."

Added defenceman Sergei Gonchar: "Before we even stepped on the ice, there was so much noise. You could see how excited they were. It was really special."

While the rink was filled with plenty of noise, the Senators stuck to the task at hand, spending time working on special teams drills. But they provided some extra fun for the crowd with a shootout contest to close out the session, then tossed T-shirts into the stands as they left the ice.

"I enjoyed it," said Senators head coach Paul MacLean, a small-town guy himself from Antigonish, N.S. "There was a lot of energy in the building with the kids there and it was a little loud at times, but it was fun. I thought the players responded to it real well and it was a good day."

Senators general manager Bryan Murray, who brought hockey fame to these parts in 1976 as the head coach of a Centennial Cup national champion Rockland Nationals team, enjoyed the chance to bring his current squad out into the Valley. He believes such community outreach efforts are important to the organization.

"There's a bit of an obligation on our part (to do this)," he said. "It's great exposure for the team and the young fans, in particular, have favourite players that they like to see on the ice. It's a real chance for them as well and I think it's terrific that the schools let their kids out to this session."

This opportunity has been in the works even before the CIHA opened its doors.

"When they were building this facility and talking about it, they said it would really be something if we could get a (Senators) practice out here," said Murray. "Jean-Marc Lalonde and Richard Lalone, who's the mayor of the town, both talked to me and I thought it would be good for our players. And it's great for the community.

"It was good for our players to have a chance to come out and see what they're doing out here and just enjoy it."

Around the boards

Senators forward Chris Neil (ankle) skated on his own today at the Bell Sensplex, but MacLean said it's too soon yet to tell when he might return to game action. It's already been quite the week for Neil and his wife, Caitlin, who welcomed their third child — a seven-pound, five-ounce baby boy named Finley Christian — on Tuesday afternoon. Finley is a younger brother to Hailey and Cole ... Defenceman Erik Karlsson, the current overall leader in fan balloting for the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game, is getting out the vote on both sides of the pond. His father, Jonas, is working on Karlsson's behalf back home in Sweden. "It's a fun thing and it's pretty early," Karlsson said when asked about his early lead in the voting. "(Penguins superstar Sidney) Crosby scored twice two days ago, so he's probably going to erase me pretty fast."

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