On a wintry afternoon filled with the festive spirit, it wasn't exactly easy — or obvious — to separate the heroes from the hero worshippers.
Not judging by the admiration that was shared by one and all in the cafeteria of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), that is. And it wasn't only felt by the eager children who sat anxiously awaiting the annual Christmas visit of the Ottawa Senators into their world.
The huge smiles that greeted the arrival of the Senators said it all, in a way, about this magic scene that reveals itself each and every holiday season. This was clearly a thrill for the youngsters, some of them battling serious illnesses with Christmas just around the corner. All of which served to melt the hearts of a big, tough group of hockey players overwhelmed by the courage displayed by all the little fighters right in front of them.
"It’s tough, sometimes, to see the kids and some of the things they’re going through," said Senators centre Mike Fisher. "But at the same time, they’re excited to see us and the smiles on their faces … It feels good, for sure. In light of their situations, they’re still smiling.
"I feel fortunate to be able to help out in any little way. They’ve battled through way more than we ever will, so they’re the real heroes, for sure."
Try telling that to the children who happily accepted autographed photos from the players, shared a smile and a photo or a moment of conversation that made them all forget the hard realities of their everyday lives.
"It's a good chance to have some relief," said 11-year-old Erica Mancini, a big fan of Fisher and Nick Foligno
. "First of all, meeting the Senators is already exciting and then having them here to try to cheer us up when we're sick is even more exciting."
Until today, Erica had only met Foligno, whose fiancee, Janelle Forest, was once her Grade 4 teacher. But by the end of the afternoon, the Kanata Hurricanes peewee player had a handful of signed Sens cards — and plenty of precious memories.
"Just a break from (their troubles) is so welcoming for them and they really appreciate it," said her mom, Helena. "As well, to meet the Senators, who have been great role models ... they're just elated. (Erica) plays hockey and looks up to them as role models. It's also great to see the personal side of them."
Over the years, sharing that personal side has become a source of holiday joy for the Senators, who happily share time with all those smiling faces.
"It's a great tradition we've got, coming here every year," said captain Daniel Alfredsson
. "I think the kids really appreciate it but it's also good for us, to be a part of this community and come here and see all the faces of the kids and how much it means to them.
"Sometimes, I think we get caught up in the hockey and everything, but there's more to it than that and for us to contribute ... this is one of the best ways."
Indeed, if there is anything to put a loss on the ice into perspective, it's a day like this.
"We know our job is important for many people," said forward Peter Regin
. "But sometimes, there's some stuff in life that's more important than wins and losses. This is one of them."
It's also an occasion that gives an extra bounce in the Senators' step when they leave.
"Even though it's a tough day, because you see sick kids and it's emotional, it gives you a lot of energy, too," said Regin. "And it makes you happy to see you can put a smile on their face."
Added forward Chris Neil
: "You just try to lighten up their day. But they do it just as much for us. They lighten our day up. Coming down here and being a part of this is a great thing."