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'This is what Canadian hockey is all about'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Zack Smith signs an autograph for a young fan during an outdoor Sens practice at Bayshore Park (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).

Their enthusiastic cheers cut through winter's frosty air, bringing a special warmth to a west end outdoor rink in Ottawa.

But it was difficult to figure out who was having more fun — the 200 or so children from Bayshore Public School who ringed a frozen patch of pavement right in their backyard or the big kids on the ice who inspired such a morning fuss.

"They had a lot of fun and we had a lot of fun being out there," Ottawa Senators forward Nick Foligno said after he and his teammates held an outdoor practice in front of a loud, boisterous group of Grade 3-5 students on a wintry Wednesday morning. "It was great for the guys. This is what Canadian hockey is all about and it's great to be a part of it."

The Senators took it to the streets, so to speak, as part of the organization's ongoing commitment to grassroots initiatives this season. For these children, it was a chance to get an up-close look at their hockey heroes, who spent plenty of time handing out autographs to smiling, enthused children during and after putting on a 3-on-3 display for them all.

"We've gone into communities with partners and tried to provide opportunities to kids that may not otherwise have the opportunity," Aaron Robinson, the Senators' director of fan and community development, said in explaining the motivation behind today's outdoor practice. "And this is another way for the team to get back into the community and provide some excitement in the community.

"Hopefully, the kids had a good time."

Indeed, they did. And not just the ones perched on snowbanks around the rink.

"I can't remember the last time I skated on an outdoor rink," said Zack Smith. "It sounded like (the children) enjoyed it."

Added Foligno: "Just hearing the kids screaming ... they say your name over a thousand times to get your attention. It's nice to be out in the community and see how we can affect young kids. I remember being a young kid and being so excited when you had a professional athlete come around, so it's nice to give back (that way)."

For Ryan Shannon, who grew up in Darien, Conn., such occasions were merely the stuff of legend. Not anymore after today, with the Senators forward finding out why the good 'ol toque has become such a staple of Canadian winter fashion.

"We didn't have many winters that allowed us to get out on the pond," he said. "But you'd hear stories from the Canadians that this actually does happen. It was enjoyable for us. (The children) bring us energy. I think this is a good opportunity."

The occasion took Smith back to the cold prairie winters of his youth.

"I found it a little more tolerable when we were younger," Smith, a native of Maple Creek, Sask., said with a grin. "You didn't seem to notice it. You'd spend hours out there. But it was good (today). I enjoyed it."

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