Miro Heiskanen and Joel Kiviranta towered over the students playing ball hockey at St. Philip's School and Community Center in Dallas Wednesday, so it was enjoyable to see them bend over and talk to their newfound friends.
Both sides would exchange a few words and smile, and it was clear something special was happening.
"It's fun to watch them," said Dallas Stars Foundation Director Chelsea Livingston. "You can look into their eyes and see a real connection with the kiddos, and that's important. Kids have their own unique language with their mannerisms, and you can see that they're just out there having fun."
[CHECK OUT PHOTOS FROM THE VISIT]
Heiskanen and Kiviranta are both from Finland, so language can still be a barrier at times like this. But the young players said the afternoon actually took them both back to times in their youth when Finnish professional players visited their schools or sports camps.
"It's great for everyone, it makes everyone feel good, so it really is good," said Heiskanen, who will turn 22 in July. "We actually had something similar in school. We had players come to our school and say 'Hi,' and that was great then. Right now, in this situation, it brings back memories, and it's a lot of fun for me. Lots of smiling and everyone is happy."
Both players said they were enjoying it as much as the kids, and that's something that doesn't surprise Marty Turco. The former Stars goalie serves as President and Chairman of the Board of the Dallas Stars Foundation and was among the NHL leaders in community service during his career.
"I've always enjoyed it," said Turco, who was also jumping in and out of the ball hockey games Wednesday. "Playing hockey, seeing the excitement of kids that don't know anything about the game, that's a great feeling. I just think it's unbelievable they get to have fun being out here, and I know they love it."
Both Heiskanen and Kiviranta have been working out in Frisco and plan to return to Finland in a week or so. They said being a part of outreach programs is a neat aspect to being a professional athlete. Fellow Finn Pekka Rinne was named the King Clancy Award winner this week to honor a career of humanitarian contributions in Nashville.
"It's a fun part of our job," said Kiviranta, 25. "It's not just playing hockey, it's taking care of community and helping people learn the game. It's always fun to do stuff with kids because you see the smiles on their faces and that's a pleasure for us, too. We did this in Finland (as professional athletes), and you can see that it makes a difference."
Turco said outings like this actually help players adapt when they come from a different area. He said he spent most of his time in Ontario and Michigan, and when he came to Texas it felt like traveling to a different planet.
"Not only was the weather and the culture different when it comes to hockey, but all of the things we did in the community just opened my eyes to how big the world is," he said. "It was important to me then and it's important to me now, and I think it really can help change who you are as a person."
Heiskanen said he understands that their visits now in Texas are different than the ones they received as kids in Finland but added that being ambassadors for hockey in a strange land can be a good thing.
"It's different here than Finland," Heiskanen said. "Everyone loves hockey in Finland, and this is more basketball, football, baseball here. But I think it's good to be out here and showing them hockey. It's hard for them to learn sometimes because they aren't used to it, but it's not impossible."
And as the state starts to open up more from COVID restrictions, the visits will be more plentiful. The Dallas Stars Foundation has a long-running relationship with St. Philip's School, which includes manning a foodbank every week and helping with camp activities.
"St. Philip's means a lot to us, and to have the players taking time during the offseason is a really good feeling," Livingston said of seeing the players and students bond in person. "It's a family here and we want to keep building it."
The wheel of goodwill really does roll forward and helps all that it touches.
"There's a reason why sports is so important, maybe now more than ever," Turco said. "It allows you to connect with other people. We're deepening our roots in the community, we're connecting with people, but bottom line, we're just having fun. I think when you boil it down to that, the rest of the stuff just happens."
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.