The kids on the West Seneca mite major travel team just won a tournament in Detroit, so they had been feeling pretty good about themselves – until they gathered around their coach at the start of practice Thursday night. He told them the team had a couple of new players trying out. Disappointment, fear and the thought of being cut took over.
Thankfully, the shock quickly turned to awe. The players saw the newcomers were Patrick Kaleta and Drew Stafford. The Buffalo Sabres’ forwards need places to skate during the NHL lockout, and the 7- and 8-year-olds in West Seneca welcomed them to the ice for a one-hour practice.
“I actually played for West Seneca growing up, and it was good to come back here,” Kaleta said. “I hadn’t skated here in a while. We like coming out and supporting local hockey teams in the area. Hopefully, we can influence them on their hockey careers.”
The Sabres’ duo joined a rapidly growing list of players who are taking their skills to the kids. The NHL Players’ Association recently began a “found a place to skate” initiative to keep its members active in the community during the lockout.
More than 1,000 youth players throughout North America have received the surprise visits. As many as 20 players were scheduled to attend practices Thursday, including Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller in Los Angeles and defenseman Mike Weber outside Windsor, Ont.
“It’s the least we could do to give back is hang out and have fun with the kids,” Stafford said. “I know when I was their age I appreciated it. I was fortunate enough to be around an NHL environment at an early age with my uncle working with the Oilers. Patty as well being in a hockey city like this, I’m sure he got his fair share of seeing some Sabres when he was a kid.
“This is what I remember most when I was their age: nighttime practices trying to get better, going up through the ranks and having some fun out there.”
Stafford and Kaleta took part in all the drills, passing pucks to the youngsters and burying rebounds on starstruck goalies.
“They shot real high, and they skated with sharp edges,” said West Seneca player Brandon Licurski, who had a plan as soon as he saw the NHLers. “I think I should actually talk to them a little bit.”
It was a treat for the parents, too. Coach David Hearn, who received a call from the NHLPA on Wednesday, didn’t even tell his assistants the Sabres were coming. Parents scurried to the glass to snap close-up photos, while coaches brought cameras onto the ice for action shots.
“The kids love it, and it’s something that will last a lifetime for them,” Hearn said. “Their eyes lit up the minute they saw them.”
The visit coincided with the date the NHL was supposed to start. The puck originally was scheduled to drop Thursday in Philadelphia, Montreal, Colorado and Calgary, and the Sabres were supposed to host Pittsburgh on Saturday. But the lockout has wiped out the first two weeks of the season – so far.
“There’s really no comment to be made. Everything’s been said,” Stafford said. “I hate using this term, but it is what it is for right now. We have full support behind the union and what [Executive Director Don Fehr] is doing for us. Us as players, the best thing we can do right now is stay unified, stay informed and stay together. Hopefully, it gets resolved sooner than later”
Until then, kids around the United States and Canada should be wary of unannounced “tryouts.”
“We’re going to do our best to go help kids and do what we can while we have the time off,” Kaleta said. “When it starts up, we’ll be ready to roll.”