Kyle Hagen could be excused if he was a bit awestruck by his surroundings.
“It’s amazing. I look up at all the seats and I can’t believe we’re here,” the Lac St. Louis bantam goaltender said Friday as his team practised at the Bell Centre as part of the Under Armour Cup.
The Lac St. Louis team and one representing the Sports Études program at Lester B. Pearson High School in St-Léonard were selected from among 200 teams across Quebec that participated in a series of social media challenges ranging from skills competitions to team cheers.
“The kids worked hard,” said Lac St. Louis coach Charlie Svoboda. “They had a new challenge every day and they would work on them after practice.”
The reward was a day of being treated like NHL players. There were practices conducted by Canadiens alumni Gaston Gingras, Stéphane Richer and Éric Houde, a visit from Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, nutritional advice from strength coach Pierre Allard, a pre-game meal and a full-game experience at the end of the day.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of these kids,” said Gingras, who has been involved with the program for the past four years. “We show them drills to help them work on their skills, but the most important thing we stress is that this should be fun. We want to help give these kids a love for the game.
“It will change if they go on to junior or the pros but, at this stage in their lives, it’s a game and it should be fun,” added Gingras.
This year’s event had an appeal for Gingras because he runs development programs on the West Island and he is familiar with many of the youngsters in the Lac St. Louis program.
“I work with atom and peewee players and It’s good to see them at this stage,” said Gingras who was part of the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup-winning team in 1986.
Richer has been involved with hockey camps, but this was his first exposure to the Under Armour program. He’s the last Canadien to score 50 goals in a season (51 in 1989-90) and he was asked whether he saw any future 50-goal scorers on the ice.
“It’s a lot tougher to score 50 goals in the NHL today,” said Richer, who also scored 50 in 1987-88 with the Canadiens. “I have so much respect for (Alex) Ovechkin, who scores 45, 50 goals a season and keeps on going. In today’s game, 35 goals is a great season.”