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Ex-NHLers keen to offer pointers

All aspects of hockey taught to kids -- smack talk included

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Marco Esteves picked up some valuable pointers on the finer aspects of hockey Saturday afternoon -- skating, passing, stickhandling, shooting and even a little bit of trash talk.

The 11-year-old was one of 250 young hockey players taking part in the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills Competition, a fun event featuring former NHL players Wayne Babych, Trevor Kidd and Mike Keane at the MTS Iceplex.

Esteves said he found the various speed and accuracy competitions, variations of which are seen each year before the NHL all-star game, "challenging but fun," especially the shooting drill, where he knocked off five targets in 20 seconds, one second faster than Keane, the former Manitoba Moose captain and three-time Stanley Cup winner.

Keane was watching when Esteves beat his time.

"He said I cheated," Esteves said.

Despite the good-natured shot, Esteves said he found the whole experience "cool, exciting and outstandingly awesome."

"These are some of the most important NHL players. Most people can't meet them and lots of people don't have the talent that they have," he said.

Keane, 44, said he enjoys working with young players at these kinds of events and passing on a thing or two that he learned over his more than 20-year professional career. He said he would have loved to have had the chance to test himself like this when he was starting out at the Sir John Franklin Community Centre in the 1970s.

"The skills competition gives the kids a feel of what the big guys do and they get to meet a few big shots along the way. It's grassroots, that's what hockey is all about," he said.

Babych, who scored 54 goals for the St. Louis Blues in the 1980-81 season, said the skills competition gives the kids a chance to see where they stand but also what they need to work on. He admitted that the high-tech timing devices and flashing targets that measured the players' performances were a far cry from what he and his brother, former Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dave, used when they were kids on the farm.

"We used a piece of cow dung to skate around and we'd hang a frying pan in the corner of the net for target practice. We'd send our sisters to play goal, too. We used a sponge puck then," he said.

Jordan Wood, who plays on the River East Royals 10A1 team, said the fastest skating competition was his favourite. He said he was inspired to see the skill level of Keane and Babych in the demonstrations.

"I can't do it as well as they can right now but I hope to be as good as them one day. Doing these skills will help me become a better hockey player," he said.

About 7,000 players, aged seven to 12, will get to try their hands at the skills competitions at 15 events held across the country this fall and winter. Kevin Kloostra, sponsorship and events advisor for Canadian Tire, said 30 of today's participants will be chosen -- based on their scores -- to compete in the national championship on Ottawa's Rideau Canal before the NHL all-star game in January. Another 10 players will be selected randomly to join them.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2011 A4

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