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Waving flag thrill of a (young) lifetime for these Jets fans

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More than 15,000 fans are on the edge of their seats, crazy with anticipation as they await the arrival of their hockey heroes. Finally, after what must seem like an eternity to some, they spot the first skater wearing a Jets jersey to hit the ice and explode in a deafening crescendo of cheers, a "Go, Jets, go!" chant and a standing ovation.

Who lit the fuse on this powder keg of madness? Goalie Ondrej Pavelec? Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien? Captain Andrew Ladd?

Would you believe Ashton Olin?

On a recent hockey night in Winnipeg, this nine-year-old right winger with the 9A1 Fort Garry North Flyers had, quite possibly, the coolest job in the world. Maybe even the universe.

As the "Scotiabank Skater," Ashton was responsible for leading the home team out on to the ice immediately prior to the game while carrying a Winnipeg Jets flag. He skates six laps around the ice at top speed, all the while dodging hulking giants who dash by, pausing only briefly to whack him on the shin pads and say, "atta boy!"

His mother, Kerri Brooker, stands at the glass behind the Jets net to take it all in, desperately trying to snap off a couple of pictures while squinting through tears of joy.

"This is huge," she said proudly.

His laps complete, Ashton then takes his place on the blue-line, standing in between forwards Tanner Glass and Antti Miettinen, still holding the flag aloft during the singing of the national anthem.

As the lights come on and the referee prepares to drop the puck, Ashton's job is done. He skates to the bench, absorbs a few more smacks on his shin pads and disappears down the corridor. He helped fire the crowd up, now it's up to the Jets players to keep it there.

Still beaming in a change room just a couple of minutes later, Ashton is asked if it's possible to describe what he just experienced.

"Cool. Awesome. Spectacular," he said, quite obviously still in awe of what he had done.

He said the best part was standing beside Glass on the blue-line. When asked what the Jets left winger said to him, he thought for a second, smiled and said, "I don't remember."

With so many people screaming their heads off the entire time, who could blame him?

Ashton is one of 41 kids who will lead the Jets out during the regular season this year. Scotiabank sponsors the skater program in Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto -- as well as for the Jets' farm team, the St. John's IceCaps -- as a way of connecting with the local communities. Terry Bjornson, district vice-president for the bank's Winnipeg operations, said it has been a "profound" success.

"The feedback we get from the fans, our clients and the children is just tremendous," he said.

The skaters' game-day experience begins a couple of hours before the opening faceoff. They arrive at the MTS Centre, along with their parents, where they're met by representatives from Scotiabank and the Jets. They're escorted into a meeting room at ice level, where they change into their hockey gear and proudly pull on the Scotia Skater Jets jersey. Then, it's off to the team's locker-room where they hear last-minute instructions from coach Claude Noel -- and some pre-game banter from the players -- before leading the troops into battle.

Once they've packed away their hockey gear, they grab a hotdog and a root beer and join the rest of the crowd in cheering on the Jets.

So, is it the coolest thing he has ever done in his entire life? "Of course," he answers. Could anything else even come close?

"No," he said, breaking into a big smile.


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2012 B1

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