With a successful season behind them and a bright future ahead, the kids of the North End Hockey Program had many reasons to smile at their wrap-up party.
Then a pair of hometown hockey heroes made a surprise visit, and those youthful grins almost burst from ear to ear.
On Sunday, Winnipeg Jets forwards Jim Slater and Anthony Peluso dropped in at the season-ending pizza party at Norquay Community Centre to swap jokes and snap photos with dozens of young athletes, all of them part of a non-profit program facing skyrocketing demand.
After all, to win on the ice takes heart and hard work -- and a whole lot of cash for equipment and fees. But hockey can change lives, the visiting Jets agreed. "It's huge," Slater said. "A lot of kids don't get the opportunity to play, for whatever reason. There's a lot of reasons that can make hockey a hard sport for families. To see these kids all smiles, and excitement about playing the sport that I grew up playing and loving... this is really great for everyone."
Enter the North End Hockey Program, a joint project of agencies including Ndinawe, the North End Renewal Corp. and the Winnipeg Police Service. Since 2009, the project has helped get kids geared up, out on the ice and out to the games. There are now 119 boys and girls playing with Norquay Knights teams through the program, double the number from last year.
The results speak for themselves. This season, the 11A3 Norquay Knights team won the city championship -- an "amazing achievement" for a North End team, organizer Angie Lamirande said -- and other age-group teams have been competing too. Three years ago, when 12-year-old Harley Stove joined the program, he had never played hockey before. Now? "I can't even keep track how many goals I scored this year," the forward said proudly.
Like most kids at the wrap-up party, Stove is a Jets fan -- but he came to the shindig wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater. That sparked a tongue-in-cheek rivalry with the visiting NHLers, as Slater pulled Stove into a playful armlock. "This raises the kids' spirits," Harley's father, Chris Stove, said. "You can see when the Jets walked in, how it brightened their faces right up."
That glow isn't just a product of meeting some NHL stars, though. Chris Stove said his son has thrived since starting hockey through the North End Hockey Program. "He's more active, and he's starting to love the sport even more," he said. "Now I see he's becoming more goal-oriented, and he shows more respect in public."