by Sarah Kossits | AHL On The Beat
Inside the newly constructed Place Bell, the Laval Rocket have been putting on a show for their fans night in and night out. Their goal is to entertain their supporters, play good hockey, and keep the energy levels in the crowd as high as they are when the lights dim prior to puck drop and the pre-game video starts playing on the jumbotron.
No matter how the players and the team perform during a game, though, it’s what they do off the ice that is most significant for Laval and the surrounding community – and they do a lot.
When leading scorer Chris Terry was playing junior hockey in Plymouth, MI, he met one of his biggest fans – a very special 16-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
“His family had bought a suite and was supposed to come to the game, but unfortunately his health took a turn for the worse and he wasn’t able to come,” explained Terry. “So instead I went to his house and met him and all his family, and from there started a friendship.”
Since then, ALS has never strayed too far from Terry’s heart. After the team relocated to Laval, he launched Chris Terry’s ALS All-Star program, for which he donates two tickets to every home game to someone impacted by ALS. The Rocket matches this donation with two more tickets of their own, and after every game Terry can be found outside the locker room meeting with his All-Stars.
“I obviously don’t know firsthand what ALS is like, but I know it’s not easy,” he emphasized. “And it’s not only not easy on the person diagnosed with ALS, but also on the family and financially. For me, to be able to meet with them after, get to know them, and just talk for 10 to 15 minutes to them about the game, and to see the smiles on their faces and the joy they had by coming to the game, it means a lot.”
Being involved with ALS isn’t the only community work Terry has done in his career. In 2009, he was awarded the Dan Snyder Memorial Trophy for being the Ontario Hockey League’s Humanitarian of the Year.
“That was something I didn’t expect,” said Terry, in reference to the award. “Obviously, it’s nice recognition, but it wasn’t the reason why I was involved in the community. I enjoyed going out to schools and different events and getting to meet kids who love the sport of hockey.”
That passion and enjoyment prompted both him and teammate Matt Taormina to launch an initiative benefitting the L’Entraide Pont-Viau et Laval-des-Rapides Community Centre this past Christmas. The center focuses on offering a better quality of life to everyone in the community.
Both players came from teams which always did some kind of Christmas drive, and they both expressed a desire to keep that tradition alive in Laval. With that in mind, they rounded up a handful of players, went out to buy gifts, and personally delivered them to families just three days before Christmas.
“We’re always happy and willing to pick a family or pick some people and hopefully brighten up their day and bring some joy to them that maybe they couldn’t have gotten,” expressed Taormina. “It’s always good to get out there and help as much as you can, especially with all the time that we have, and the resources.”
After their surprise present delivery, all of the players hung around to chat with the children and their families, and posed for some pictures to celebrate the moment.
“It was a lot of fun because Christmas is a fun time of year,” said Terry of his time in the community center. “It was a way for us to give back to the community and get to help out families around a special time of the year.”
While it is undeniable that Christmas is one of the most popular times of the year for charity, the Rocket remain involved year-round by spending time in local hospitals. For Taormina, hospital visits present a unique opportunity.
“We can go there and hopefully put a smile on the patients’ faces, and maybe get them introduced to hockey,” he said with a laugh. “Well, around here I’m sure they’re already introduced to hockey, but it’s nice to have the team out there doing something in the community.”
The general public also has the opportunity to get to know players away from the rink. During the 14th edition of Laval en Blanc, which is an outdoor winter festival featuring fireworks, musical performances, ice sculpting and more, Daniel Audette, Jordan Boucher and Yannick Veilleux went out and met with fans before taking a lap around the ice with mascot Cosmo and holding an accuracy shooting contest with some kids.
Though the players enjoy getting involved in the community outside of a hockey context, it’s still important to them to get involved with local minor hockey associations as well. Enter the Laval Rocket Hockey Tour, a contest which allowed one team from each of the six Laval minor hockey association to win a practice with Rocket players and coaches in their own arena.
The Atom BB Laval Dynamos were one of the lucky winners and saw Eric Gelinas, Adam Cracknell, Niki Petti, Audette and Boucher come to their community rink. When team manager Georgia Panagiotopoulos got the call from the Rocket informing her they had won, she was almost as excited as the Rocket players themselves.
“Especially with the new team in its first year in Laval, it’s huge to get in the community and connect with fans who come and watch us play every single time we’re here in this building,” said Petti, on the Rocket Hockey Tour. “They get to know us face-to-face instead of with our helmets on and we get to talk to them and interact with them. I think it’s great. It’s huge for the city and the team.”
According to Panagiotopoulos, while the practice was taken seriously by both the Dynamos and Rocket players, there was plenty of fun to be had. She recalled a moment mid-practice when Boucher took the time to jokingly roughhouse with her son on the ice – and she watched the eyes of her players shine bright the entire time.
“They were awesome, really involved,” said Panagiotopoulos of the Rocket players. “I think they had just as much, if not more fun than the kids.”
It was a memorable moment for the young players, who had held their team Christmas party at a Rocket game prior to winning the contest. Getting that one-on-one time with Sylvain Lefebvre’s troops made them feel more connected to the team that they previously only knew from the stands of Place Bell. That sentiment is one Petti remembers feeling himself as a kid.
“I remember when I was a kid, I would look up to guys like me who play pro or even Junior hockey, and to have a guy that’s older than you come up to you and have fun with you on the ice and try to teach you something, especially when you look up to them, I think it’s great,” said Petti. “It’s great for me, it’s great for the kids, and everyone has fun doing it.”
Petti also had some fun this season by celebrating a goal with thousands of stuffed animals raining down on him from the stands during the inaugural Laval Rocket Teddy Bear Toss, an annual league-wide event where fans are encouraged to throw stuffed animals on the ice when the home team scores their first goal.
On December 8 when the Toronto Marlies were in town, Petti triggered the avalanche.
“I’ve played in a few of those games before, but that was my first time scoring the teddy bear goal,” he explained. “I remember it was a turnover at the blue line and I remember coming down on a two-on-one and just getting inside ice and going for low pad, and ended up going low corner and in. It felt pretty cool.”
The 3,217 teddy bears that ended up on the ice were collected and redistributed among eight different community centres and organizations in order to ensure that the maximum number of people would benefit from the joy a simple stuffed animal can bring. Although the initiative is typically one of the more publicized events, the Rocket continuously works to improve their community behind the scenes.
When they hosted a one-day food drive on December 6, the Rocket collected over 1,250 kilograms of non-perishable food items to give to those in need.
Money also gets distributed to local causes during every home game, with half of the 50/50 proceeds going to different organizations, such as the Fondation Scolaire de Laval. When there is no local organization involved, the funds are given to the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation.
If you ask any of the Rocket players, they’ll probably tell you that they wish they were doing a little better on the ice at Place Bell. But off the ice, the players are right where they should be – in the heart of their community making a difference every single day.