A positive Initiation

LAURA CZEKAJ

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

Tiny legs moving at a fast pace carry little boys and a handful of girls from the frosty, dark parking lot into the relative warmth of the Orleans Recreational Centre.

Like Sherpas, their parents follow, dragging, rolling and hoisting heavy, equipment-filled bags, skates dangling from their arms and hockey sticks wedged wherever they can find room.

Full of an energy that contradicts the early hour, these players jostle for space in the change rooms, their parents helping them don the gear that will turn them into miniature versions of their hockey heroes.

But unlike their NHL idols, these little tykes are not polished. They slip on the ice and occasionally take their teammates down with them like a set of dominoes.

They are competitive, but no one is keeping score because winning is not what matters at the Initiation Program level.

Instead these five and six year olds are refining their skills, learning new ones and, most importantly, having a good time.

Twice a week, Richard Vroom, 6, takes to the ice for a practice usually coached by his dad Craig. For Richard, taking shots on net is not as much fun as stopping them.

"I like making pad saves," he explains as his dad wrestles with Richard's hockey gear for a practice.

"One time I was playing road hockey and I made 167 saves," adds the little boy. It was a really long game, interjects his dad.

Vroom's favourite player? No question: Ottawa Senators goaltender Ray Emery.

He proudly displays a jersey emblazoned with his idol's name on the back.

"I can't get him up that quick for school, but when it's hockey time, he's up," adds dad.

Sitting next to him on the cold bench is Ryan Carroll, who's dreaming of being like his favourite hockey player, Senators forward Dany Heatley.

As they toddle out of the room and out to the arena, they step on to the ice much like babies taking their first steps.

Some totter, losing their balance, others, unsteady at first, gain balance and push off toward their fellow players.

Parents warm their chilled fingers on steaming cups of coffee as they sit in the bleachers. Some of them are up earlier than on the days they have to go to work.

Coaching the younger kids is less about winners and losers, it's about keeping them interested and having a good time.

"You want to try to make, not a competition out of it, but some type of a game," says Craig Vroom. "Because then they don't realize when they are out there playing that they are working hard and developing their skills.

"We'll have them playing all sorts of games, skating their butts off and they won't even know it."

The coach admits he winds up having just as much fun, if not more, than the little IP level kids he teaches.

"The key to being a great hockey player is to have fun," he says.

While the Senators have captivated the minds of many of these young players, it's not the fame or fortune that can accompany playing the sport that makes these youngsters and their parents wake up early this winter morning.

It's the unadulterated pleasure of playing the game.

Cameron Kennedy-Panarella, 9, an Atom A player, has been playing hockey for four years.

BE LIKE DAD

His inspiration for lacing up skates and learning how to play is the same person who shuttles him to and from practices -- his dad, Riccardo Panarella.

"I wanted to be like you," the boy tells his flattered parent.

Cameron's younger brother Dawson, 7, who plays at the Novice B level, also wants to be like his dad, but Senators forward Jason Spezza is a close second.

"He's a centre and he's fast," said Dawson of his favourite player.

Meanwhile, Cameron has big dreams of playing for Ottawa or Montreal in the NHL. Toronto isn't even an option.

"I like that you get to pass, and shoot, and score, and win games, and it's a lot of fun," said Cameron.

And those early morning practises?

"Not so fun," he admits.


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