Tucker shows his class

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

The tallest player on the ice for the first time in his career, Darcy Tucker wore a massive grin as he wedged himself between 21 others for an impromptu team photo yesterday.

Known league-wide for a smile more reminiscent of a crazed Jack Nicholson in The Shining, it was a side of the Endiang, Alta., native few fans have seen.

As part of CBC's Hockey Day in Canada celebration slated for tomorrow, the 5-ft. 10-in. buzzsaw invited his uncle's team of nine and 10-year-olds from Oyen, Alta., (smack dab between Calgary and Saskatoon) to practise with the Leafs. Departing the Alberta/Saskatchewan border town of 1,100 shortly after 5 a.m. for a four-hour bus drive of dreams, the gaggle of star-gazers and their parents rolled into the Stampede Corral as the Leafs hit the ice.

At the tail end of Pat Quinn's skate, out streamed Oyen's Atom Crush for a half-hour interaction with their NHL heroes that could've supplied Tim Horton's with a decade of precious Timbits commercials.

Whether it was Ed Belfour taking young Christopher Tucker aside for some goaltending tips, or a towering Eric Lindros standing patiently at the back of a line for a breakaway drill, the exercise provided endless photo ops for doting rinkside parents every bit as excited as their kids.

And as part of an interaction that should be mandatory for every NHL team, it was Tucker spearheading an effort paid for by the Leafs.

"He didn't hit anybody with his helmet anyway," joked uncle Lee Tucker, referring to Darcy's recent fight with Devils rookie Cam Janssen that drew league review.

"Darcy and the guys were excellent -- I didn't know all the guys would stay out. This turned out better than I thought. When we were getting dressed, one of the assistant coaches and I were shaking so bad we could hardly tie our skates. The kids too. It's a dream come true for everybody."

Captain Shay Stolz agreed.

"This is the best day of my life," said Stolz, 10, after interacting with rookies John Pohl and Alex Steen.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to skate with an NHL team."

Only one problem: It wasn't his favourite team.

"I'd rather skate with the Flames," he beamed.

With help from teammates like Jeff O'Neill who asked all the players to stay on the ice after practice with the kids, Tucker got a chance to be part of something he never experienced as a child.

"When you're a young kid, these are the things you remember most," said the 30-year-old winger, whose only childhood brush with stardom came in Hanna, where he got Lanny McDonald's autograph.

"I remember coming to my first NHL game in 1983 with my father. The opening game of the Saddledome -- Oilers versus the Flames and I think the Oilers won 8-3 (4-3 actually). It's just something that never leaves you."

Saddened by the fact his own tiny hometown has just a few minor hockey players left, he jumped at the chance to invite his uncle's squad.

"I've done some hockey camps in the past but once the season starts you don't get much of an opportunity to spend time with the younger kids," said Tucker, a likely starter tonight against Calgary despite a rib injury.

"I have a son that's five and a newborn so I guess I better get used to it."

Beneath the rough and tumble veneer that has made him one of the most hated foes in the league, no one has questioned the skill-set that now has Tucker leading the Leafs with 17 goals.

No one would dare question his heart either.

Especially after yesterday's skate.


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