It’s supposed to be an afternoon where the kids get to skate with their favourite Maple Leaf players.
Too bad Dion Phaneuf didn’t get a chance to — not that he minds.
The star Leaf defenceman was mobbed by so many youngsters and parents when he stepped on to the ice at the annual Maple Leafs Skate for Easter Seals Kids on Sunday that by the time he was done signing things and posing for pictures, the skate was over and he’d barely moved.
“I was a kid once and I grew up in Edmonton, in a hockey city, so I knew what it was like to go ask for autographs and when you got one it meant the world,” Phaneuf said. “So anytime you can reciprocate that and just to make a kid smile by giving your autograph, it’s something that’s very humbling, that’s for sure.”
The 32nd annual skate, held Sunday at the Leafs’ practice facility in Etobicoke, has so far raised almost $5 million throughout the years, said Carol Lloyd, the president and CEO of Easter Seals Ontario.
Easter Seals provides financial support to families who need to buy specialized equipment for their disabled children.
It was too early to count how much money had been raised this year, Lloyd said.
“Our goal this year was at least $125,000,” she said. “Participants on the ice had to raise a minimum of $125 to be able to skate.”
Forward Phil Kessel stood in the middle of a horde of kids and signed autographs before pushing some of the wheelchair-bound youngsters along the Olympic-sized ice surface at the Mastercard Centre.
“It’s nice to get a chance to spend time with the kids and be out here with him,” Kessel said. “I think speak for everyone, all the guys — we really enjoy doing stuff like this.”
Kessel’s message to the kids who live with disabilities was to “keep going.
“I don’t think I can understand what they’re going through, but just keep going,” the 22-year-old sniper said. “They all seem like great kids.”
Joanne Barker, whose 8-year-old son Christopher has cerebral palsy, said her son is a “huge Leafs fan.” The skate makes a huge difference in his life, she said.
“It’s great for the little guys because for them it’s a huge confidence-building thing, and they get to do something different for a change,” Barker said. “Being on the ice and being on the ice enjoying themselves, just like every other kid, is really, really special.”
The 2010 Easter Seals Ontario ambassador, Lucas Braun, 12, of Wingham, was excited after meeting Phaneuf.
“I’m really happy that I’m here today, and excited to meet some of the Leafs players,” Braun said.