The 2018-19 season got off to a tough start for the St. Boniface Seals minor atoms.
Before the group of nine-year-olds had even played a game, one of the boys broke his leg at school, putting him in a wheelchair for six weeks.
Then, not a week later, another boy was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was very sudden and very shocking,” coach Ryan Younghusband said on the CJOB Sports Show. “Within a matter of ten days, we lost two members of our team for the long-term.”
But this is a happy story.
The boy who broke his leg should be able to start physical activity in February, while the young boy with cancer is starting his second round of chemotherapy in January. Younghusband said the prognosis is good.
Through the grapevine that is the hockey community, word of these hardships trickled through to the Winnipeg Jets.
“They reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve heard what’s going on with your team,'” Younghusband said.
“After explaining it to them, they said, ‘We’d love to treat you guys to a pro-experience practice at Bell MTS Place.’ From there, the ball started rolling.”
The players knew they would be getting to practice on the big ice with a camera crew rolling, but beyond that, the day was full of surprises.
“As we were going through the planning portion of this, the Jets did let me know that there would be an NHL player on the ice who would join in a few drills,” Younghusband explained.
“All of a sudden the pressure’s on me. How do I engage 15 nine-year-olds with an NHL player in a drill where everyone can have some fun?”
Younghusband had to keep this a secret from both the kids and their parents. And Younghusband didn’t know who exactly the player would be until they arrived at the rink for their special day.
“They pulled me aside and said, ‘We’ve got a bit of a bonus for you. It’s not one player, it’s two: Patrik Laine and Sami Niku.'”
This entire experience was chronicled by the Jets’ video team and shared online. At one point during the practice, Laine is shown on the big screen wishing the kids well, then says he’s going to come join them, stunning the normally chatty youngsters into starstruck silence.
“That’s an understatement. Usually, before and after games, they literally do not stop talking to each other. As soon as they saw the video, they were completely awestruck,” Younghusband said.
“They didn’t say a word. I had to actually prompt them to say thank you. But once Patrik started to engage, they started to open up and be themselves.”
WATCH: St. Boniface Seals minor atoms skate with the pros, full Jets TV video
Younghusband had to swallow his nerves to instruct the two pro hockey players how to help with his drills before everyone got involved in a game of keep-away.
After 20 minutes of practicing with the Jets, the team had the chance to ask questions and get autographs.
“I felt very lucky that our team was able to participate in that. It was a great lesson for me, as a coach, to give something to these boys. Not just of coaching and hockey, but to get the experience of giving or taking a pass from an NHL player.”
And as a Jets fan who’s still a kid at heart, Younghusband was a bit envious of his kids.
“I was almost, like, ‘I wanna take a pass from Patrik Laine!’ Just to see if I can actually take a pass from an NHL player. But this was for the boys. It would have been awesome to play around with them as well but I had to be an adult.”
Younghusband credits the tight-knit bond of Winnipeg’s hockey community with allowing his team to experience a day they won’t soon forget.
“When things go wrong, everyone steps up. That’s one thing I hope our boys learned is that you’re not alone. Our association stepped in, other associations, and even the Jets. They’re behind us. We’re not just behind them. They give back a lot.”