Ilya Kovalchuk stands 6’2”, but the superstar captain of the Atlanta Thrashers seems like a giant to the young fans who look up to him.
Fans of all ages will get to see Kovalchuk and the rest of the Atlanta Thrashers up close and in action tomorrow (Sunday) as they hit the ice at the Dan Snyder Memorial Arena for a team practice.
The team is taking a detour between games in Buffalo on Saturday and Montreal on Tuesday to come to Elmira. The Thrashers will play in the arena named in memory of former teammate and local hockey hero Dan Snyder, killed in a car accident six years ago this month.
“Danny was a big part of our organization for a number of years,” said Thrashers’ general manager Don Waddell. “We’ve obviously known the family for this many years and have stayed in contact; we’ve tried to do things throughout the years to help raise money for the foundation and build the ice rink, so we definitely wanted to be a part of it.”
After talking to Dan’s father Graham Snyder during training camp, Waddell contacted the league and asked for a game in Buffalo or Toronto early in the season.
Only two of Dan Snyder’s teammates – Kovalchuk and Vyacheslav Kozlov – are still with the Thrashers, but every player on the team knows about him, Waddell said.
“We have a community room here with lots of pictures of Danny Snyder in it, so everybody’s very aware of what happened here. Anybody that’s been in the hockey world knows, so for the guys this is an easy one. They want to do something.”
The Thrashers will hit the ice for a practice at 1 p.m., followed by lunch and autograph sessions.
“This will be a full practice, so the players will be flying out there,” said Jim Radcliffe, president of Woolwich Minor Hockey and one of the organizers of the event. “The public will get a chance to see a true showcase of what these players can do. I’m sure it’ll be an eye opener for even the [Sugar] Kings.”
The organizers toyed with the idea of having the Sugar Kings involved in the practice, but the Thrashers vetoed it, not wanting to risk injury to either their own players or the Sugar Kings.
“These guys are in a different weight class and a different speed class; they could hit one of our Junior B players and take them out for the season,” Radcliffe said.
A few youngsters will be even more wide-eyed than the rest; the names of all the boys and girls registered in minor hockey will be entered into a draw, and a handful of them chosen to eat lunch with the Thrashers.
The organizing committee is also raffling off an autographed team jersey, with the proceeds going to the Friends of Hockey organization.
The organizers were dealt a setback on Tuesday, when Woolwich council unanimously declined their request to waive rental fees for the facility.
The organizers want the event to be free and open to the community, so in lieu of selling tickets, they’re asking for donations to Friends of Hockey. The group helps with equipment and registration costs for children whose families couldn’t otherwise afford to put them in minor hockey.
“Now we’re going to be taking money from that and putting it toward paying the fees for the place,” Radcliffe said. “That’s a little frustrating.”
Radcliffe argued that the Thrashers practice is a community event and an extension of the grand opening celebrations.
“This is probably a chance of a lifetime here; it’ll probably be the only NHL team we’ll have playing on that ice,” he said. “We’re bringing an NHL hockey team to town, and they (council) were not interested at all in waiving that fee.”
Despite the unexpected costs, estimated at $400 to $500, Radcliffe and his group are excited about seeing an NHL team take to the ice. It’s been a busy three weeks, but parents and the executives from both minor hockey organizations have jumped on board to organize things in that short span of time.
Waddell is also looking forward to rolling into town with the Thrashers and seeing the new facility.
“I’ve been up there several times myself, so I’m looking forward to seeing the arena now that it’s done.”