NHL, youth players team up as northern tour wraps in Whitehorse

It ended Thursday morning the way it began last Saturday, in the airport of a snow-covered capital of a northern Canadian territory, the temperature outside hovering around the -20 C mark.

NHL, youth players team up as northern tour wraps in Whitehorse
Chris Phillips's young son, Ben, 9, was showing signs of wear and tear at the end of the tour, taking his dad's shoulder between periods. The Northern Lights Dream Tour wound up Wednesday with a final game in Whitehorse, Yukon, followed by long flights home on Thursday for the players - many with three connections and 15 to 20 hours of journey time. (JULIE OLIVER/OTTAWA CITIZEN/)

WHITEHORSE, Yukon – It ended Thursday morning the way it began last Saturday, in the airport of a snow-covered capital of a northern Canadian territory, the temperature outside hovering around the -20 C mark.

After playing the third and final game in the Northern Lights Dream charity tour in Whitehorse Wednesday night – with about 1,800 standing-room only screaming fans jammed into the pine-panelled Takhini Arena – the NHL players on the Northern Lights Dream Tour flew home early Thursday.

Ottawa Senators Chris Phillips, Chris Neil, Marc Methot and Peter Regin, along with Grant Clitsome of the Winnipeg Jets and Dartmouth College grad Jody O’Neil, were expected to make it back to Ottawa around midnight, following layovers in Vancouver and Calgary. Jordan Tootoo went to Kelowna, B.C. Guillaume Latendresse was scheduled to land in Montreal, via Vancouver and Toronto, around 9 p.m.

Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, meanwhile, was preparing for a 24-hour odyssey. After the 8 a.m. flight from Whitehorse to Vancouver, he had s a six-hour layover before a flight to Los Angeles. The final leg, to Ft. Lauderdale, was scheduled to leave Los Angeles at midnight, arriving in Florida for breakfast.

On the way to Yellowknife to start the trip Saturday, Anderson flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Washington to Ottawa — cabbing to and from his home “to pick up some winter clothes” — then to Ottawa, Calgary and finally Edmonton, where he joined the rest of the crew.

In Anderson’s case, the three-game charity tour was also a three Ocean tour, kissing the Atlantic, the Arctic and the Pacific.

“It is exhausting,” Anderson said, as he took off his equipment following Wednesday’s game. “You gain three hours or lose three hours (on the way home), however you want to look at it. We did travel a lot of miles getting up this way and getting back, but quite honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“For anyone who has never experienced (the North), it’s worthwhile to do something like this, to see the sights you don’t normally see.”

That was a common refrain among the players.

“What a great experience for us, the guys are happy,” said Latendresse. “I have so much good memories from that trip. If there’s ever another one, I will put my name in for sure to come back again. All the travel makes you busy, that’s the toughest part, but it was not too bad. The people are so generous.”

As was the case at the previous stops in the Northwest Territory communities of Yellowknife, Deline, Norman Wells and Inuvik, children and adults in Whitehorse were clamouring to get a glimpse of NHL players.

Two hours before game time, Charlotte Aube, Jessica Pumphrey and Andrea St. Amand were bundled up against the minus-25 degree weather, standing at the front of the line and waiting to get inside the arena. Aube was holding up a hand-made sign: SENS ARMY, YUKON CHAPTER.

“I want to see the guys from Ottawa,” she said. “I’m from Ottawa, our family is from Ottawa and we’ve had season tickets since Day 1 and we still have them, even though we’ve lived up here for the past five years. We’re super stoked to see these guys right now.”

The line of people behind her extended more than 100 deep. “It’s amazing, it’s huge, fantastic,” said Richard Kosan, who was sporting a Senators toque. “It’s great that some of the kids will get to skate with the players on the ice.”

As the opening ceremonies concluded, fans in the lounge overlooking the arena were well into the spirit, loudly and proudly singing O Canada.

In the first period, Whitehorse Mustangs peewees and bantams played with the the touring NHLers. Midget players shared the big stage in the second period, followed by players from the top level of Whitehorse’s adult recreational league in the third. The second intermission included a colourful display of Timbits hockey: A game of nine-on-nine hockey featuring newcomers to the sport, wearing an assortment of bright sweaters.

“You see them on TV and it’s like, man, you always kind of wonder ‘could I, how would I, do against them?’” said Nigel Sinclair-Eckert, 17, who made small talk with Jordin Tootoo as he was taping his stick before the game and then joined the players on the ice. “It’s very cool.”

After taking his turn on the ice, 14-year-old Caleb Marsh, standing in the hallway between dressing rooms with his shirt off, was signing an autograph for an eight-year-old girl. “Yup, that’s my first one,” Marsh said, smiling widely.

Before the game and during the intermissions, the players opened up the dressing room for waves of young autograph seekers, the same routine that played out at the other tour stops.

“For me, it accomplished everything I wanted it to accomplish,” said John Chabot, the former NHL player and coach who organized the journey in order to raise money for his First Assist charity and to showcase northern life to the players. “There was no complaining. They knew there would be a lot asked of them and they delivered ten fold.”

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