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Caps alumni come to Hagerstown

Bondra, Labre among former NHL players at Ice & Sports Complex

September 25, 2010|By BOB PARASILITI

Reese McLean acted like he had just won the Stanley Cup.

The 8-year-old from Boonsboro celebrated on Saturday while standing in the middle of the lobby at the Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex with a big smile on his face. He hoisted a replica of Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals jersey in the air like he was taking his turn carrying the NHL's coveted trophy around the rink.

That won't get McLean mentioned in the same breath as Gretzky, Crosby or even Ovechkin -- at least not yet -- but his prize was a collection of autographs from a group of NHL Alumni players. The group came to town to face members of the Hagerstown Adult Hockey League in a benefit game for the Hagerstown Youth Hockey Association.

"They are all Capitals," McLean said. "They are my favorites."

It didn't matter that the majority of the 15 former players who sat at tables signing the autographs had retired probably before McLean and a large number of the budding players in attendance were born. It was a scribble from someone who once did what the youngsters want to do.

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"I want to play in the NHL someday," McLean said.

That's all that mattered.

And it was the reason the NHL Alumni were on hand.

The group featured Peter Bondra, who played the majority of his career with the Capitals from 1990 to 2004, and Yvon Labre, the first Capitals player to have his number retired. The group came in from around the country, and were of various ages, but they were here to play and to bring and enjoy the good will.

"It's just a good cause to get together and to see the old Caps," said Bondra, who was the 37th player in NHL history to score 500 goals. "But I came because it would help a good cause."

No doubt, the Alumni were used to playing in much bigger venues with throngs of fans around, but this captive audience was really what it was all about.

"Some of these guys are coming out from their own games and coming over to get autographs," Bondra said. "They don't know us, but their parents probably do and tell them to come over. This is all about doing the right thing and coming out to support a good cause. I'm going to be happy just getting out on the ice."

So was Mike Donahue, who runs the rink's Learn to Play program and was one of the adult league players who faced the NHL group. Before the game, he was hoping for the best, but preparing for what could be the worst.

"I drove out to pick up some of these guys at the airport," Donahue said. "I got a feeling we are going to get run around a bit. They told me to make sure I keep my head up, so I'm expecting they will be playing some hockey.

"I don't expect them to run us into the ground, but you know they will be able to move the puck over to where they want it to get things going."

The benefit was spearheaded by Russell DeGroote, a St. Louis Blues alumni who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Martinsburg, W.Va. He knew some of the players and got the ball rolling for the Hagerstown group.

Hagerstown's team was represented mostly by players from adult league champions Quality First and runner-up Holcim. Quality First played the first period and Holcim played the second before a mixture of the two teams and a few other players combined to play the final period.

"We didn't do anything to get prepared," Donahue said. "It's just another day for us."

The results of the game didn't matter as much as the reason for playing it -- the same reason that convinced Labre to strap the skates on again at age 61.

"We always come out to promote youth hockey and charitable organizations. We are always ready to do that," Labre said. "For me, it's tough to get out there. My knees kill me, but I'll move the puck over to some of the young guys and watch them."

Labre played for the Capitals from 1974 to 1981 as a defenseman who made a name for himself with his heart and desire for the game.

He is known for giving the Capitals their grit, and they thanked him for his efforts by making his No. 7 the first to be hung in the rafters of the Capital Center, then the Verizon Center when it was built in the late 1990s.

"I have been very fortunate," Labre said. "I worked for the Capitals for 26 years and whenever there is a request to play, I'm there. It is fun to talk to these kids. None of them were born when I was playing to know me. Someone might have remembered me ... the names on the table probably helped."

The days of recognition are over. Now, the key is giving back to the sport of hockey and making places like the Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex more viable to help young players of the future.

"I mean, I go out and have a lot of fun on the ice. I don't want to be playing hockey forever, though," Labre said. "We are just here to help. That's the major thing."

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