By Isabelle Ferrante and Hajar Rifai
Toronto mom Joanne Barker knows her son Christopher is “over the moon” as he’s watching and waiting to meet his favourite Maple Leafs players. The last two years prevented his chance to meet them like they regularly did in the past couple of decades.
The two at the moment were waiting in line to meet one of the top players, Auston Matthews, who was signing autographs and chatting with young fans.
“For Christopher, it’s like, over the moon to see all the players and everything,” Barker said.
They were among hundreds who travelled to south Etobicoke for the 43rd annual Toronto Maple Leafs Skate for Easter Seal Kids on Jan. 28 after a two-year penalty called by the pandemic.
Barker and her son Christopher, who have been attending the Easter Seals event since 2007, said that events like these are essential for kids like her son.
“They’re the difference that makes it so kids like him can go to camp, so they get the equipment that they need,” she said. “Easter Seals does a lot for them. It’s really important.”
Having the entire Leafs team present at the event was a major thing for fans.
“It’s a big thing, it makes them more I don’t want to say human but I kind of mean that, they are more like normal people,” Barker said. “It shows that they care about the people that they support.”
The Leafs Skate offers participants of all ages and abilities the opportunity to skate with and meet their favourite players at the Ford Performance Centre. The donation of a minimum of $300 in pledges went towards helping kids and youth with physical disabilities.
Lauren Squizzato, the community engagement manager for Easter Seals Toronto and the GTA, said it was special to return despite it being structured differently than previous years.
“We were hoping to raise $150 and we surpassed that with $165,000,” she said. “I know the last year we did it in 2020 we raised $200,000 but we had 720 people versus this year, we had 400 because we were at capacity limits.”
The limited space forced a decrease in participants but didn’t stop those who did show up from continuing to create memories that would last a lifetime.
“At this event fans get to meet their heroes,” Squizzato said. “There’s some kids like one little boy Oliver, who I’m sure you’ve seen in his photo hugging Auston Matthews.
“That was like his dream. His mom called me today and she’s still crying,” she said.
The Leafs and Easter Seals have built a 43-year relationship that welcomes new families each year.
This isn’t a first time event for people like Lily Khemraj and her son Ryan, a die-hard Leafs fan. They’re also passionate fans of the skate and they’ve been attending the event for the past quarter century.
“And he’s always excited to come on here to reach the Toronto Maple Leafs because this is the only place where you can get to really see them, meet them, talk to them and have their autograph,” she said.
The donations from the skate go directly toward the three pillars of service at Easter Seals: equipment funding, two fully accessible summer camps, and a secondary scholarship program.
Returning Leaf players say they feel lucky to participate in the event again.
Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin, who is currently on the team’s Long Term Injured Reserve list, said he loves participating.
“It means a lot. We’re fortunate to be in the situation we are in and to create happiness that we have for these kids and people, it’s a good feeling,” he said. “So it means a lot to us, it means a lot to them to be here.”
Muzzin’s former on-ice defensive partner Justin Holl said he appreciated the encouragement from players and fans alike.
“I just love the support and love kind of forming these small relationships with people and meeting new people,” Holl said. “You can bring smiles to kids’ faces and it’s fun for us as well.
“It’s a little thing but I think it means a lot,” he said.
For Leafs feisty left winger Michael Bunting, this was his first time attending the event.
“We’re a big part of this community and any time we can give back and this is a great cause with the Easter Seals and they’ve been doing it for many years,” he said.
Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, who had been in a goalless drought, was asked by the kids when he’s going to score.
“Tomorrow night, obviously,” he said in his best Babe Ruth impersonation.
Rielly then proceeded to score his first goal of the season the following day.