The notion of local NHLers finding themselves involved with some sort of charity event, in their hometown, is hardly a new concept.
But the NHL vs Docs contest in support of NEO Kids really started to leap forward a couple of years ago as captain Nick Foligno began to find a way to attract Columbus Blue Jacket teammates who had seldom set foot in Sudbury north for this wonderful event.
Hockey enthusiasts in the area were understandably excited to get a close up view of the likes of Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois and others, pro hockey talent who had not already ingratiated themselves with the Sudbury Wolves' faithful as members of the opposing OHL teams.
This year, Foligno et al would crank it up a whole new level entirely, with both John Tavares and Matt Duchene back in town. While both toiled in the OHL, suiting up with the Oshawa Generals and Brampton Battalion respectively, sufficient time had passed to make the pair, along with their NHL teammates, quite the draw for a crowd more than 3000 strong.
"Nick asked me to come up and play and we think the world of him and his family," noted Duchesne on Sunday. "I'm a little biased, because I'm a fellow 705 area code (born and raised in Haliburton). I always enjoy being in this part of the country, even if it's a little further from home."
While Duchene could at least draw upon his recent half season with the Blue Jackets in terms of having some first-hand Foligno familiarity, Tavares admits to a somewhat more arm's length connection to this event.
"We get to know people through hockey circles pretty well and the Foligno's have such a great reputation for giving back," said the 28 year old who absoluted delighted hundreds of northern Ontario fans by signing as a free agent last summer with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that his mother calls Sudbury home, one of ten kids born to Polish immigrants Boleslaw and Jozefa Kowal. "I try and come up for a couple of days pretty much every summer, just to see some of the family that I probably only see once a year," said Tavares.
"It's usually around this time in August when I get some time to come up, so when Nick asked me a few months ago, it allowed me to kind of look at the schedule, and it worked out great."
The words ring through loud and clear to Foligno, whose family enjoys a wonderful reputation locally build on care and compassion, and a great deal of humility.
"It's just a humbling thing to see all of these guys take time out of their busy schedules to come out and help us in this community," said the veteran of three junior hockey seasons in Sudbury, including the incredible run to the league final in 2006-2007.
"First and foremost, we're trying to get this children's hospital built," added Foligno. "I think the way that you do that is by using your voice. We want to get this done to provide a service for the kids in this community, for the kids in the north."
"I think they (the NHLers) realize how important this is to my family and to the community here."
And while the vast majority of the players on hand will return to very familiar surroundings come the start of training camps next month, Matt Duchene will hit the ice for the first time on the home bench in Tennessee, now a member of the Nashville Predators.
"Number one, I think it's a team that is poised to win," suggested Duchesne, discussing the fit that would bring he and the perennial Western Conference powerhouse together as one. "You want to put yourself in a position where you expect to make the playoffs and put yourself in the mix."
"On top of that, the lifestyle is very similar to here," he said. "My wife is from Denver and we're used to having some room, and you have that in Nashville."
Other NHLers on hand on Sunday included Josh Anderson, Tyler Bertuzzi, Scott Harrington, Marcus Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Anthony Duclair, Marc Staal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Seth Jones, Boone Jenner, Riley Stillman and Minnesota Wild prospect, Damien Giroux.