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Fans need hockey heroes

By MARK MILLER -- Calgary Sun
Oct. 20, 1997
Forget about the million-dollar contracts, lavish life-styles, franchise relocations, drug convictions, big market, small market, lockouts, strikes ... and take the time to remember what pro sports is all about.
Here's a reminder. It happened in Friday's Flames-Colorado Avalanche game at the Saddledome.
During the first period, Calgary goalie Rick Tabaracci allowed goals on each of the first three shots he faced. Coach Brian Sutter pulled Tabaracci from the game and replaced him with Dwayne Roloson.
At the bench, Tabaracci heard the fans' derisive boos for a performance he knew was bad -- one of the worst of his career.
Angered and embarrassed, he slung off his mask and went behind the bench to regroup in the hallway leading to the Flames dressing room.
For a goalie, there is nothing more humiliating than being pulled in a home game.
As Tabaracci wiped the sweat from his face, eight-year-old Hughie Dunlop leaned over the hallway railing from his seat and saw the obvious despair the goalie was feeling.
He didn't see a stereotypical spoiled, million-dollar athlete.
He saw Tabby, his hero. A goalie just like him -- Hughie plays net for his novice team in Westwood. He loves Tabby's new mask.
"Don't worry Tabby -- I've let in a lot of goals some times, too," he called down to his hero. "You're a good goalie. You save most of 'em."
Tabaracci looked up into the eyes of the young fan. The sincerity of the boy's caring words silenced the boos.
"It's not often you hear something like that," Tabaracci said.
"It's a nice, nice feeling to have someone come out and say that. To know what it took for him to come out and say that is important -- you never want to lose the perspective of what this game really is all about.
"We were all kids once and you don't want to lose sight of that."
At the start of the second period, Tabaracci was put back into the game and his spectacular goaltending contributed significantly to his team's dramatic 6-5 comeback win in overtime.
As the Flames joined in a wild celebration at centre ice for their first win, Tabaracci was looking to the stands to see if his young fan was still there.
As he came off the ice, Tabaracci saw little Hughie standing and clapping for his heroes.
Tabaracci stopped in the same hallway he paced in anger earlier until a young boy's words made him smile.
"Hey, thanks for cheering me up," Tabaracci told the boy.
"I needed the pep talk."
Then, he handed his game stick up through the railing.
That night, little Hughie took the stick home. "It's got puck marks and everything," he said.
Hughie slept with it in his bed.
His dad Jim phoned to let me know about the incident.
"I was really choked up to watch it," said Jim.
"It was really quite incredible what he did -- I heard about Tabby, but now I know why he has a great reputation."
It's true, but not just for Tabaracci.
I see it almost every day travelling with the Flames.
There's Michael Nylander and Sandy McCarthy staying out late in the warmups to toss pucks to young kids in the stands.
On the team's road trip last week, Theo Fleury -- during a stoppage in play -- reached down and grabbed the game puck and flipped it up to a youngster with his face pressed up against the glass.
I've seen Mario Lemieux send a wheelchair-bound fan into uncontrollable tears with a simple gesture of giving up a couple minutes of his time to talk.
Then there's the hospital visits, the charity work, the community involvement of the franchise and players ...
"A lot of this stuff isn't made public," says Tabaracci.
"All you hear about are contract squabbles and negatives.
"For every one positive thing, you hear 10 negatives and that has an effect on fans' perception of athletes.
"That's hard to swallow. That's not the first time me or anyone else had done something like I did with that young boy.
"You don't do it for the recognition -- I never would have told you about that.
"You do it for the gratification of how that kid will feel tomorrow."
There is much wrong in pro sports.
We write too much about it. Hughie is a welcome reminder of what is good.
But there is also a lesson in here for the athletes.
The positive impact of a simple gesture on young Hughie must remind these players they have a responsibility to the fans as well.
In Canada, hockey players are our heroes.
We all need to believe in our heroes.
Just like Hughie Dunlop does today.

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