Tuesday was a big day in the community for the Portland Pirates.
Early in the afternoon, captain Matt Ellis and forward Alex Gongalsky, who joined the team just last weekend, decorated a 9-foot Christmas tree at Gary’s House in Portland.
Later in the afternoon, Derek Whitmore, a forward in his third season with the Pirates, spoke to about 130 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at the Helen Thompson Elementary School in West Gardiner as part of the Pirates’ Goals For Success Program.
In the evening, rookie forward Corey Tropp and defensemen T.J. Brennan and Drew Schiestel helped out at a practice with the Casco Bay Youth Association’s squirt travel teams at Travis Roy Arena in Yarmouth.
“We feel it’s really important as a part of their maturation and growth as players that they are out in the community,” Portland Coach Kevin Dineen said. “We try to expose them to a lot of things outside the rink here and give them the opportunity to get involved with the community.”
It sounds like the players benefit from the experience, too.
“It’s important to come and see where the efforts of a lot of volunteers are going,” Ellis said. “It’s important from a personal standpoint to keep in touch with that and to lend a hand in any way I can to help.”
The Pirates have been involved with Gary’s House, which provides temporary housing for the families of patients receiving treatment in area hospitals, nearly from the time the program started in 1998.
“It’s community service for Portland Pirates players, but it’s an opportunity for us to get some assistance,” said Sandra Antoine, the program’s executive director. “In the past, we’ve had them take the curtains down when we’ve had to paint. They also come to our events to help us raise money.”
This is the second season Whitmore has delivered his message to school children.
“The first thing I talk about is how to set goals and what you do to accomplish those goals,” he said. “The second thing I talk about is living a healthy lifestyle, you know, eating right, trying to limit your television time, making sure you get enough exercise.
“The last thing we talk about is how to handle peer pressure and some techniques and ideas that I’ve used in my past to handle peer pressure.”
Whitmore’s message didn’t land on deaf ears, said Melissa Weston, a member of the Thompson School parent-teacher association and an organizer of the event.
“The kids were very excited about what he had to say,” Weston said. “I spoke to other parents and they said the kids ran home to tell their parents what Derek had to say.
“It’s something they need to hear from someone other than their parents and their teachers.”
Whitmore doesn’t do all the talking during the sessions. He also listens.
“They really ask a wide variety of questions and I like answering them,” he said. “They’ll ask me how many goals have you scored or how many fights have you had.
“One kid asked me, ‘What would you be doing if you weren’t playing hockey?’ “
After giving some pointers to more than two dozen 9- and 10-year-old hockey players, Schiestel recalled his own start in hockey.
“When we’re out there, we were all saying it reminded us of when we were kids,” he said. “All of us come from the same place. We were all little guys out there working with parents and coaches who put in the time to help develop young kids at the grass-roots level.
“It’s good to see people are putting in the effort to help kids like that and we’re glad to be a part of that.”
The hockey players’ presence on the ice was as important as what they had to teach.
“They’re really nice guys, great role models,” said Tom Marjerison of Yarmouth, who coaches one of the squirt teams. “It’s great for kids to see professional hockey players are really nice guys, polite.
“It really reinforces the hockey ethic of hard work and being a quiet person.”
NOTES: A hip injury is expected to keep forward Mark Parrish out of the lineup for at least the next three weeks. … Right-shoulder surgery could keep center Travis Turnbull sidelined for the rest of the regular season. … Left wing Colin Stuart practiced for the first time Wednesday morning since returning from playing three games in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres. … Fans are asked to bring teddy bears to toss on the ice after the Pirates score their first goal against the Norfolk Admirals Saturday night. All bears will be donated to area charities.
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: