NEWTOWN -- Hundreds of sports fans packed the Newtown Youth Academy on Monday with the hopes of meeting their heroes.
Members of the Boston Bruins -- the 2011 Stanley Cup champions and idols to millions of fans, both young and old -- came to town to host a street hockey clinic for children.
They played hockey with the children, signed autographs, posed for pictures and, most importantly, shared some smiles in a town where smiles have been hard to come by lately.
Amid the fanfare and festivities, the greatest hero at the Newtown Youth Academy Monday night wasn't a Boston Bruin, or even a professional athlete.
"It's amazing, the fact that the Bruins have taken a day out of their busy schedule to be here with us, and to make our community excited and fun and happy really means a lot," Hammond said. "It's really incredible."
Incredible, too, has been the resilience and fortitude of a town that has endured such unspeakable tragedy. Six educators and 20 first-graders were killed in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.
A subsequent outpouring of sympathy and support has come from every corner of the globe. While few things will ever interrupt an NHL team's relentless pursuit of the Stanley Cup, the Bruins were happy to put their season on hold for a day so they could visit Newtown.
"We wanted to come here and let the kids be kids and have fun," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "If that's what we've accomplished, then we've accomplished something.
"I have all the time in the world for these people."
Julien's team is coming off a 3-2 win on the road over the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. That win moved them into first place in the Northeast Division standings, a point ahead of the rival Montreal Canadiens.
The Bruins will be back in action Thursday when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The rigors of the NHL schedule, however, pale in comparison to the suffering the people of Newtown have endured.
The tragedy hit particularly close to home for the players who have children of their own.
"I can't even fathom what people are going through," said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference, a 33-year-old father of two. "I can't even begin to understand it."
The Bruins have been quite supportive of the kids in Newtown in the wake of the tragedy. When the Newtown High hockey team held a benefit game Jan. 12 to raise money for Sandy Hook-related charities, the Bruins donated an autographed jersey, which was auctioned off.
"They're not really the local team here, but they've really extended a hand," said Newtown High hockey coach Paul Esposito, a die-hard Bruins fan.
"It's great to see the coaches and the players here, and the (Bruins) support staff and the alumni were here. They ran our practice today. They're doing a fantastic job, and I think a lot of people are really happy they came."