OTTAWA - You think the battleground in the series between the Senators and Montreal Canadiens is tough?
Apparently, the playground of a school in Lachine is pretty rugged, too.
Meet 11-year-old Keila Penner. She’s a Senators fan, living in Montreal in a family of Senators fans. Her dad, Cary, used to live in Vanier.
Last Thursday, to celebrate the opening of the Montreal-Ottawa playoff series, students at Maple Grove Elementary School, just outside Montreal, were told they could ditch their uniforms and wear a Canadians jersey. Penner wore her Senators jersey — with pride.
There was some taunting, the typical “Senators suck” verbal jabs ... then the kid was called into the principal’s office and given three options: Call her dad and go home, take the jersey off and put a white shirt on or put on a Canadiens jersey.
A diehard Senators fan, she called Cary and spent the day at home ... unhappy, let down by people who should know better.
Beyond the five cents that Keila won in a bet when the Senators beat the Habs, there is a happy ending. Enter Eugene Melnyk. The Senators owner was sickened when he heard the story of a young Senators fan who had been wronged.
The Senators organization called Keila, whose favourite player is Erik Karlsson. They invited the family to Tuesday night’s game at Scotiabank Place. A white limo was dispatched to pick them up in Dorval. From Barbados, Melnyk called the family Tuesday. Classy.
In the Ottawa-bound limo were Cary, his sons Jordan (15), Jeffrey (13) and Jacob (5) ... along with Keila. They spent the night in the owner’s suite and Keila was presented with a jersey autographed by the Senators team.
“I was pretty angry when they told me to take off the jersey ... I felt kind of bullied,” said Keila. “When the Senators called, I was speechless.”
Cary, who lived on McArthur Ave. and Montreal Rd. while in Ottawa, moved to Toronto in 1992, the year the Senators were reborn. Six years later, he moved to Montreal.
“I grew up watching Mario Lemieux. I was super excited when Ottawa got a team,” said Cary. “I moved away before they started. Life got in the way. But I stayed a Senators fan ... always. It’s a matter of personal choice.”
When the Senators play, the Penners gather around the TV as a family — watching, cheering ... for the Senators.
“When we score, we’re yelling,” said Cary. “I want my daughter to stand up for herself, for what she believes in. She was excited to wear her team’s colours, with pride ... just like all the other kids at the school could wear their team’s colours with pride. They don’t do Ottawa Senators-specific days.”
Last Thursday, with Keila at home, Jacob, removed his Senators jersey when asked. Imagine, bullying a five-year-old to take off his favourite team’s colours.
It’s all better now ... a memorable night in the books for the Penners.
“This is beyond belief, beyond words,” said Cary. “You can’t imagine how excited we are. It’s almost surreal, like we’re living a dream. The Sens organization assured us nobody in the building would ask her to remove her jersey. Kids should know rivalry is good, choice is good.”
The school board says administrators acted in the “best interests” of the child.
School officials were wrong. They told Keila she was breaking rules? Rules schmules.
They are educators, role models for our kids.
They had a chance to teach the students about freedom of choice, about standing up for what you believe in, about individuality.
Instead, they chose to bury their heads in the sand.
This isn’t about Quebec vs. Ontario or Quebec vs. Canada. Hockey should transcend the political bullcrap. A hockey jersey shouldn’t widen the divide; it should bring us all together. It is JUST a game.
Just another reason for everybody to hope the Senators end the Canadiens’ season early.