They came for a few hours. They left hoping the relief they'd provided would last a little longer.
On a rare break from their NHL schedule, several members of the Boston Bruins climbed aboard their owner's private jet and flew to Newtown, Conn., to spend Monday afternoon with the children and families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
It was just two months ago, that a gunman walked into the school and fatally shot 20 students and six adult staff members. The memory of that horrific day still lingers and has reignited calls for stricter gun control laws in the United States.
Monday's gathering was meant to be a celebration of hockey, a chance for the Bruins "to come here and put some smiles on faces," defenceman Andrew Ference said. And so they did.
The players, along with Bruins head coach Claude Julien, were introduced to some 1,300 invited guests at the Newtown Youth Academy, then signed autographs, posed for photographs and played some street hockey.
For Ference, it was a moving experience. When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 2011, the Edmonton-born blueliner took the trophy to Boston's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. A regular visitor at the hospital, Ference let the kids and their parents parade about with the Cup.
Having a daughter the same age as many of the children who died at Sandy Hook was another reason for Ference to dwell on the importance of being in Newtown.
"At a certain point you feel a little helpless. You ask, 'What can I do?'" he acknowledged. "New England is part is part of the Bruins' area and when this idea was discussed it was decided maybe we could help the kids forget for a few hours. The parents here said they were happy to see their kids playing street hockey and enjoying themselves."
The Bruins players didn't ask about the shootings but were surprised at how many people spoke about it. One of them was Sandy Hook vice-principal Natalie Hammond, who was shot in the foot, leg and hand but crawled to safety. She will do the ceremonial puck drop on March 3, when the Bruins play host to the Montreal Canadiens.
"Between Canada and the States, the push from these families and people here is to get some of these guns off the streets," Ference said. "Enough is enough. You meet these people and listen to their stories and how can you possibly disagree with what they're fighting for?"