Connor Parkkila hugs his idol, Philadelphia Flyers rookie goalkeeper Carter Hart, on Saturday in the Flyers’ locker room. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Flyers)

Connor Parkkila hugs his idol, Philadelphia Flyers rookie goalkeeper Carter Hart, on Saturday in the Flyers’ locker room. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Flyers)

Autistic boy’s reunion with Carter Hart was ‘best day ever’

The former Silvertip wears jersey No. 79 to honor his 8-year-old Marysville fan.

Connor Parkkila is a staple at Everett Silvertips games.

Along with his good friend and Everett fan Cavan Price, Connor routinely stations himself next to the Silvertips’ tunnel at Angel of the Winds Arena. As the players waddle on and off the ice, he extends his arm to exchange fist bumps with his heroes.

Former Silvertips goaltender Carter Hart always obliged, and during Hart’s four seasons in Everett, the two developed a close relationship.

Hart moved on this season to play for the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers, but the friendship has remained strong. During the Flyers’ two most recent home games, Hart provided his young friend with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Connor, along with his parents, April and Will, were Hart’s special guests for two NHL games at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia — Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, and Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The visit included tickets adjacent to the Flyers’ tunnel, postgame tours of the locker room and some much-needed catch-up time with Hart.

The Philadelphia Flyers’ Carter Hart presents Connor Parkkila with a signed and framed Stadium Series jersey following Tuesday night’s game against Tampa Bay. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Flyers)

The Philadelphia Flyers’ Carter Hart presents Connor Parkkila with a signed and framed Stadium Series jersey following Tuesday night’s game against Tampa Bay. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Flyers)

“He’s just a down-to-earth kid that gets it,” April said of Hart. “It was an amazing experience. As Connor put it as we were leaving the rink (Saturday), ‘This is the best day ever.’”

Connor, an 8-year-old with autism, has been attending Silvertips home games since he was 3 weeks old. April and Will, who reside in Marysville, have been season-ticket holders since the 2004-05 season. Connor was 3 when Hart, an eighth-round bantam draft pick, first appeared with the Silvertips in 2014. Connor got to see Hart develop into one of the most successful goaltenders in Western Hockey League history, becoming the first player to win the Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year award twice and steering the Silvertips to the WHL finals last season.

Connor Parkkila wears a jersey signed by Philadelphia Flyers goalkeeper Carter Hart. (Parkkila family photo)

Connor Parkkila wears a jersey signed by Philadelphia Flyers goalkeeper Carter Hart. (Parkkila family photo)

Hart started the current season in the American Hockey League but was called up to Philadelphia in December. Since then, he’s revitalized the Flyers’ play in the crease, posting a 13-7-1 record, a 2.67 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage in 21 games.

No one has made a bigger impact on Connor than Hart, April said.

“I still think of Carter in some ways as a Silvertip,” she said. “I know he’s a pro hockey player now, but to me, he’s just one of the same hometown boys that we get to watch play with the Silvertips.

“Carter is still the same kid. Still the same young man. When we talked to him last year, he was still the same when we talked to him (Saturday).”

Connor Parkkila poses for a photo Saturday with his idol, Philadelphia Flyers rookie goalkeeper Carter Hart. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Flyers)

Connor Parkkila poses for a photo Saturday with his idol, Philadelphia Flyers rookie goalkeeper Carter Hart. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Flyers)

The Parkkilas had planned a February trip to see Hart play whether he was in the AHL or with the Flyers. When Hart and the Flyers learned of the family’s plans, they decided to make the visit extra special. Even the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles got involved, providing Connor and his family with their Flyers’ season tickets for the two games.

“Never in a million years did I ever think it would get like this,” April said. “We’re not people who are used to being (in the spotlight). Connor is quite humble like Carter is, so I want to keep him as humble as I can, but I want to let him enjoy the spotlight, too.”

If seeing his role model playing in an NHL game wasn’t enough, Connor was introduced on the Flyers’ local television broadcast and appeared on the arena’s jumbotron. Philadelphia’s Travis Konecny, who scored the game-winning goal in the Flyers’ 6-5 overtime victory Saturday, gifted his stick to Connor.

Although Hart allowed four third-period goals as the Flyers blew a 5-1 lead, the Sherwood Park, Alberta, native didn’t let the shaky performance against the Red Wings dampen his reunion with Connor as he gave the Parkkilas a tour of the Flyers’ locker room and showed off his stall.

Hart signed the back of Connor’s No. 79 Hart jersey with the message, “Love ya buddy!” in the “7” and his autograph in the “9” before the two embraced in a bear hug.

That jersey number, No. 79, at first nonspecific and insignificant, now is special to Hart. He has Connor to thank for that.

Hart, a second-round pick by the Flyers in the 2016 NHL draft, was assigned No. 79 for his first rookie development camp that summer. When he returned to the Silvertips for his 18-year-old season, he noticed Connor had acquired a No. 79 jersey, which he was eager to show Hart.

If Connor was enthusiastically sporting No. 79, then it was decided: That would be Hart’s future number. When he debuted for the Flyers on Dec. 18 against the Red Wings, he became the first player in franchise history to wear that number.

“We never expected him to keep that number,” said April, who added Carter reached out to Connor before the season to say he was keeping No. 79 and that his 8-year-old superfan was the reason.

In between the Flyers games, the Parkkilas watched the New Jersey Devils beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 on Sunday — former Silvertip Mirco Mueller plays for New Jersey — ensuring Connor’s thirst for hockey didn’t go unquenched for long. Connor and the Parkkilas enjoy traveling around the continent to watch former Silvertips play. They’ve already been to see ex-Tip Kevin Davis play for the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies and Spencer Gerth play college hockey for Trinity Western.

Hart was pulled during Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the NHL-leading Lightning after relinquishing three goals on nine shots, but his spirits were lifted when he visited with Connor after the game. His young friend provided him with a Flyers keychain with a goalie figurine on it, for “good luck.”

Hart, in turn, gifted Connor a signed and framed Stadium Series jersey.

The presentation by Hart and the Flyers capped an awe-inspiring weekend for Connor and his family.

Connor “just loves those boys and the love has grown into a special relationship,” April said. “We couldn’t be more thankful for the role model that Carter is for our son.”

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