The Tri-City Americans were in a giving mode Thursday, entertaining their adoptive family.
Team captain Mason Wilgosh gave West Richland residents Joe and Liana Vargas and their family -- including boys Ryan, 12, Joshua, 7, and Isaiah, 4 -- a tour of the locker room, a meet-and-greet with the team and presents.
"They had a blast," Joe Vargas said of his boys. "It was totally unexpected. It was a great experience, and we are thankful. Ryan likes going to the games, and we got to go to the dressing room. Ryan had been looking forward to it all week."
The three boys got sweatshirts, hats and the NHL 12 video game, and the family received a Walmart gift card and vouchers for a game.
"We had a really nice time," Vargas said. "We're blown away the team would do this."
Wilgosh said the team enjoyed playing Santa Claus.
"We were fortunate to find a family we could help out," Wilgosh said. "Every guy put in a few bucks, and we bought a few gifts. It's Christmas, and it's a time of giving. To put a smile on a kid's face is nice.
"From when I was 16 until where I am now, I do feel different. People still buy me gifts, but when you grow up, you understand what it means to give, and it makes you feel good."
The Americans (25-7-0-0), who lead the Western Hockey League with 50 points, won't be so charitable tonight when the Seattle Thunderbirds (13-15-0-1, 27 points) roll into town for the first game of their home-and-home series before the start of the holiday break.
"These games are huge," Wilgosh said. "It's tough to play these games when you are going home in a few days, but these are points we need. You can't lose them because you lose focus."
A couple of wins by the Americans this weekend would give them their best mark in franchise history at the holiday break. Tri-City was 26-9-0-0 (52 points) in 2009-10.
"It's great going into the break in first place," said goalie Ty Rimmer, who played for Brandon and Prince George last season. "We still have two games this weekend, and Seattle plays us tough. We are looking forward to the test."
Rimmer (14-4-0-0) and rookie Eric Comrie (11-3-0-0) will split the games this weekend, but sharing the net doesn't bother Rimmer.
"This is a first-class organization, and I'm extremely happy to be a part of it," Rimmer said. "It's nice to look forward to coming to the rink every day."
Tri-City enters tonight's game on a six-game winning streak. It has won its last seven on home ice.
"We've been playing well for a long time," Americans coach Jim Hiller said. "I like that we have been consistent and good. After our loss in Kelowna (6-2 on Nov. 30) we challenged our leaders and the results speak for themselves. You have to credit those guys (Wilgosh, Adam Hughesman, Brendan Shinnimin, Justin Feser and Patrick Holland). This is what it takes day in and day out."
The Americans have played short-handed the last few games as the top defensive pairing of Zach Yuen and Mitch Topping has been injured. Both remain questionable for the weekend.
Feser, the Americans' third-leading scorer with 15 goals and 21 assists, has dropped back to play defense, and rookie defensemen Riley Guenther and Justin Hamonic have played key roles.
"Riley and Ham, over the last couple of weeks, have played more than they have the first 20 games," Hiller said. "Everyone has played a part, and we are living proof of that."
The Thunderbirds, who have won two in a row, and Americans split their two games at ShoWare Center this season, with Seattle and goalie Calvin Pickard winning 3-0 on Nov. 18 and Tri-City taking the last matchup 4-2 on Dec. 2.
But the Thunderbirds and Pickard haven't been so lucky at Toyota Center. Seattle hasn't won in Kennewick since Jan. 27, 2008, a 17-game span, and Pickard is winless in 12 starts.
"Since I've been in the league, we haven't won there," Pickard said. "This year, we have a new attitude and new culture. We are really keying on (today). If we play well and physical, the result will take care of itself. It would be nice (for me) to get a win there. I'm sure it will happen."
Pickard, regarded as one of the WHL's top goaltenders, did not get an invite to Team Canada's final World Junior camp, but he said he didn't deserve one.
"I didn't play good enough the first part of the year, and neither did our team," Pickard said. "No excuses. The first couple of months weren't my best."
Note: The Americans were ranked second in this week's CHL poll behind the London Knights (24-6-0-1). The Kamloops Blazers came in at No. 7, while the Edmonton Oil Kings were No. 8. Tri-City has been ranked 10 of 13 weeks this season.
"Recognition is important, and we are proud of (our ranking)," Americans general manager Bob Tory said. "We have a great work ethic and good team chemistry. You don't have a start like this without contributions from everyone. No one player is bigger than the team, and the players embrace that."
w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; email@example.com