It was a virtual revolving door last weekend of hockey bags, hockey players, and an outstanding and dedicated group of coaches reticent to toot their own horns. The Hay River Minor Hockey Association hosted 132 players from across the territory at the 2011 Ice Breaker Hockey Development camp from Oct. 7-10.
The camp is run by former NHLers and major junior coaches and scouts who want to see players from small communities succeed. On Sunday evening Luke Daignault of Hay River skated up to one camp organizer Louise Schumann to comment on the off-ice training session and the high energy instructor teaching dry land exercises to keep players in good game shape.
“She’s on steroids or something,” said Daignault, jokingly. “It was all sorts of awesome.”
But it was this enthusiasm, said Schumann, that carried participants through the weekend though they were pushed to the max in on ice and off-ice training.
“I see participants coming away noticeably improved,” said Schumann. “They get four on-ice sessions which is more than they’re used to.”
This is the first time for the three out-of-town coaches in Hay River, and they will hopefully be back, said Schumann.Former Red Wings forward Dennis Polonich and Doug Russell have been running hockey camps for the past 10 years together.
“We do it for the right reasons,” said Polonich. “I talk to them about respect, about focus, about mental toughness. Are they going to play in the NHL? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. They’ll be better players and better people.”
For former NHL player turned Coach Pat Elynuik, it’s all about setting and reaching measurable targets and goals. “If they can meet those targets and goals consistently then they’re going to continue to enjoy the game and progress as players,” he said. “But the people of Hay River certainly should be proud of the habit and culture of their players.”
Head of the coaching team Doug Russell said that players in small northern communities face specific challenges, but ones that can be overcome.
“Geographically, it’s really hard,” said Russell. “A lot of it comes down to game sense, and when you don’t have that opportunity to play a certain level, that can be a challenge.”
“If you turned back the clock 10 years ago I’d say most talent came from small towns,” said Russell, “but now hockey has become so elite that you have to head to the city centres to get to the good hockey.”
For this very reason Russell said the coaches tailor the exercises to meet the needs of the players, taking segments of the game, breaking them down into drills, and putting the pressure on, but with a positive spin.
“We’re trying to bring the game to the players,” said Russell. “In one word, our time in Hay River has been awesome. The kids want to be here. They’re parents aren’t pushing them to be here.”
Still at 8:30 p.m. on the eve of Thanksgiving, players are circling the ice surface, challenging themselves and each other. Russell hasn’t been out of his skates in seven hours. Along with Polonich, he’s a small hockey player, so are both of his NHL player sons, Chris and Ryan Russell.
“That’s a battle they fight every day,” he said. “But I say hockey is 90 per cent mental. The other 10 per cent, that’s mental, too. If you have passion and intensity, you can’t measure that trying and desire with a tape measure.”