May 6, 2011

From NEHJ: Summer hockey camps have grown up

By Jesse Connolly

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

While its fundamentals will never change, hockey — perhaps more than any other sport — has and always will be an ever-evolving game.

With advances in equipment and a stronger focus on nutrition and off-ice workout regimens, creating up-and-coming players that are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, hockey camps throughout the world have had to constantly adjust to keep up the pace with the current state of the game.

“Every year our program has changed,” said Doug Shepherd, a partner at Andrews Hockey who has been involved with the program for the past 15 years. “The game is so fast. I quit playing in 2003, eight years ago, and the game is twice as fast now as it was then. The kids now, they’re specializing earlier, they’re stronger and faster. It’s just a totally different game.”

Cliff Brown, a program director with CAN/AM Hockey for the past decade, believes the biggest change that camps have undergone has been to put much more emphasis on one-on-one time with each of the players.

“You can’t really reinvent the wheel, so to speak, as far as how you teach it and what you teach,” Brown said. “The old hockey camp standard used to be 35 kids to a group with one or two coaches. You’d do your power skating up and down the ice; you’d work on stickhandling going through cones.

“Now it’s a lot more skill specific, where your power skating is more about agility than stride, and you’re going through cones but it’s a harder fashion. The elevation of the talent has made us want to do more than what we’ve done. We’ve focused more on the individual skill and making it harder, instead of just making it one basic hockey-school training format.”

Brown, whose individualized training program sells out every year, realizes how important good eating habits are for all of the student-athletes, an aspect of hockey camps that didn’t receive nearly as much attention in previous decades as it does today.

“It starts with a balanced diet,” Brown said. “We do have a couple coaches lecture on nutrition — what to do before a game, what to eat and drink especially, what to drink during a game and even after a game. Coming to camp, we make sure the kids are eating properly. We make sure there are good selections and there aren’t as many bad choices in there for them, especially for the most finicky eaters. It definitely plays a bigger role.”

Off the ice, technology also plays a much larger role than ever before. For a generation that’s downright obsessed with iPods and YouTube, utilizing it is a must according to Shepherd.

“It’s big,” Shepherd said. “They’ve always had, from a team perspective, there’s been video sessions. Your fitness is online, the kids log on, and they get their daily plan from fitness nutrition to mental training.”

At CAN/AM, Brown said the campers are given their fair share of video sessions, but he prefers to not spend too much time in the classroom, as the kids already do that enough during the school year.

“We’ll do video feedback on the ice immediately,” he said. “We’ll set up and we’ll do skill specifics like backwards crossovers, puck-handling and shooting. The kids get a chance to review it on the ice with the coaches. We also tape games and do a game review with a coaches corner.”

As hockey camps have grown smarter and smarter, doing their best to stay ahead of the curve, so too have their consumers.

While enjoyment is a key aspect of choosing where to send one’s kids, selecting which hockey camp to go to is essentially a business decision. Such an investment, one made with the hopes of seeing their child improve their skills and increase their potential chance of reaching college and the pros, is a critical one, especially in today’s economy.

“I think over time, the hockey populous at large has become more savvy in their decision-making process,” said Garry Hebert of World Academy of Hockey. “Parents are no longer throwing away good money. Over time, they’ve sifted out the quality camps from the pretenders. I think that there are fewer and fewer programs that are surviving.

“Only the really good ones survive and, in order to survive, they’re increasingly becoming experts in their field and offering many features that are of value to the consumer. It’s a much-more knowledgeable consumer out there in the hockey world.”

Brown also recognizes how vital it is for camps to keep their finger on the pulse of the hockey community at large.

“I think we’re all smarter,” he said. “Consumers are smarter and we’re smarter, as a hockey school and people providing this to them. We’re always trying to make it better. I think we’ve always been serious and we do have specific programs for certain levels, if you want to be serious or it’s recreational. Overall as hockey schools, I think we’re all just better educated and we’re smarter as to how to reach our goals.”

And while Hebert recognizes how key being a savvy businessman is in this economic landscape, the last thing he wants is for kids to feel like they’re being sent off to boot camp. The experience at camp is undoubtedly crucial to one’s development as a player but, if Hebert had his way, parents would remember to broaden their child’s horizons and put just a little more emphasis on having fun.

“I think that the parents who have the ability to maintain more of a holistic perspective will be better off in the long run with their kids,” Hebert said. “Parents who get their kids involved in a variety of sports will serve their student-athlete better in the long run. If our children are to have the most fruitful and meaningful experiences, I believe we have to offer them choices from a young age.

“Sometimes, we unknowingly and unwittingly will steer them in a direction in a much more one-dimensional fashion than we realize. I think it’s much more beneficial for a kid to learn to build memories and enjoy life with his family.”

Above all else, Hebert knows that at the end of the day, no matter how many changes hockey undergoes, the sport will always maintain the same principles that have made it so beloved.

“In the world of hockey, when you look at all of the changes over the years, the more things change, the more things stay the same,” he said. “It’s still hockey. It still requires the same attributes that it always has in order to win games. It’s still the greatest sport in the world.”

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com