April 18, 2012

NEHJ's 16th annual summer hockey camp guide

By Jesse Connolly

As the weather gets warm and the calendar flips from June to July and onto August, NHL players officially are in offseason mode, resting up after a long, arduous season. But for young hockey players, many of whom hope to reach such great heights one day, the summer is official training season. 

Hockey camps strive to make the camp experience fun for young players -- on and off the ice. (Photo courtesy of Can/Am Hockey)

Hockey camps now can be found from coast to coast, offering kids of all ages a chance to hone their skills with top-flight instructors.

But with so many places to choose from, how does a parent know which one is right for their son or daughter? How can they assure their child’s experience will be not only enjoyable but also beneficial to their game?

With the help of Superskills Hockey’s Mario Martiniello, Planet Hockey’s Shawn Killian and Can/Am’s Kevin Willhausen, New England Hockey Journal offers a guide on how to pick the right camp for your kid.

Safety first

Though the importance of safety may not jump to the forefront of a parent’s thoughts when deciding on where to send their child during the summer, it’s something that cannot be overlooked.

Each town and state has a set list of requirements a camp must meet in order to be properly certified. Make sure your prospective camp passes their checklist.

“Not everybody meets them, I hate to admit it,” Martiniello said. “You’re supposed to put it in your brochure that you’re compliant with the local board of health and the state of Massachusetts. That’s a requirement for any camp, not just hockey camps. 

“My feeling is if a company isn’t willing to go through that process, are they really going to make sure your child is safe? You want to make sure they’re going to be protecting your child.”

As Martiniello suggests, do your best to make sure the camp is hiring the right people and doing proper background checks on their potential employees. Also, don’t get fussy when the camp asks for an extensive amount of info on your application, because it’s a necessary part of the process.

“My wife signed my kids up for camp and she said, ‘Can you believe they’re asking for all this stuff?’” Martiniello said. “I said, ‘Yep. Fill it out. I’m glad they are.’”

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Get on the phone

Detailed brochures and websites are a great tool for parents to utilize, but there’s no better way of fully knowing what a camp has to offer than getting on the phone and talking to each group’s directors.

“Ask a slew of questions that are important to them, whether they have a goaltender, a 16-year-old or a young girl that’s just beginning,” Killian suggested. “Ask if the camp is appropriate, if the camp conducts its syllabus appropriately, who is on their staff and what differentiates their camp from the others.”

Asking more questions not only helps a parent better understand what a camp has to offer but also helps the camp itself best determine what would be best for their child.

“When a parent calls in, I try to get a handle on where their child played hockey the year before and what level, and what the parent feels their young hockey player has to work on to get to the next level the following season,” Willhausen said. 

Hockey camps can now be found from coast to coast. (Photo courtesy of Bridgton Sports Camps)

And, of course, make sure to ask around at your local rinks. Fellow parents won’t be shy in commending or critiquing camps they’ve had experience with.

Camp Guide: Get answers to these questions

Don’t overanalyze numbers

While most camps have the best of intentions, don’t get too hung up on all of the numbers thrown out there in every brochure or on every website. A higher ratio of coaches to players, overly lengthy ice time or camp time doesn’t necessarily guarantee one camp is better than the other.

“People will ask and I could say it’s one-to-one, and then just fill it up with high school kids,” Killian said when asked about the importance of the coaches-to-players ratio. “That just doesn’t accomplish anything and many camps do that. They’ll have one gray-haired guy that’s an authority figure and knows a bit about the game, and then he just has a bunch of local high school kids. There’s 12 coaches on the ice to 20 kids, and that’s a great ratio, but it’s not really creating the environment parents want.”

Camp Guide: Critical skills for every age group

Days and nights

If you’re considering sending your child outside of your local area to a resident camp, make sure you do some extra homework.

“Not all camps and not all resident camps are created equal,” Killian explains. “What’s happening on the ice and off the ice is your value. With the day camp, it’s the ice portion and sayonara, they’re gone. What’s happening from 3 o’clock forward is what creates the resident piece.

“Parents need to pick up the phone. We love those conversations because at our camps, they’re staying at $300 million resort facilities. It’s different than many of the resident camps where there’s cabins, no air conditioning and they’re eating cafeteria food. They get to eat at some nice restaurants and they get to go whitewater rafting.”

If you plan on shipping your kid off for an extended period of time, don’t do so blindly.

Camp Guide: Q&A with a goaltending camp

Find uniqueness

While all camps are built around the same principles, try to find ones that offer unique elements that are both fun and beneficial to your child’s development.

CAN/AM’s Family Program is a great example.

“I’ve never seen another camp like it,” Wellhausen said. “If you come out to Lake Placid, you actually skate with your child on the ice every day as part of the camp. You do drills both with your child and with just adults. There’s a lot of drills that are interactive with your own kids. It’s really geared around fun. The development is there, too, but you can spend priceless memories on the ice with your own child.”

The Goalie Guru: What goalie camps will -- and won't -- do for you

Make sure it’s fun

What’s the best way to find out if your child is having a blast or itching to get in the car and go home? Stick around the rink for a bit. 

Good camp instructors recognize the importance of fun. (Photo courtesy of SuperSkills Hockey)

“If parents stay and watch, they get a good feel,” Martiniello said. “Just talk to your kid after the first day of camp. He’s going to know whether he had fun or not. Just ask him if he had fun and then worry about what they learned afterward. I fully believe if kids are having fun, the learning part will come easier and faster.

“If they’re at camp and miserable because it’s like boot camp, and they’re getting beat up all day long and skated into the ground, he’s not going to come out the same as he would if he was having some fun.”

Camp Guide: Bruins d-man Mottau stresses fun

Judging value

Knowing whether or not your son or daughter is enjoying himself at camp will be pretty easy to determine. But at the end of the day, for many parents, hockey camps can be a pretty sizable investment. The best ones out there are capable of balancing work and fun.

“If they’re not having fun at camp, it’s not worth it for them and it’s not worth it for us,” Martiniello said. “To beat a kid up in the summertime when it’s 80 degrees outside and he can be at the beach isn’t going to be productive. If he’s having fun, enjoying himself and can’t wait to come the next day, you know you’re going to get the best out of him and be able to push him harder.”

If a camp can achieve that, it shouldn’t be long before the results of your child’s experience are imminent.

“I think value would be if your kid comes home after having a great time and you can see that there is something different about their game that following September at tryouts, whether it’s an emotional side or a physical side,” Wellhausen said. “You can see if the intensity is ratcheted up a notch or that your kid actually does stride out better as a skater, he’s handling the puck better, he’s got his eyes up more and knows where to be on the ice. That’s a direct result of choosing the right camp for your kid.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com