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Gagne hosts Eskis tryouts, hockey school

TIMMINS – During the day, Paul Gagne is teaching the fundamentals of the game to kids enrolled in his week-long hockey school.   In the evenings, the head coach and general manager of the Abitibi Eskimos will be looking for players who display an advanced level of those same fundamental skills to help fill this year’s Eskis roster.   Both the hockey school and the prospects camp kicked off on Tuesday at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex in Timmins.   Gagne said more than half of the Eskis roster for this season could sprout from this prospects camp.   “We’ve got about nine returnees, so you’re looking at 11 players all together that we would like to fit in.”   There are important skates to fill on the team as the Eskis lost their scoring leader from last year, Marc-Alain Begin, their top goaltender J.P. Fecteau along with veteran defenceman Nicolas Fournier.   These were 20 year olds last year who are now overaged after playing their final season in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League.   “They were key players so we’re going to have to find good replacements for them,” said Gagne. “That’s going to be done through not just this week, it’s going to be done over the next month or so.”   Those who attend the camp will range in age from 16 to 20 years of age.   Many of them will be from Timmins, Iroquois Falls and surrounding communities.   “They’re from all over. I picked up a kid from Pittsburgh yesterday at the airport, there a few from down south, quite a few of them from Quebec. It should be a pretty good turnout. It’s always interesting this time of year.”   Gagne said he is not only looking for players who exhibit raw skills but an ability and willingness to learn.   “Comprehension” is vital for a coach like Gagne who speaks of the importance of players buying into a “program” and functioning together as a “machine” or five-man units.   “We look at their skill level, their shooting, skating and passing. And then we like to put in a couple of drills and there is a lot of comprehension in these drills. It’s easy to weed them out at that point. Smart players are not hard to come by but they do excel a lot quicker. If they don’t understand the drills then it makes it a lot easier for the coaching staff to realize what we have here.”   After this week’s prospects camp, the Eskis will host their main camp beginning Aug. 20. Gagne is entering his 12th year behind the bench of the Abitibi Eskimos.   Gagne said he never gets tired of teaching the game whether it’s showing a six-year-old how to stickhandle or an Eskis prospect about a five-man defensive system.   “I’ve had an opportunity to play 19 years professionally, I played in the National Hockey League, I played in Europe. Obviously you gain a lot of knowledge in those years playing and even coaching overseas and coaching now. You get knowledge and you learn something every day. So why not share it?   “You want to be in there and try to teach them properly and to learn the proper way of the game and the philosophy of the game. If you can have fun and accelerate, maybe they’ll get to that next level and that’s my passion. That’s what I hope for and that what keeps me going.”   The Eskis coach has been hosting a four-day hockey camp after every Civic Holiday weekend in Timmins for at least the last seven years.   “We have a group that’s ages four to six. Four to six years old, it’s beautiful to see. Then you’ve got the seven- to nine-year-olds, 10 to 13, 14 to 17 and 17 to 19 groups. So we’ve got five groups all together and it’s nice because I get to see these players when they’re six years old and I’ll see them when they’re 14. It’s nice to see them develop and become individuals.”   Gagne is an active instructor on the ice teaching the youngsters but he has two skilled assistants who are both former Eskis.   “Bruno Colantonio has been with me four or five years now. He’s a great instructor going to university in Ottawa. We’ve also got Dan Dubé who was my ex-captain on the team when we hosted the Dudley Hewitt in Iroquois Falls. He has been with me for a few years. He’s now a school teacher, teaching in Iroquois Falls, he wants to bring back to the community his knowledge also.”