By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The sunny skies and balmy temperatures Timmins experienced Tuesday might have been more conducive to a day at the beach, but that didn’t stop a number of local youngsters from lacing up their skates and taking to the ice at the McIntyre Arena.
Day 1 of the four-day Gagne Hockey Development Camp saw Timmins Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne — a veteran of nearly 400 NHL games — and his assistants put five groups of enthusiastic youngsters, ranging in age from four to 16, through their paces.
Skate blades hit the ice at 8 a.m. for Group 1, featuring players 7-9 years old, but they didn’t seem to mind their session getting underway a hour earlier than their normal school day in the midst of their summer vacations.
“It’s early, but they are normally up quite early in the mornings,” Gagne said.
“In the hockey world, you have got to pay your dues. When I was that age, I was at the rink at 8 a.m., or even earlier, and back then it was -40 C, so they are having a great morning.”
Gagne is confident that with the helpful hints he and fellow instructors Bruno Colantonio, James Daschuk and Jordan Rendle will provide this week, the skill level of the participants will grow by leaps and bounds.
“Over the next four days, they will be getting two-and-a-half hours of ice time, so by the end of the week, you will see a big improvement,” he said.
“For example, this morning we were doing one drill that was just crossovers with tips from the instructors on balance, leaning forward, little things like that and it makes a world of difference. By the end of the week it will be all instinct for them. They will improve and learn to do other skills at the same time.”
Gagne and his fellow instructors teach a wide variety of skills during the four-day camp, but the key for most of them comes down to “skating, skating and more skating.”
“They learn how to pivot, how to skate backwards and how to skate forward, with the puck and without the puck,” Gagne said.
“We also want them to learn how to handle the puck, shoot the puck and receive a pass. We want them to keep their heads up while they are skating.
“These are all little things that they need to learn and it is important they learn to do things the proper way.”
Many of the participants at the Gagne Hockey Development Camp come back year after year.
“It is just incredible how much difference there is in the skill level between the first group (seven to nine year olds) and the second group (10 to 12 year olds),” Gagne said.
“Everything is done at a so much-faster pace. All of the groups are good, but you just see a big difference in that second group.”
The camp participants, for the most part, are eager to hone their skills.
“They are like sponges,” Gagne said.
“You tell them something once and they do it. It’s nice to see how much they improve by the end of the week.”
Rendle, captain of Gagne’s Rock and one of the NOJHL’s top snipers, is the newest instructor at the camp.
“This morning was his first time on the ice,” Gagne said.
“We told him what his role was going to be as an instructor and by the end of the session he was really very vocal. He was really involved with the kids, giving demonstrations and offering them tips.
“Having somebody like Jordan help out makes all the difference in the world. He is 20 years old and he has been going to hockey schools all his life. He has received instruction from professional coaches and he has learned lots over the years.”
Rendle enjoyed his first session as an instructor at the camp.
“It felt great to be back on skates,” he said.
“With this being the first day of the camp, we just wanted to get their feet moving. Some of them haven’t skated for a while.
“Just getting them out there on the ice and seeing them smile is our main goal right now. Throughout the week we will be working on little things.”
Rendle can still remember attending similar hockey school back when he was that age.
“They key is having fun and trying to get better,” he said.
“If somebody else is doing better than you out there, you shouldn’t really worry about it.”
The longest-serving instructor — other than Gagne, himself — is Colantonio who has been helping out at the camp for almost a decade.
“This is his ninth year in a row,” Gagne said.
“He is a great guy and he is great with the kids. He knows the program, obviously.”
After graduating from the Timmins Majors program, Colantonio went on to play for the Abitibi Eskimos during the 2007-08 season.
“Nothing has really changed all that much over the past nine years,” he said.
“I have picked up a couple of little things here and there that have allowed me to talk the kids a little easier. For the most part, though, it is just a matter of making sure they have fun and work hard. As long as they have a smile on their face, I will have a smile on my face.
“Sometimes you will see them go back to their parents and say, ‘Did you see me? I just learned this.’”
Colantonio feels speed is the biggest difference between the various age levels.
“There is a big difference in their speed when they are carrying the puck and going around the cones,” he said.
“There is a big difference with their shots, too. The first group, I could probably play in net (without equipment), but the second group, there is no way I am playing in net.”
Like all of his fellow instructors, Colantonio does not have a favourite when it comes to one group or another.
“I love them all in their own special way,” he said.
“It’s kind of funny because we were talking about that earlier. They are all fun in their own way.”
When Gagne first recruited him to help out with the camp, Colantonio had no idea he would still be doing it almost a decade later.
“I thought I was just going to do it the one year, but I keep coming back,” he said.
“I keep calling Paul and asking to come back. I love it.”
Taking part in the camp is a little more complicated now for Colantonio who is living in Ottawa.
While many of those attending the Gagne Hockey Development Camp come back year after year, Dan Morin’s two sons 11-year-old Braden and nine-year-old Ashton, are first-time participants.
“We have gone camping the last few years, so we weren’t in town for the hockey school,” he said.
“This year, they decided they wanted to try it out. There are definitely some reputable names out there, so we are expecting some good things.
“Hopefully, the boys will have some fun, enjoy some camaraderie, play the game and learn some skills.”