CALGARY -- Murray Marshall blew his whistle, and in an instant the action on the rink at the Don Hartman NE Sportsplex came to a halt.
Youth hockey players between the ages of 9 and 12 who had been pivoting through a maze of small orange cones set up for a skating drill assembled themselves around the faceoff circle at center ice and listened in rapt attention as the trainer at the Canadian Tire Hockey School NHL Skills Camp spoke.
While many of those kids will be gathered around the TV on Sunday watching the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens compete in the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic -- and undoubtedly dreaming about lacing up the skates and pulling on the sweater for their favorite team some day -- on Thursday morning Marshall wanted them to remember one thing first and foremost.
The game of hockey is about respect.
So to conclude the on-ice session in which the kids practiced everything from shooting accuracy to stickhandling and agility, skating from one end of the ice to the other while trying to dodge those same orange cones being shot directly into their paths, they stood in that circle at center ice and tapped their sticks in salute to one another and also to their parents in the stands, many of whom drove long distances so their sons and daughters could participate in an event where it was luck of the draw to be chosen.
In its first year, the NHL Skills Camps are an initiative through Canadian Tire to provide free one-day training sessions in cities across Canada -- past clinics have taken place in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Vancouver, and two more will be hosted in Montreal and Toronto next month. For the 40 boys and girls who are selected and then divided into two age groups, 6-8 and 9-12, it's the thrill of a lifetime.
"They come into the locker rooms and get that feel of being a player," Canadian Tire spokesperson Radha Bharania said. "They get their own jerseys and water bottles. They change in the dressing rooms and have sessions with NHL alumni where they rotate drills. We have a green screen where they can take their picture with the Stanley Cup, and they get autographs from the players. It's a great day for them."
Chad Bugiera and his family drove eight hours from Regina, Sask., when his 10-year-old son Justin was selected to be part of the camp. Sitting in the stands with his wife and two young daughters, Bugiera said Justin watches TSN constantly and recently switched allegiances from Sidney Crosby to hometown success story Jordan Eberle, a Regina product and now a rookie with the Edmonton Oilers.
"He gets an allowance, so he had to go buy his own new hockey bag and pants for this," Bugiera said of his son, who's only his second year of playing hockey but is picking the game up rapidly. "He couldn't skate last year and now he's the top scorer in his league."
Justin Bugiera was also up on his hockey history enough to be excited about the prospects of interacting with former Flames great Lanny McDonald, one of the NHL alumni participating in the event -- he thought it was "pretty cool" when he got his jersey signed by McDonald following an off-ice session on team building.
While it's been more than two decades since McDonald played his final NHL game and led Calgary to a Stanley Cup title, his trademark moustache is as recognizable as ever. He glided across the floor of the gymnasium at the Sportsplex on Thursday and straight into the middle of the scrum of campers, whose heads immediately shot up. Several pointed in his direction and McDonald returned their smiles and acknowledgment before assisting Larry Pearson, whose three-plus decades of experience in coaching and education include working with Roger Neilson's Hockey Camp, in a series of activities designed to stress teamwork.
"Regardless of the skill level out on the ice, it's so important you encourage the kids, make sure they're having fun out there, whether they're first in line, last in line or how long it takes them to go through the drills," McDonald said.
"Then you come into the classroom and you saw the great team-building skills you're working on. So the kids get that this is not about an individual, this is about an overall team. You've got communication skills, you've got attitude skills, you have an opportunity to meet people you may have never met but you'll walk away from this with a great day. So between the NHL and Canadian Tire, I say congrats. It was a blast."
Eleven-year-olds Dakota Anderson-Sharples and Katelyn Lequiere were in agreement on that much -- although Dakota, a Flames fan, said the on-ice activities were her favorite while Katelyn, who supports the Canucks, preferred one of Pearson's drills in which the campers attempted to keep a large fitness ball up in the air for as long as possible -- learning a cardinal rule of hockey that supporting your fellow players on the ice is critical in team success.
Getting to meet McDonald was "awesomeness," according to Katelyn, which got a nod of approval from Dakota as well.
While watching their favorite player score the big goal or make the key save might be what attracts a youngster to hockey, Pearson understands that in order to ensure the game is fun for each child at every skill level, a feeling of inclusion must be fostered.
Showing the campers his hand, Pearson ended his session by stressing to the campers "lots of thumbs up" to show support for their teammates. Gesturing with his pointer finger, he said that when times get tough or someone makes a mistake, you don't single them out for criticism. ("On a real team, you don't play the blame game.") The ring finger symbolizes the commitment required to be a winner, while the pinky finger is a reminder to always watch out for the little guy and be there for players who might not be at the skill level you are.
"These lessons are transferrable to school, playing sports or going out into the workplace," Pearson said. "It's like that old saying: ‘Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.'"
From start to finish on Thursday, the kids at the Canadian Tire NHL Skills Camp were involved and in their element.
"It's a great experience for the kids," said Krystle Krasnaj, NHL Account Executive, Integrated Marketing, who assisted in the event. "We get a lot of positive feedback from the parents. The comment I often hear is, ‘My kid feels like a rock star' when they come into the locker room and they get their jerseys."
What they come away with is much greater than material items, however. It's a deeper love for the game and a respect for both it and their teammates that surfaced itself in the stick tapping following the on-ice session and in the comments of 12-year-old camper Mo Tokhi when asked to describe his experience at the camp.
"It's great being out here playing. I'm really thankful," he said. "I want to thank the staff and Canadian Tire for giving us this opportunity. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance."