The moment it hit me, I was standing at center ice, watching 14-year-old Cheyann Newman grin from ear to ear as she effortlessly and fluidly skated around the circles in a typical cross-over drill -- each stride infused with a passion I'd never seen before.
I had been coaching Cheyann all that week at camp, and the way she lit up every time I talked to her, even to correct her on her form, was humbling. I learned that she is the only daughter of a single mom, that she plays basically every sport under the sun but hockey is her favorite, that she is the lone girl on a tier 2 rep team in Quisnell, B.C., that she makes perfect grades in school, and that she dreams of one day going to Boston University to play for the Terriers. Oh, and that she is autistic, but you would never know it.
"I've had autism all my life," Cheyann explained. "It's crazy because most autistic kids avoid sports because the majority of them are clumsy and do not have any hand-eye coordination … I'm drawn to hockey because it's a place where I can completely be myself, it takes away stress and I get to showcase some talent.
Cheyann's pluck and drive reminded me of the very reason I was using all of my vacation time from working as a web producer at NHL.com to volunteer with YWAM Hockey's summer camp program.
"First and foremost, it's about the kids" -- that's the mantra of Glen Beuckert, founder and director of YWAM Hockey, a Christian hockey camp based in Vancouver that emphasizes the cultivation of character, respect and integrity.
"Not only do you teach them hockey skills, but you build into their lives as well," Bueckert said.
I've spent the last two summers coaching with YWAM Hockey at its camps throughout Western Canada. Each summer, YWAM Hockey assembles a team of eight or so volunteer coaches to travel to Calgary, Grande Prairie, Prince George, Langley, Kelowna and Vancouver Island to stage week-long camps. During the winter months, YWAM Hockey also ventures to Alaska, Russia, Finland and the Far East to offer camps and clinics there.
In all of my coaching endeavors, I've worked with hundreds of kids in different cities and from different backgrounds -- and they've taught me a lot. If there's one thing I've learned about coaching youth hockey, it's this: Simply show up, forget about yourself and your life will be changed.
Just ask Shaun Comier, 19, who has helped coach the YWAM Hockey camp in Prince George, B.C., for the last three years. Shaun grew up in Prince George playing soccer, but he switched to hockey at age 10 and quickly excelled on the ice all the way to the Major Midget level. Technically speaking, he's one of the best power skaters I've ever coached with. He's also a favorite among the kids at the Prince George camp every year. He is something of a local hero, attending university and working at the nearby sports shop. He keeps in touch with the kids from camp all through the year, even running bi-monthly dry land practices just to check in on them.
"First and foremost, it's about the kids. Not only do you teach them hockey skills, but you build into their lives as well." -- Glen Bueckert, founder and director of YWAM Hockey
"With coaching, it's seeing the kids improve; that's what brings me back," Comier said. "You see the kids each year and you watch them move on to the next level and achieve their goals in the season, you want to keep in touch with the kids and hear how they are improving."
Investing off the ice is key. How well do you know the players on your team? They have so much to teach you, if you're willing to get to know them.
Last spring I coached a squirt team for Ice Hockey in Harlem, which meant waking up at 6 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings -- oftentimes after working a full slate of NHL games the previous night, which meant coaching on only a few hours of sleep. But it was worth it for the opportunity of meeting 13-year-old Caroline Cabrera.
It was Caroline's first season playing hockey, but she had that desire to learn and improve that coaches love to see in a player. I helped arrange for her to attend the YWAM Hockey/ Athletes in Action camp in Langley, B.C., where she was the only American in attendance.
Caroline and I have become good friends. She is an amazing young woman who has earned my respect. According to her former elementary school teacher, he used to use her assistance in translating books from Spanish to English for his students. Sometimes it's hard for me to believe she is only 13. Although camp ended months ago, and I won't coach her squirt team until next March, she and I get together every few weeks to do homework, write letters to our friends in Canada and talk about life. I invest in her life, and she invests in mine.
Coaching youth hockey is paradoxical. Although I originally started coaching in order to give back to the community and to pass my love of the game onto others, the more I coach, and the more I get to know these kids, the more they touch my life and inspire me.
So what are you waiting for? Consider getting involved in coaching youth hockey. Your life will never be the same.
Follow Deborah Francisco on Twitter @nhlgirl