MONTREAL – It’s hard to believe the Canadiens Hockey School is wrapping up its 10th year on Friday.
Since ushering in its inaugural class in July 2007 in Pierrefonds, QC, thousands of youngsters have been privileged to learn the fundamentals of the game and hone their skills with the help of some of the top local instructors in the business – and meet many of their hockey idols along the way, too.
What started out as a week-long camp with 100 participants all those years ago, has steadily grown into a three-week program that now welcomes approximately 700 boys and girls aged 7 to 14 from all around the world to the Bell Sports Complex every summer.
While the majority of attendees in 2016 hailed from all across Canada and 20 U.S. states, youngsters also made the trek to Quebec from as far away as Great Britain, Switzerland, and France. China, Thailand, Norway, and Italy were also represented in the past.
Last year, the Canadiens Hockey School reached new heights when organizers Stephane Verret and Angelo Ruffolo took the program overseas for the very first time. Leysin, Switzerland and Beijing, China were proud hosts, affording kids in Europe and the Far East who might not otherwise be able to attend the school to do just that. Interestingly enough, the Leysin Sport Academy will play host to another 200 Canadiens Hockey School campers for two weeks beginning on Sunday, July 24.
Verret and Ruffolo couldn’t be prouder of the way the project has grown over the years. The progress has been nothing short of astounding, and seeing brand new ideas come to life every June, July and August has been quite rewarding.
“It’s been unreal. Time has really flown by. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already. We basically started with a blank sheet of paper. Seeing everything fall into place and the progress we’ve made since 2007 is a big accomplishment. We’re proud to be a part of it every single day. It’s a real honor,” said Verret, the Canadiens’ manager of youth hockey development. “The fact that our camp is recognized across the globe means a lot. That’s why we always want to step it up and push the envelope every year. It’s just amazing to see how far things have come. The standard and quality of the camp is very high.”
And, that’s really what keeps youngsters coming back summer after summer. Verret and Ruffolo have seen countless campers take lessons learned from their experience at the Canadiens Hockey School and put them to good use when they hit the ice for real with their respective teams. Canadiens prospect, Simon Bourque, for example, is a product of the program dating back to that first group in 2007. Since then, others have followed suit.
“We basically saw a lot of kids grow up with us. Many of them are playing high-caliber hockey now or are headed in that direction, whether in the QMJHL, the OHL, going the college route or playing in Europe. Seeing that is very rewarding and a real testament to the instruction that we’re able to provide, in addition to the incredible coaching they get with their regular teams. Playing a part in their success is special,” said Ruffolo, the Canadiens’ senior coordinator of business development and events, who, along with Verret, also takes great pride in seeing campers’ personal growth as time marches on. “A lot of our former campers are now a part of our staff, and many are on their way to becoming successful in their chosen professions. It’s so nice to see them reach their goals, whether on or off the ice.”
The presence of Canadiens players and prospects – both past and present – has certainly contributed to the uniqueness of the camp experience. Always willing to lend a hand, those fortunate enough to sport the CH for real have readily pitched in to spend some quality time with the kids whenever they possibly can.
“It’s always fun. I put myself in their place and I know I would enjoy meeting an NHL player, too. When I was younger, I remember meeting Mike Ribeiro when he was playing with the Quebec Remparts. It made a real impression on me,” said David Desharnais, a regular visitor to the Canadiens’ Hockey School since debuting with the club in 2009-10. “Making the effort to be there with young kids can stay with them forever, just a few words here and there can be very memorable. It’s a good experience for them and I like being there.”
Meanwhile, newcomer Andrew Shaw was on site on Monday to hit the ice with campers to kick off the third and final session of the summer. He was essentially sporting the bleu-blanc-rouge with his full gear on and skating in his new hockey home for the first time.
“It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing, going out there and spending time with the kids and helping them learn a little bit more about hockey. Interacting with them is probably my favorite part of the job. You bring joy to their life. You see the excitement in their faces when they first meet you. They’re usually a little quiet at first, but then you get out on the ice and they start warming up to you. It’s nice to give back,” said Shaw, who, like Desharnais, has fond memories of meeting players he looked up to while growing up in Belleville, ON. “The Belleville Bulls used to come to our school all the time and they interacted with us. It was fun to be a part of.”
By the time this summer draws to a close, the Canadiens’ youth hockey development department will have achieved record participation for its camps and clinics alike. An estimated 1,000 total youngsters will have taken part in the Canadiens Hockey School both locally and overseas, as well as the second annual Goalie Camp (August 24-26), and the inaugural Canadiens Girls Hockey School (August 22-26), both of which will take place on the South Shore.
“The future of all of our programs is very bright. We can’t wait to see what comes next. It’s been a terrific ride so far, and we’re hungrier than ever to keep building on what we’ve established already,” concluded Verret. “The pride we take in our programs and we feel towards our participants is overwhelming. It means the world to us.”
Here’s to many more years of success, gentlemen!
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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