MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens Hockey School was a resounding success in its first foray overseas.
For six days in early August, 105 lucky youngsters aged six to 15 gathered in the Swiss Alps to hone their skills and learn the intricacies of the game from veteran instructors. The natural beauty of Leysin, Switzerland provided the perfect backdrop for the unique hockey experience, which undoubtedly created lifelong memories for everyone involved.
“Everything happened exactly the way we’d planned it. We got the same reaction from the kids in Switzerland as we do back home in Quebec [at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard]. The campers were happy to see us. They were excited to be there,” offered the Canadiens’ manager of youth hockey development, Stephane Verret, who worked tirelessly alongside senior coordinator of business development and events, Angelo Ruffolo, to organize and manage the European venture. “We had kids join us from all over Europe. They came from Switzerland, Italy, France and the Czech Republic. Kids even travelled from Canada and the United States. It was great to see everybody come together in one place to learn and have fun.”
In addition to hitting the ice daily at the Leysin Sport Academy under the watchful eye of experienced coaches and mentors, campers also participated in off-ice conditioning activities outdoors adjacent to the multi-purpose facility.
“We were very lucky to have so many good quality instructors there. The kids got good on-ice instruction every day from [former Canadiens defenseman] Gaston Gingras, Claude Fugère, who coaches at the University of Neuchâtel and works with Lausanne Hockey Club, and Doug Boulanger, who is the director – and a partner – of the Leysin Sport Academy. These guys know hockey. They’re smart coaches. The kids were surrounded by so much knowledge and expertise during their workouts. Quality instruction at these camps is the key,” mentioned Verret, who was pleased to see participants of all skill levels in attendance. “We really were a unit from the start of things on Sunday morning until it all wrapped up on Friday night. Everyone’s the same at our camps, regardless of their abilities on the ice. We just want kids to progress, make friends, and enjoy themselves.”
But, according to Verret, camps like these also provide kids with the opportunity to learn some important life lessons along the way, too.
“We had Gaston share his path to the NHL with the kids. He was showing them highlight videos on a big screen TV. He was telling kids – ‘Follow your dreams. You can achieve anything if you work hard enough. Whatever you want to be, whether it’s a hockey player, a doctor, a pilot or anything else, you can achieve it. If you work hard at something, you can make it happen.’ That was Gaston’s message,” recalled Verret, who also scheduled a series of team-building activities for campers to partake in over the course of the week. “The kids really took to that. They were even having breakfast, lunch and dinner with Gaston. I think they understood his message. It was great to see the enthusiasm.”
Verret was equally excited to see campers share their incredible passion for the CH with the world, as they took to social media to let family members and friends in on the fun.
“We’ve created a whole new group of fans in Europe. People really saw how we do things. From the dressing rooms being all set up with Canadiens jerseys, socks, caps and T-shirts, to all of the different events we had on the schedule. We wanted it to be different. We wanted it to be something they hadn’t seen before,” confided Verret, who is already looking ahead to the 2016 edition of the camp. “While we were having dinner, everybody was on Twitter and Instagram. They were taking and posting pictures with their Canadiens shirts and hats on. We even had parents inquire about their kids coming to Canada for our camp on the South Shore next year.”
That’s as good an indicator as any that Verret and his dedicated staff have started something special on the other side of the pond.
“It’s an awesome accomplishment for us. It’s something we’ve created. It’s gratifying to see the idea come together. You realize that hockey doesn’t begin and end in Quebec. It doesn’t begin and end in Canada or even in North America. It’s worldwide, and so is the passion for it. We saw that first-hand,” concluded Verret, who has been involved in the hockey school program since its inception in 2007. “There’s so much love for the game there. People love their local teams like Lausanne, Bern and Zurich, but there’s a lot of support for the Canadiens, too. We’re excited to be playing a part in it.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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