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Hockey head start

by Jen Sharpe / Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers Event Team paid a visit to Hockey Alberta's Super Skills Camp in Grande Prairie, AB the last week in August.
As the eyes of the media and hockey fans are refocusing on Rexall Place in anticipation of the 2009-10 NHL season, the Oilers organization continues to reach beyond Edmonton’s city limits to ensure players of all ages and levels start off on the right skate.

Last week, the Oilers Events Team made the five-hour drive northwest to Grande Prairie, AB to participate in Hockey Alberta’s Super Skills Camp. The annual camp is a big event in this bustling city of 50,000, and Oilers were eager to take in all the action.

Starting Monday, August 24th, 90 kids aged nine to 12 descended on the Coca Cola Center in Grande Prairie to take part in five days of fun and varied skills sessions. The participants were divided into three groups for on- and off-ice activities, and with three instructors plus an on-ice lead for each group, the development progressed quickly.

The Oilers Event Team provided big league excitement early in the week, setting up a Ninendo Wii, Top Shot Machine, and street hockey equipment for the kids to enjoy. With lots of giveaways thrown into the mix, the Oilers Big Rig was a popular stop for parents and participants alike.

“The parents and the kids were very excited about the giveaways, and just the opportunity to have the Oilers in their community,” said Trevor Murphy, Oilers Manager of Fan and Community Development. “Having the Big Rig travel into a parking lot, it’s a big thing for these communities, and we had a lot of positive comments, a lot of excited kids and parents, and that’s what it’s all about.”

According to Mike Kraichy, Coordinator of Hockey Alberta’s Regional Development Center in Grande Prairie, the camp is an annual highlight for both kids and parents who might have a hard time committing to a similar camp in Edmonton.

“They’re on the ice for 2.5 hours a day and off-ice for 2.5 hours a day, and for the off-ice we’ve done street hockey, soccer, skills development and other team-building exercises,” Kraichy explained during a break from assisting with Thursday’s sessions. “[These kids] don’t have the access and the resources to the top instructors, so instead of them having to pay to travel and attend a camp in Edmonton, we can do it up here.”

I’m having fun, and if I’m having fun then hopefully the kids are having fun too. - Kyle Weegar, Instructor
One of the instructors, Grande Prairie native Kyle Weegar, said watching the students improve was his highlight of the week.

“It’s definitely rewarding to watch them improve, even if it’s just over a week. I can see the improvements in their skating and their skills from day one until today, so it’s amazing to think of how quickly they develop and learn.

“Some of these guys are really good hockey players and hopefully someday I’ve got a kid that makes it to the NHL and I can say, ‘That was my kid. I taught that guy,’” the 20-year-old coach added proudly. 

Although skating and skills are important items on the daily schedule, Weegar emphasized that having fun was priority number one.

Young hockey players gather for a group picture during an off-ice session at Hockey Alberta's Super Skills Camp in Grande Prairie, AB in late August 2009.
“I’m having fun, and if I’m having fun then hopefully the kids are having fun too,” he said over the shouts of an outdoor team-building game. “These guys, before they came, half of them didn’t know anyone in the room and I had no idea who any of them were. But now I can name every kid out there. They’re having fun and becoming friends I think that’s really important.”

Hockey mom and Grande Prairie Minor Hockey Association employee Connie Pring agrees with that philosophy. Her 12-year-old son Carter was participating in his third camp and couldn’t be more excited about the end-of-summer tradition, she said.

“It’s his third year in the camp and he always has lots of fun. For him it’s a good time – it’s the week before school goes back and he’s bored at home and ready to get back into hockey. And it gives him an opportunity to improve his skills before he goes to tryouts. He really likes that it’s this week, this last week of August. He doesn’t like to do hockey the first week of July so this is perfect.”

10-year-old Deklan Whillans also enjoys getting a head start before the season begins. “[We’ve] been working on stick-handling, shooting, running, and a lot of the stuff that’s the same as what we do during the season,” he said. “Hopefully I’m stronger (when the season starts) and I’ll be used to skating again . . . I want to get more ice time this season, and play hard, and get at least one point a game.”

While the Oilers hockey club focuses on similar goals in-season, this summer the Community Development team has made road trips like the one to Grande Prairie a priority.

“Throughout the summer we’ve been travelling around Oil Country, just visiting the fans that continue to support us throughout the year, so it was important for us to get to Grande Prairie because we hadn’t been there yet this summer,” Murphy explained. “We knew there was a big hockey event going on there with a lot of minor hockey players, and the fact that Hockey Alberta was involved, who is a partner of ours, it just became a perfect fit.

“It’s something that’s positive for both parties because Hockey Alberta is the leader in grassroots hockey across the province, and a lot of these boys and girls who are playing in Northern Alberta want to wear the Edmonton Oilers jersey someday,” he continued. “It’s important for us to have that connection with these young players and with their parents.”
That connection is strong, especially in Grande Prairie.

“For the kids, having the Oilers here was unbelievable,” Kraichy adds. “The kids love it and they feel like they’re important and special. That’s so important and something we all work hard to achieve.”
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