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Crosby Gives Back With Hockey School

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

When Sidney Crosby was growing up, he not only spent a lot of time attending hockey schools – at times, he would instruct in them as well in order to pay his way through the ones he enrolled in.

Having been so involved in them as a kid, they’re something he’s very comfortable with. So hosting one made the most sense for him when the Penguins captain was thinking of ways he could give back to the community – which is why he decided to start the Sidney Crosby Hockey School in his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.

The inaugural camp was held this past week at Cole Harbour Place, the rink he grew up playing in. All proceeds from the camp went to the Sidney Crosby Foundation.

“I’m very familiar with the way they work and how kids could benefit from them,” said Crosby, who turned 28 on Friday. “I think that having been in the league a while, the importance of giving back, you take that to heart a little bit more. So I definitely wanted to find a way to do that.

“A lot of guys do different things, but a hockey school was something I felt I could really be involved with out there on the ice and be involved with the kids, and I think that was a big part of it.”

Crosby reached out to Paul Mason, who was Sidney’s coach growing up in both youth hockey and baseball, and his parents Troy and Trina for their help getting started.

“Both my parents and Paul have been working on this for a long time while I’ve been playing in Pittsburgh,” Crosby said. “It’s not something you can just come home in the summer and all of a sudden organize, so there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that way.”

They knew there would be a ton of interest, so the first step was figuring out how many campers they could handle. They decided to open it up to 160 kids between the ages of 8-12. And demand, as expected, was incredibly high as thousands of kids applied from all over the globe.

“We did a geographical draw,” Mason said. “So we had 60 Cole Harbour kids, 50 from the rest of the province, 25 from across Canada and 25 from across the U.S. and the world. It was pretty intense the attention that it got around here and everyone in Cole Harbour wanted to volunteer and help out. Once we got it narrowed down to the 160, things just started taking off.”

And for those 160 kids, it was an absolute thrill finding out they were going to be attending the Sidney Crosby Hockey School – especially since many of them had no idea their parent had even submitted an application.

“I didn’t even tell him I filled it out because he’s not going to have a chance, I thought,” said Cole Harbour native Heather Leonard of her 10-year-old son Luke. “I didn’t want to get his hopes up. He was so excited when he found out.”

So was 9-year-old Abigail Robar, who was playing at a friend’s house when she was told she needed to go and find her mother.

“My mother told me and I was running up and down the street screaming,” she giggled.

However, it wasn’t as easy to keep it from some other local kids who had their hearts set on coming.

“I live around here and I’m at this rink 24-7,” said 11-year-old Sam Gillis, who resides a few doors down from Crosby’s childhood home. “I saw posters around and I was like Mom, I need to do this. I don’t want to – well, I want to – but I need to, too.”

When his mom informed him he’d gotten in, Gillis had an understandable yet unachievable reaction.

“I was so happy when I found out,” Gillis said. “I was going to do a backflip off the couch, but then I realized I can’t do one.”

Crosby could have held this camp anywhere in the world, but he chose to have it at the rink he played his youth hockey in.

“We could have even done it locally in another arena with four ice surfaces, but Sid wanted it here,” Mason said. “I’m glad he did. These people here are very, very proud of him. That just speaks to his homegrown roots, it really does. It doesn’t surprise me, but we’re just ecstatic that he did it.”

Cole Harbour Place isn’t your typical local rink with just one ice surface. It’s actually a large community center that has a pool, a library, a food court and a pro shop in addition to two sheets of ice, as well as soccer and baseball fields outside.

“At some point, you’re drawn to this spot,” Crosby said. “It’s a great setup and it was a great place to grow up.”

The facility has many tributes to Cole Harbour’s hometown hero. Banners that read “The Home of Sidney Crosby 87” hang in both ice rinks, and it was surreal to see Crosby himself skating alongside the kids underneath those signs.

“The fact that I could do it right here in Cole Harbour where I spent my youth hockey and minor hockey, and be on that same ice with kids that are hopefully having fun in the camp and enjoying themselves, it was just something that I was really excited to do,” Crosby said.

Downstairs, the pro shop is filled with Crosby merchandise including jerseys, hats, pucks, pictures, posters and wall hangings from both the Penguins and Team Canada. A display case of sweatshirts is branded as “Sidney Crosby – Cole Harbour since 1987.” It even sells tiny replicas of the “Welcome to Cole Harbour – Home of Sidney Crosby” sign at the city limits.

Upstairs, there’s a display case dedicated to Crosby, with each section containing memorabilia from different parts of his career – including one focused on the very beginning and his time in that arena.

Crosby began playing hockey at age 5 with the Tim Hortons TimBits program in Cole Harbour and he spent his minor hockey career, from Novice to Bantam, playing for the Cole Harbour Wings Minor Hockey Association. Many photos, trophies and medals from those days are in there for local children to look at.

“It’s amazing because when the kids are out there on the ice, they see his signs and his pictures and they know that he played here,” Leonard said. “They go to the same school that he goes to, and they see in the boxes there the awards and the pictures of him from when he was 7, 8, 9 years old.

“I think they see themselves in that and for him to come back, usually when people move away, they don’t always come back to their hometowns. That was exciting for them to see that he was just a little boy growing up here too and he made it, so maybe they have a chance too.”

The camp was so much more than just on-ice sessions.

When asked what Crosby was like as a kid, Mason responded with a laugh, “Intense.” But while Crosby may have been competitive, hockey was just as much about the camaraderie for him, and it was important to Crosby that the kids experience that this week.

“Honestly, I think what Sidney wanted the most for the kids was just a good experience and to have that sense of hockey isn’t just on the ice, it’s away from the ice, it’s making friends, it’s having that fun experience,” said his younger sister Taylor. She’s a goaltender heading to St. Cloud State University in the fall, and helped her brother out as one of the camp instructors.

“He’s such a driven guy and he’s so focused on hockey, but I think it’s cool to have the kids see that away from the ice, it’s really important to have fun and make friends and play soccer or dodgeball or baseball or whatever.”

So drawing off that and Mason’s own experiences running camps, the campers’ daily schedules included two on-ice sessions that focused on skating, puck-handling and other game-related skills; two off-ice sessions that could be a number of activities (including dryland training with Crosby’s trainer, Andy O’Brien); twice-weekly swim sessions; and special presentations that, as Mason put it, promoted kids about positive behavior and being team players.

“A big hit I think has been the pool, it’s all they talk about,” Crosby laughed. “The on-ice has been good but I feel like they’re all excited about the swimming.”

The campers were at Cole Harbour Place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and were divided into four groups based on age. It’s not an easy task to keep 160 kids focused and on-schedule, but the instructors and group leaders – who were all volunteers – did an amazing job of getting that done.

“The organization out here is phenomenal,” said Chris Carter, whose son Jake and daughter Morgan traveled from Japan to attend the camp. “It is so well-planned and so well-executed. The only way we really get hockey is through hockey camps, so we’ve seen a lot of them. And I’ve never seen anything this well-organized. The fact they get them on the ice and off the ice with the different groups and nobody’s left not working, it’s phenomenally done.”

When Crosby took the ice for his first session of the week on Monday, campers passing through the rink after dryland training stopped in awe. They pressed their faces against the glass and whispered to each other excitedly, “That’s Sid the Kid! Sidney Crosby!”

Every camper said that their favorite part of the week involved some sort of interaction with Crosby. Even the most talkative kids were left speechless after seeing or meeting him for the first time, and both the parents and the campers were amazed at how involved Crosby was the whole week.

“I knew he would be. I knew he’d want a hands-on approach and I’m glad he is, because it lets people see that’s who he is,” Mason said. “He’s not artificial. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

And it was an incredible experience for the kids to not only skate alongside their idol, but learn from him as well.

“We did a lot of work on shooting and skating, so it was basically what I think he’s probably best at,” pointed out 12-year-old Cole Harbour native Bryden Macleod. “I couldn’t have a better teacher. I’ve been waiting to meet Sidney Crosby and I’m really happy that I got this chance. He’s one of my favorite hockey players and it was a dream come true.”

In addition to being on the ice with the kids for up to five 50-minute sessions a day (including the goalies-only skate), Crosby held autograph sessions with each group where he made sure to have 1-on-1 time with each camper.

There, after signing something each child brought with them, he had his Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medals on the table for them to look at before a professional photographer took a photo of him with each kid to send to their families.

“Yesterday when Mason was getting his autograph, I was like, ‘what are you doing over there?’ Because I saw him touching something and standing there and taking a lot of time of his,” said Elaine McConnell, who came here with her son from Virginia Beach. “He said ‘oh, he was letting me hold the Stanley Cup ring. Mom, it was so heavy! And then he let me hold the medal. That was so heavy too!’”

Twice a week, Crosby took to the ice in full gear with a few other pro players who train in the area so the kids could watch him in action, and he also did a big Q&A with all of the campers at end of the week.

“I didn’t expect him to skate every time with us. We also got to watch their practice right before our ice time, which was awesome,” said 9-year-old Cole Harbour native Dylin McMullen.

“We always hear good things about Sidney and how involved he is in the community, so I thought well, he’s definitely going to be doing stuff with the kids,” Leonard added. “But to see Luke on the ice with a group of four kids passing the puck back and forth with him was pretty amazing.”

They also loved that Cole Harbour’s other first-overall draft pick, Nathan MacKinnon – taken by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013 – came to the camp every day to help out.

“I’m obviously from this town as well, so it’s good to give back,” MacKinnon, 19, said. “Obviously it’s pretty small what I’m doing compared to Sid, but I just want to be out there and help out and try to teach the kids some stuff and encourage them and keep it loose. Not yelling at anybody, just trying to get their confidence up. They’re doing a good job.”

Spending so much time with such young, enthusiastic players in his hometown rink reminded Crosby of his roots and just why he got started in this sport – for love of the game.

“You know, with hockey there are so many expectations and the pressure that comes with it, it’s pretty easy to forget that not too long ago you were a kid just enjoying being out there,” he said. “The thought of that kind of stuff wasn’t in your mind at all.

“Just the passion and energy that they bring, I think that’s pretty contagious whether you’re an NHL player or a volunteer out there helping out. I think the energy of the kids bring and the passion for the game is pretty apparent.”

That was Crosby’s takeaway from the week. When asked what he hoped the campers took away, he said he hoped they continued to try and be good people.

“All the kids here have been very polite – you know, please and thank you – and very appreciative with the staff when dealing with them,” Crosby said. “All those things go a long way, and whether they play in the NHL or not, I think those things will help them moving forward, and that’s the kind of stuff that we want to make sure is really emphasized here.”

While it’s premature to think about next summer, moving forward, Crosby said they would love to do the camp again next year.

“I think the more kids we can make it work with as far as the ice time, that’s the most important,” he said. “That being said, we don’t want to sacrifice the quality and make sure the staff can work one-on-one with the kids without it being too big. We’re trying to balance that is the big thing. We’ll do our best. I think it’s gone really well. We’ll definitely try and find ways to make it enjoyable and help the kids continue to learn.”
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