Nothing beats skating around a sheet of ice in the sultry, humid days of July.
However, the boys and girls on the Ice Castle’s two rinks at the Penguins Youth Hockey School are receiving more than just refuge from the heat this week – they are in line for the premier hockey camp learning experience in the area.
Lead instructors Mike Yeo, a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach, and Phil Bourque, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Penguins, the youth hockey school provides an unparalleled experience for local hockey players.
Along with Yeo and Bourque, assistant instructors Dan Hestin, Pete Katsafanas, Bucky Gallagher and Paul DeFazio, the Penguins’ assistant equipment manager, put the players through various drills on the ice and cover various topics in classroom sessions off the ice.
In addition to hockey skills, those in attendance work on power skating with some of the top speed skating instructors in the world in Marianne Watkins and Besa Tsintsadze.
“We have a lot of well-qualified coaches and that’s really important. Above that, we have a lot of people who are used to working with kids and that’s very important because it’s a different type of teaching,” Yeo said. “At the same time you have to teach and make it an environment where they can learn and improve, but you also have to make it fun for them. In the heart of it all, the kid who wants to play hockey is going to improve the most.
“It’s great getting out with the kids. We have a real eager group. I think all these kids come here to try and improve and grow as a player,” he continued. “I think this year we really put a good system in place for that. There’s a lot of individual skill work and a lot of progressive teaching. I think from Day 1 to Day 5 we’re going to see a lot of improvement in each kid.”
Bourque, who is active in the local youth hockey community, is impressed with the growth of hockey in the Pittsburgh area and knows the Penguins Youth Hockey School contributes to the increased level of play.
“This is my third year with the Penguins hockey school and the talent level of the kids in this area has grown so much. I think a lot of it has to do with how the Penguins are doing,” he said. “They see a guy like [Upper St. Clair product] Ryan Malone making it to the NHL and they see a guy like [Plum native] R.J. Umberger and other kids coming out of this area. All of a sudden, they say, ‘Gee, maybe I have a chance.’ The interest has increased and the talent level has increased. Coming from the Boston area, where it’s a hockey hotbed, the Pittsburgh area isn’t far behind.”
Despite a demanding schedule and a wealth of information to digest, those participating in the hockey school are excited to learn.
“That’s one thing I really enjoy. Year after year, we get such good kids here. Not only are they good hockey players, but they are good kids,” Bourque said. “They are like sponges right now, these young kids. You can just tell that every little thing you have to say to them, they are like, ‘teach me more; teach me more; I want to go to the NHL.’”
While the camp is serious in its quest to provide top-notch instruction, the players and instructors make sure to have some fun, too.
“I am the biggest kid out there. I have a blast; it’s fun for me,” Bourque said. “By the end of the week, my feet are aching a little bit because I don’t do too much skating anymore, but I can’t wait for these weeks to get out here with the kids. They keep me young and they keep me moving around.”
The first five-day Penguins Youth Hockey School concludes Friday at Ice Castle. The second session will be held August 21-25 at the RMU/Island Sports Center on Neville Island.
Youngsters ages 6-17 are eligible to participate. The camps are broken into four groups: mites/squirts, pee wees, bantams and midgets. Cost of the camp is $350 per week ($200 for goaltenders) and there are discounts for siblings.
(To register for the August 21-25 Penguins Youth Hockey School or for more information, please call Mark Shuttleworth, the Penguins’ director of amateur hockey, at (412) 642-1329, or log on to www.pittsburghpenguins.com/youthhockey.)