Young hockey players in the Pittsburgh area are very fortunate. Not only do they have a chance to see some of the NHL’s best talent at Mellon Arena, they have a chance to learn from them first-hand.
Eddie Olczyk’s Pittsburgh Penguins Summer Hockey School, presented by Verizon Wireless, wraps up class on Aug. 19. And, according to Mark Shuttleworth, the Penguins’ Director of Amateur Hockey, it’s been an overwhelming success as always.
“For the young kids, especially, it’s a lot of fun. For the older kids, you can see the intensity there. They are really learning something,” he said. “I think the best thing we’ve heard is that the kids are really challenged and become better hockey players because of these schools. On the other hand, I have parents telling me their kids are waking up and can’t wait to be here. They are having fun and learning and that’s an important part of this experience.”
The school, for players ages 6-17, was split up into two one-week sessions. The first session was held on July 18-22 at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon and the second took place Aug. 15-19 at the RMU Island Sports Center on Neville Island.
“We try to make sure we reach out to both ends of town. We have 12 or 14 kids who do both, too,” Olczyk said. “It’s an opportunity for the kids, if they want to take advantage of it, not only to learn about hockey, but I think they learn a lot about life and, to me, I think that’s more important. Then, you can apply those things to the hockey aspect.”
It’s the second year Olczyk served as head instructor at the Penguins’ youth camps. He oversees drills on the ice as well as daily classroom instruction.
“This is something that I think is unique in the National Hockey League – we actually have our head coach here every day,” Shuttleworth said. “A lot of these camps in other cities, you’ll see a cameo appearance by the head coach. It’s run by local coaches in the community or maybe, at best, an assistant coach. But to have the head coach of a National Hockey League team here for 10-12 hours a day with the kids, participating in 90 percent of the sessions is unheard of. It’s unique to have that situation in Pittsburgh and we’re really fortunate to have a coach like Eddie Olczyk to do that.”
Olczyk is thrilled to get the opportunity to work with young hockey players.
“I had coaches help me when I was growing up, so it’s all about giving back to the kids and giving them the opportunity to play and to learn the game of hockey and mostly to learn a little about life as well,” he said. “Under the direction of Mark Shuttleworth, we are able to do that. The numbers we have are exciting. It’s about giving back and being a part of the community.”
While the school promotes a fun atmosphere, the students work hard and gain valuable knowledge.
“A lot of the stuff we teach these kids is the same stuff we talk to our guys about on the big-league level,” Olczyk said. “These are the people we want to cater to and teach the game of hockey to. It’s real exciting.”
Olczyk was joined at the school by two-time Stanley Cup champion Phil Bourque, who is part of the Penguins’ broadcast team.
“To find a situation in which we can really give back to the hockey community here in Pittsburgh and see these kids grow and let them rub shoulders with a 16-year veteran and a head coach and someone like Phil Bourque, who was a 15-year veteran in the NHL and a radio voice of the Penguins – those are unparalleled experiences,” Shuttleworth said. “It’s really a pretty fun situation for me to be in with my job here to put together an experience like that.”
Penguins forward Mark Recchi made a guest appearance at the school on Aug. 18.
“It’s great to come out and help for a day,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it.”
Normally, more Penguins players serve as guest instructors at the camp, but the uncertainty surrounding the NHL’s lockout impaired the Penguins’ ability to organize more appearances this year.
“We were a little constricted because we weren’t allowed to be in touch with our players during the lockout,” Shuttleworth said. “Last year, we had two players per week for each week. I am sure next year we’ll have more players here during the week as guest instructors. That’s something we’re looking forward to.”
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton assistant coach Mike Yeo was a guest instructor for the July school. No players were available to appear at that session since the Collective Bargaining Agreement was not ratified until July 22.
“We were at like 97 kids for the camp in July and that was with absolutely no good news with the ongoing difficulties with the Collective Bargaining Agreement,” Shuttleworth said. “But, this week we have 130 kids in this school and that’s very close to being a sellout. I think a great upcoming season and a normal summer will make this camp a sellout both weeks next year.”
All campers received a summer hockey school jersey and were eligible for prizes as well as autograph sessions.