Getting out of the hot sun and onto the ice during the summer is enjoyable in itself. But when Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Fiala and Stu Grimson are among the guest instructors at hockey school, the participants’ smiles widen just a bit.
Nashville Predators Hockey School helped young hockey players from all over the region beat the heat and hone their skills this week at Ford Ice Center, all while picking up a few tips from former, current and future Preds.
“What sets us apart from other hockey camps in the area is that we’re able to have that strong presence of our brand of having prospect players, roster players or alumni come and give an afternoon of their time,” Preds Director of Youth Hockey and Fan Development Andee Boiman said. “They really seem to enjoy it and the kids get a kick out of it.”
That’s certainly the case for nine-year-old Casey Neely, who calls Oct. 12, 2013, the night Casey watched Seth Jones score his first NHL goal, the best day of his life.
“I’ve learned how to skate backwards much faster, a few stick handling skills and how to keep the puck away from opponents,” Neely said. “It makes me excited that I’m actually getting to see the pros and they’re helping us learn things.”
Casey’s mom, Diane, says they specifically chose Preds Hockey School for the opportunity to learn the game from members of the Nashville roster.
“It’s great that the players come and interact with the kids and show them that they are human and teach them what it’s going to be like if they ever make it to that level,” Diane said. “To be able to give back to the kids, and then just the skills and everything that Casey learns coming to the camp, it’s all really important.”
Vesey, who at just 22 years of age isn’t too far removed from attending summer hockey schools himself, enjoys being on the ice with the youngsters. The best part about camp for the Preds prospect? Playing keep away with the puck against a throng of eight to 14-year-olds.
“It’s always good to work with kids,” Vesey said. “For us to be out in the Nashville community, it’s good for the fans, especially the younger generation, to see our faces without the helmet on. It’s definitely fun.”
Having fun was just as important for Vesey growing up as perfecting his stickhandling or slap shot. Now a standout player at Harvard, Vesey wasn’t always the best on his team, but hockey schools like this one helped.
“You never know what can happen,” Vesey said “Growing up, I wasn’t always the best kid; anyone will tell you that. I had some bumps in the road along the way, but I just kept working hard and having fun. That can get you to the next level.”
Vesey believes it won’t be long before a kid from Nashville, maybe even one from this very camp, hears his name called at the NHL Draft. As the game continues to grow in Middle Tennessee, Vesey is happy to play a small part.
“You’re going to start to see players coming out of Nashville,” Vesey said. “More and more players are coming out of nontraditional places. The Preds just drafted my teammate at Harvard, Tyler Moy, who’s from San Diego, California. Players are coming out of everywhere, so hopefully it’ll happen in Nashville.”
While that eventual opportunity is a ways off for the players participating this week, sporting a hockey school jersey with the Preds crest on the front could be just the start for some. But no matter their future in the sport, the likelihood these same children will be fans for life? That’s growing too, just like the game.
“Kids don’t understand what it takes to become an NHL player, so for them to be on the ice with an NHL player, it makes them feel like they’ve arrived,” Boiman said. “It’s such a great connector and it helps to build our fan base. To be able to connect at the grassroots level to that next generation of fans and hockey players, it’s a perfect fit.”