|Senators centre Mike Fisher talks to a group of youngsters at his annual hockey camp before a shooting drill. Fisher and his staff have brought fun and a personal touch to their school, which is completing its second run at Ray Friel Centre in Orleans this week.
The spirit of Roger Neilson is alive in so many ways at the Mike Fisher Hockey Camp.
It beats on the ice and in the hearts of the dozens of youngsters who share the joy of the game the legendary former Senators assistant coach loved so much. It is in the classroom sessions, which preach the life values that Neilson passed along to many others before cancer claimed his life six years ago.
None of it is by accident, to be sure. Fisher, the veteran Ottawa Senators centre, spent a lot of years working as an instructor at the famed Roger Neilson's Hockey Camp in Lindsay, Ont. So, too, did Scott and Shannon McNevan, the Peterborough brothers who handle much of the administrative work at Fisher’s camp, which is wrapping up its second run at the Ray Friel Centre in Orleans this week.
"We really liked a lot of the things that were going on in (Neilson's) camp and the kids really loved it," said Fisher, who developed a closer relationship with Neilson over the years. "So we've tried to take some things from that and implement it here along with some other newer things."
Perhaps the most common thread of all -- the mix of fun and learning that is at the heart of Fisher's camp. Smiles are abundant everywhere and campers talk with enthusiasm about the improvements they've made in their games.
"Roger's camp was about fun," said Scott McNevan, the Fisher camp's director, who was just a "rink rat" when he began working for Neilson. "The big sell was fun and that's what we wanted for ourselves. The kids play for the Roger Neilson Cup on Fridays (in the final of a tournament that runs though each of the three weeks of the camp).
"There's a lot of Roger's influence here and we're all proud of that."
Said Fisher: "If kids aren't having fun, then what's the point? You've got to be able to make it fun for them and do some different things. We want it to be serious enough for them to learn but at the same time, you've got to make it fun or they're not going to want to come back.
"Hockey has to be fun ... That was (Neilson's) philosophy. If kids are having fun, they're going to want to come back and tell their friends about it. They have a good time and get better (as players). That's a priority, too."
The camp is open to plays ranging in age from seven to 12 years. At 128 players per week, it has sold out for the second straight year. The size of the camp suits Fisher, who aims to provide a personal touch for every player on the ice.
"I knew if I was going to do a school, I didn't want to make any money. That's not why I'm doing it. All the money goes to help other kids and those less fortunate. It feels good to be able to have a good camp, have fun, see the kids learning and to help others along the way." - Mike Fisher
"He gets to every group and every kid," said McNevan.
Ten-year-old Ben Lemieux of Cumberland, who is back for his second year at the camp, certainly appreciates that kind of help.
"It's cool when Mike comes out and teaches you how to do all the different drills and stuff," he said.
Fisher admits "we've talked about growing it and we probably could, but we wanted to make sure we do it right with what we have and not get too big.
"We want it to be the right size. We're still toying with different things. But we liked the way it went last year so we said why change it?"Click here to watch SensTV at last year's Mike Fisher Hockey Camp
One other thing that won't ever change is the charity aspect of the camp. All proceeds are being directed to Roger's House, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Mike Fisher Foundation. Last year, the camp raised $50,000 for the three charities, a total McNevan said it is hoping to match again this year.
"I knew if I was going to do a school, I didn't want to make any money," said Fisher. "That's not why I'm doing it. All the money goes to help other kids and those less fortunate. It feels good to be able to have a good camp, have fun, see the kids learning and to help others along the way."
Campers like Ryan Lambert like that combination, too.
"It's really fun," said Lambert, 10, of Cumberland. "I like the fact that it's for charity and I like meeting all the players here."
And yes, there's no doubt the presence of NHL players such as Fisher, Chris Kelly, Chris Neil
and Todd White is a draw for these youngsters. Spartacat, the Senators ambassador of fun, also makes an appearance each week.
"The camp is really fun because you get to meet Mike fisher and spend a lot of time with your friends," said Isabelle Hebert, 12, who plays for the Gloucester-Cumberland girls' hockey organization. "I find (Fisher) is really nice. He's a really good player. He helps us with our difficulties."
Her friend Alexanne Proulx, also 12, calls the camp "a really great experience for players of all ages. They get to meet Mike Fisher, Daniel Alfredsson
(who was a guest instructor last year), Shean Donovan and a lot of hockey players from the Olympics (2006 women's gold medallist Katie Weatherston made an appearance last week)."
"If kids aren't having fun, then what's the point? You've got to be able to make it fun for them and do some different things. We want it to be serious enough for them to learn but at the same time, you've got to make it fun or they're not going to want to come back. Hockey has to be fun ... That was (Neilson's) philosophy." - Mike Fisher
Ask Fisher what makes a good hockey camp and he says the quality of the staff comes first. The McNevans had a group of about 20 the make this camp work. It also includes Fisher's younger brother Bud, who works with goaltenders, and his father Jim, "who has really enjoyed his time here, helping out wherever he can."
Helping out with the classroom sessions, McNevan said, are volunteers from the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario who work closely with Roger's House.
"I think we've done a good job getting people here that care about the kids and that enjoy being here," added Fisher. "If you can have that kind of atmosphere, it makes it so much more fun for the kids."
It's the way Fisher remembers the camps he attended so frequently as a young player.
"I remember just going with my buddies," he said. "It was a good way for us to get ready for our (minor hockey) training camps and tryouts. Just the camaraderie and just being on the ice in th summer, and playing with different players and other good players from around the province.
"It was just fun, everyone your age just playing the game you love."
Just the way Roger Neilson would have wanted it.