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Wild Coach's Camp Is a Family's Labor of Love

Golden Horseshoe Hockey School offers Boudreaus rare chance to reunite

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. CATHARINES, Ontario -- It's a warm summer day 45 minutes south of Toronto. It's mid-August, but as is always the case in Canada, hockey is in the air. 

Inside the Seymour-Hannah Sportsplex, the game's sounds are overwhelming. Operating for the 35th time, this is the Golden Horseshoe Hockey School, started in 1982 by Wild coach Bruce Boudreau.

More than three decades later, Boudreau is still around. You can catch him mixing Gatorade for the kids or mopping the floor after a spill. He works the arena lobby like a politician, shaking hands and telling stories.

"You were in 'Slapshot,' weren't you? Which team were you on?" the father of one camper asks. 

"Yes I was. I was on Hyannisport, the green team," Boudreau answers back, before rattling off a story or two from the set.

Moments later, kids pull the 62-year-old coach away for several pictures. 

It hasn't always been this way for Boudreau, who started the camp 3 1/2 decades ago with one business partner. A week before the first camp, Boudreau had one counselor, Brian Papineau, lined up to help with 150 kids. 

Papineau, now the equipment manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was about to be overwhelmed.

"Pappy," Boudreau remembered saying on the phone. "You think you can bring any guys?"

A week later, Papineau, along with five other guys, served as counselors at the inaugural Golden Horseshoe Hockey School. 

This year, there will be be at least five counselors per group. With eight teams divided among four groups, there will be more than 20 coaches on the ice helping with campers.

A family affair

Among the on-ice coaches are all three of Boudreau's sons.

Tweet from @1DanMyers: Boudreau's oldest son, Ben, an assistant coach with the @FWKomets, gives direction to youngsters at the GHHS.

His oldest, Ben, is 33. He first came to the camp as a five-year-old in 1989 and, in one form or another, he's attended every one ever since. When he's not on the ice coaching, he's making sure lunch is on its way. 

Bruce's middle son, Andy, is 30. He followed in Ben's footsteps a couple years later. When Ben is not on the ice, he's working a table in the lobby, collecting money at a concession stand. While Ben is off, he jumps on to help with instruction. 

Tweet from @1DanMyers: Boudreau's youngest son, Brady, coaches up young goalies on Day 5 at the GHHS.

His youngest, Brady, is 18 and is the most recent of camp participants. A goalie with the Minnesota Blue Ox this upcoming season, Brady is down at the far end of the rink working with the young goalies.

Boudreau's wife, Crystal, is shuffling all over. When the camp isn't running, she's helping with the administrative duties. When it is, she's also working the concession stand and handing out gear.

Ben and Andy's cousins, relatives from Bruce's first marriage, are helping out; Tanner runs the power skating drills while Pete is one of the goalie coaches, Kelsey helps run the off-ice training while Austin is a counselor. Kendall, another cousin, has a son participating in the school.

In all, Ben estimated there are eight cousins all involved somehow in the hockey school. And that doesn't count the dozens of friends and neighbors who have pitched and continue to on a yearly basis.

Tweet from @1DanMyers: Bruce's wife, Crystal, and middle son, Andy (near) work hard behind a concessions table at the GHHS.

"It's too big of an event for us to say, 'Well, we've got five or six people in our family to run the entire thing.' We rely on that extended family to be here every year," Ben said. "We take care of them as much as they'd try and take care of us. As much as it's the Boudreau family, we feel like we have a big extended family here in St. Catharines that comes back. It's just a phone call away and they're always here to help."

Even Boudreau's daughter, Casey, came down from Ottawa and was at the rink for the first few days of the camp, bringing the whole clan under one roof.

With Bruce, Crystal and Brady in Minnesota, Ben now in Indiana and Andy and Casey stretched across Canada, these "family reunions" offer Bruce an opportunity to spend time with all of his children at once.

"I love it," he said. "It's everyone's summer gathering spot." 

'Depth of caring'

Family is a constant theme during the week-long camp. 

Not only do the Boudreaus run the camp, but they have a number of other families who have been annual participants. Ben refers to them as extended family.

While on a walk during his off period, Ben points to one camper on the ice. It says "Vaccaro" on the back of his jersey.

"That family had two people here last year," he said. "This year, they have five."

Amanda and Mike Vaccaro have twin boys and a daughter. Last year, the whole family trekked north from Maryland so their sons could participate at the camp. They had so much fun they signed up for this year's rendition before leaving. Their daughter was so contrite she didn't take part that she signed up too.

This year, their sons and their daughter each brought a teammate from back home, as the crew drove 10 hours in a van that normally fits 15 people. But with the backseat removed, it's a lot easier to fit five full hockey bags.

"We're always the last ones out of the parking lot because I demand they shower at the rink," Amanda says with a chuckle. 

Meanwhile, Mike, like Amanda, is a level five coach back home. He's on the ice this week helping out. He's already committed to helping next year, while all five kids are likely to return as well.

For Amanda, the long drive and a week in a hotel is worth it.

"So many camps feel like businesses," she said. "But there is something intrinsic with the Boudreaus. There is a depth of caring that you don't get at other places."

It's a care that comes from relationships built over time.

After telling the story of the Vaccaros, Ben moves on to the kid behind him in line, skating up and down the rink, his jersey, "Lamacraft," flapping behind him.

"That family has four children in the camp," he says. 

The coaches running the drill are a father and son, Mike and Gavin Demaria. 

"And speaking of the Dimarias, here's another one," Ben says as a man walks through the lobby. It's John, Mike's brother, on his way to help serve lunches. John's 12-year-old son, Daniel, is participating in the camp while he, his wife and his daughter are volunteering off the ice.

Mike has been an instructor for more than 15 years; Gavin began as a camper himself. He loved his experience so much, he came back as a counselor and is now an instructor.

"They're too old to participate, but they always want to come back and work," Ben said. 

Mike has a regular job, but takes a week's vacation to come work the camp every year. 

"We just want to get as much family involved as possible," Ben said. "We consider everyone that has been here an extension of our family. Maybe they're not related, but it's our hockey family."

"They make you feel like family, that's for sure," John said. "It makes us want to come back every year and participate with my son. We enjoy it, we look forward to it every year."

"You don't come back because of what we pay you... which is nothing," Ben shouts back with a laugh. 

"Nope, we just love it," John said. "It's nice to have volunteers who want to help out. They don't want anything, they just want to help out because it's like a family."

The family business

The name Boudreau has become synonymous with hockey, and not just because of the work Bruce has done behind the bench in the NHL.

Ben is entering his fourth season as an assistant coach in the ECHL, and his first with the Fort Wayne Komets, the team that gave his dad his first coaching job. 

"Fort Wayne holds a special place in my heart because I remember it as a kid; in the colosseum, running up and down the hallways, scraping up my arms and knees on rollerblades," Ben said. "This past year, I've stepped foot in the building coaching against Fort Wayne and all those memories came back. I remembered how great of a hockey city it was. 

"Now, having the opportunity to go there and follow in the footsteps of my dad, I think that is something that is special on an entirely different level." 

Three years ago, when Ben and Andy took over the day-to-day operations of the school, it was to help alleviate some of the more mundane responsibilities that Bruce and Crystal had been managing for years.

A few years back, with four ice sheets available, the camp would routinely have more than 300 participants.

But with two sheets under construction and with Ben and Andy still easing into the operations, this year's crowd was capped at around 165. 

Tweet from @mnwild: Coming to your TV this season: #BecomingWild pres. by @drive_toyota featuring Bruce Boudreau. ��He's at the Golden Horseshoe Hockey School ��

Ben estimates 90 percent of those campers are either repeat attendees from previous years, or have had a family member come through before them.

Of the 165 participants, 110 were pre-registered at last year's camp. The rest of the spots were spoken for by March. 

"When you're fielding those calls in April, May and June, it's very tough to say, 'I'm sorry, but we've already reached our cap.' It's tough to turn families away," Ben said. 

Virtually all of that traffic is from word of mouth. The school doesn't advertise, instead using a Facebook page to communicate, as well as one poster at the entrance to the arena. 

Ben said he believes it's the best way to operate.

"That's usually a pretty good thing when people are talking about it and saying, 'You gotta go.' But we're not out there handing out fliers and we're not in the newspapers or anything like that," he said. "A lot of it is Little Johnny went there when he was six through 16, and now his little son is coming through the camp. We rely on that word of mouth, which is why we try to pull out all the stops in one week, to make it something to look forward to a year out in advance."

Ben's fiancée, Karla, spent a good portion of Friday afternoon scribbling names down in a notepad: kids already pre-registered for next August and making plans to come back. The two will have their first child soon, a boy, due late next month.

If history is any indication, he'll probably be ready to hit the ice at the 40th edition of the Golden Horseshoe Hockey School. 

"Everybody has come up through it. It started with my dad when he put it on, and when we were finally able to put on skates, we were the ones who went through the camp as kids," Ben said. "And when we were too old, we became the counselors and the referees and finally, on-ice instructors.  

"I can't wait for the day that I put him through the camp and hopefully, eventually, I can do the exact same thing my father did with me, and pass the camp on down to him and keep it in the family. It's been such a great week for so many years that it's something to look forward to as a family event. It's something that we all look forward to 51 weeks out of the year."

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