On one hand, the NHL Players' Association's five-day All-Canadians Mentorship Camp is like every other hockey camp for teenagers. But on the other, this is not your father's hockey camp – which usually combined fun on the water in cottage country with a few on-ice sessions with NHL players on a busman's holiday.
For the third consecutive year, the union brought 42 of the best 15- and 16-year-old male players from across Canada for on-ice sessions under a group of coaches, which include NHLers Jason Spezza and Claude Giroux. And it will climax Saturday at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, with a game between Team Spezza and Team Giroux.
The jumping-off point is not only the fact this game will be televised by TSN and all of the players are expected to land in the major-junior leagues. For unlike teenaged hockey players from the 1960s through the 1990s, who spent their off-ice camp hours swimming or trying to throw each other in the lake from various watercraft, these players (and their parents in most cases) were in conference rooms learning what it takes to become an NHL player.
Under the direction of former NHL player Gary Roberts, who trains elite athletes year-round, these youngsters learn about everything from proper nutrition to sports psychology to what is referred to in the camp brochure as "life skills."
"The biggest thing I'm here for is to help these young players understand there's more to hockey than just playing hockey," Roberts said. "The message we're trying to send to these players is it's all about preparation, respect for the game."
Roberts famously resumed his NHL career in 1997, after sitting out a year with what was thought to be a career-ending neck injury. But after changing his lifestyle with a new approach to nutrition and fitness, Roberts played another 11 seasons and has since been spreading the gospel of what he learned.
Last Wednesday, for example, the players and their parents had a two-hour seminar on nutrition from Roberts, followed by a session with sports psychologist Paul Dennis. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser was there to talk about showing the proper respect for game officials.
"It's great if you can get some advice from people who've been there. It doesn't matter if it's business or sports," said ex-NHLer Steve Webb, now an NHLPA staffer who helps Roberts with the program. "I enjoy this because I had so many people step up to the plate when I was going through it. I don't know if I would have achieved my goal of making the NHL if I didn't have those people." David Shoalts