It’s no surprise that the Yukon grabbed silvers in the boys’ midget and bantam hockey, and fourth in the women’s league, at the 2008 Arctic Winter Games.
At least, it’s no surprise if you are aware of the top-notch hockey camps available each summer at the Canada Games Centre.
“The level of talent in the Yukon just keeps increasing and we’ve seen the bar raised every single year,” said Ranj Pillai, the director of the Northwestel Summit Hockey Camp.
“We’re looking at 20-plus players who are playing outside of the Yukon, either at a junior A, junior B or a major junior level … A lot of that has just happened over the last five years. And we’d like to think this camp was a catalyst for that to occur.”
The one-week Northwestel Summit Hockey Camp wrapped up its fifth-annual program last Friday.
Although it shares many characteristics with other camps, it has one element few others can match: world-class coaching.
Since the camp first began five years ago, coaches Danny Flynn and Joe Martin have been making the trip north to help hone the hockey skills of the Yukon’s youth.
“To be able to fly someone in who has NHL experience, a national championship at the university level, two national championship at the major junior level is just fantastic,” said Pillai, referring to Flynn.
Flynn, the camp’s head instructor, coaches the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
However, his skills as a coach led him to the highest echelon of hockey, spending a year as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders in the NHL.
Also, as head coach for St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, he led the school to its first national championship in its 100-year history.
“Our numbers were excellent in both the morning camp and the evening camp,” said Flynn of the Whitehorse initiative. “I think it ran flawlessly and we continue to make it better each year.”
Another coach, who also has been with the camp since its conception, is Joe Martin, Team Yukon’s Canada Games coach in 2007 and the Arctic Games coach in 2006.
Martin came up from BC where he coaches the Creston Valley Thunder Cats in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, a junior B league.
“It’s great to have such a big turnout, we didn’t know we would have so many kids,” said Martin. “There’s 13, I think, from Teslin, three from Old Crow … every year there kids from lots of communities and of course a big number from Whitehorse.”
Other coaches involved in the camp are Ted Stevens, who plays for Flynn in Monkton, as well as a couple of Martin’s players from the Kootenay international league.
“All of them are graduates of the Whitehorse midget hockey team,” said Martin of some of the other coaches. “They’re 18 now, but they’ve been coming to this camp since they were 12 years old. Now they’re instructors in the highest level of junior hockey in Canada.”
The camp is split into two groups, based on age. Tuesday to Friday in the mornings, players seven to 11 years old hit the ice at the Canada Games Centre. The camp for the younger group starts at the basics — skating and stopping.
Then the camp tackles puck control and stick handling and shooting. On the final day, they have a friendly game with music and a referee that parents are invited to come and watch.
But the lessons don’t stop when the skates come off; the students also get lessons on nutrition and camaraderie. Thirty-nine students came out for younger group this year.
Thursday to Sunday in the evenings the older group, ranging from bantam to last-year juniors, participated in an “idea camp,” as described by Flynn.
It focused more on plays and teamwork, and had about 50 players attending.
The camp isn’t something players attend once and that’s it. Instead, since there’s so much to be taught to the kids, many return year after year.
“There’s one kid out there, Bohdi Elias … he’s 10 or 11, he’s been coming to this camp since he was five or six,” said Martin. “It’s amazing to see what he’s accomplished. Now his little brother is in the camp.”
“I’ve learned to stick handle with my head up and deeking and skating — lots of stuff,” said Bohdi, who plans to return to the camp a sixth time next year.
The Northwestel Summit Camp is not the only hockey program the Yukon has seen, but what separates it from others — besides the elite instruction — is its regularity.
“There definitely was a number of different camps that were here, but I don’t think there was really longevity with them,” said Pillai.
“So at this point we’ve been able to create a foundation and keep building off it. Now we’re seeing other camps in the market and it’s just great.”