Late July is an uncertain time on the hockey calendar. The bulk of the excitement of free agency has passed, but just over a month remains until training camp kicks off another season. While some hockey players opt to soak up some sun on the beach or take a vacation during this time of year, many choose to give back to the game through youth hockey camps.
Walk through a professional hockey team’s locker room and you’d be hard-pressed to find any players who don’t fondly remember a summer hockey camp, where they developed the fundamental skills they still use today. Such is the case in West Michigan, where the Grand Rapids Griffins’ annual youth hockey camp will be held from July 30-Aug. 3.
What makes the Griffins’ camp unique from the hundreds of other hockey camps around the world is the Stanley Cup-winning experience. The camp’s lead instructor, Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek, had his name engraved on hockey’s most precious trophy in 1991 and 1992 while with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Also scheduled to make one-day appearances are Detroit Red Wings center and Muskegon native Justin Abdelkader, who was a part of Detroit’s 2008 Cup team, and Washington Capitals right wing and Kentwood native Mike Knuble, who earned two Stanley Cup rings earlier in his career on Detroit’s 1997 and 1998 championship clubs.
“Especially with Mike and Justin, they’re local guys that all the kids can relate to,” said Paek. “It’s great that they can come for a day to give back to the community and remember where they started from.”
While all of the camp’s instructors are happy to sign autographs and spend time with the camp’s attendees, their priority is to keep the camp fun while making sure the kids – who range in age from 6-16 with a variety of skills and experiences, are getting the highest quality coaching possible.
“We do the best we can with every age group, from the kids who are just learning to play to the older ones who have played hockey for a few years,” said Paek. “We have a wide variety of talent level, and we have a pretty big staff that does their best with these young players.”
The camp runs from 8:30 a.m.-3:15 p.m. each day, comprising of a total of 12 hours of ice time and 12 hours of dry-land training and off-ice video sessions. Children are separated into groups by age and participate in a variety of drills to improve their skills, learning basic stride development and advanced skating techniques while practicing stickhandling, shooting and passing.
“Just putting the Griffins’ name on the camp naturally draws interest from a lot of youth hockey players,” said Bob Kaser, the Griffins’ vice president of community relations and broadcasting and one of the camp’s organizers. “But when you support the camp with outstanding hockey personalities, it becomes an even bigger draw.
“Jim Paek is not just a name with an excellent hockey background; he is outstanding at directing all that goes on both on and off the ice during the week. He demands hard work so the kids get as much out of the camp as they can, but he keeps it fun,” said Kaser.
For a veteran coach like Paek, who just completed his seventh season behind the Griffins’ bench, watching the players develop, both during the camp and from summer-to-summer for the returnees, is the most rewarding aspect. He shared the story of Kyle Manning, a 15-year-old player who’s used the resources of the camp to make a run at high-level hockey.
“Kyle’s been coming to the school for many years, and he travels all the way from England,” said Paek. “Over the years, he’s emailed me and asked me different questions, and now he’s applying to a hockey academy over in Austria. He’s waiting to get in; he just had tryouts. It’s rewarding to see the young players like that who come from all over the world do those things and really take to the sport.”
Contributions from area businesses and sponsors continue to make the camp successful. Last year, six sponsors paid for total of 12 kids from the Griffins Youth Foundation to attend, an experience those players would not have had the opportunity to do on their own. The Griffins Youth Foundation enables 300-plus kids, many of whom are underprivileged or underserved, to participate in the foundation’s programs, including first-through-12th grade hockey, girls hockey and sled hockey, at no cost.
“It’s always fulfilling to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, day in and day out,” said Kaser, who serves as the foundation’s president. “But the best part for me is when I deliver photos and thank you letters from our Youth Foundation participants to the sponsors. Reading some of those letters helps you understand how much the camp means to them, not to mention the joy our sponsors clearly get from sending them.”
The camp will take place in Grand Rapids at Griff’s IceHouse at Belknap Park. The cost of $300 per child includes a camp jersey, t-shirt, hat and a daily lunch provided by popular local eateries. Visit griffinshockey.com for a registration form and direct any questions to the team offices at (616) 774-4585.