For the next few weeks, the Alberni Valley Multiplex will operate as an elite hockey development camp.
More than 900 young hockey players, from PeeWee level to Junior A prospects, will travel to Port Alberni for the morning-to-night West Coast Hockey Prep Camp.
“When we took over 10 years ago, there were less than 100 kids per week for three weeks,” said camp director Nate Leslie. “It was 290 kids. This year we have 937.”
Of those 937 kids, approximately 30 percent are from the Vancouver Island region. Others are visiting from the United States, or as far as New Zealand and Hungary.
The camp is in the middle of a five-year contract with the City of Port Alberni. Port Alberni Junior Hockey Society president Ron Paulson has been a “huge advocate” for the camp over the years, said Leslie, and Alberni Valley Bulldogs coaches Matt Hughes and Jeff Dubois, as well as athletic trainer Scott Crema, will be working at the camp.
“I’ve never had a relationship with a town or a city before,” said Leslie. “We feel like we’re part of the community while we’re here.”
Next door to the Multiplex, the Alberni Athletic Hall has been transformed into a dormitory for the coming month, complete with a kitchen catered by a local catering team. The prep camp accounts for about 30 percent of the yearly revenue for the Athletic Hall, said Leslie.
“[The hall] really allowed us to take the camp to the next level,” he added.
Approximately half of the visiting students will stay in the dorms, while others will take up space in Port Alberni hotels and other accommodations.
“These are so many families who wouldn’t come through [Port Alberni] otherwise,” said Leslie. “Everybody’s winning here,” he added. “There’s collaboration and experience on so many levels.”
The camp kicked off on Monday, July 16 with the Female Showcase and PeeWee Camp. A series of “celebrity” guest coaches are attending, including Canadian university and NCAA coaches, as well as Stanley Cup winner Marc Crawford (who currently coaches for the Ottawa Senators), former Pittsburgh Penguins coach and current Portland Winterhawks coach Mike Johnson and former NHL player Rich Sutter, who currently works as a hockey analyst for Rogers Sportsnet.
Former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog Sarah Murray has also taken to the ice as a coach. Murray most recently coached the history-making Unified Korean women’s national ice hockey team at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
“Hockey can open a lot of doors, on and off the ice,” said Murray. “I think it’s tough in Korea. Parents aren’t as eager to put their kids in hockey. But it’s growing.”
Ice hockey, especially women’s hockey, gained a lot of attention during the Pyeongchang Olympics and particularly the gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada, said Murray. “A lot of kids want to play,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for this sport to grow.”
This was Murray’s first year with the West Coast Hockey Prep Camp, and her first time visiting Port Alberni.
“They’ve asked, and this was the first year it’s worked out with my schedule,” said Murray. “It’s a great opportunity to learn and grow and become a better player.”
Students take part in ice sessions and games, but also have a chance to participate in discussions and panels—talking to university and NCAA coaches. Murray had a chance to tell students about her Olympic experience.
“They try to have the players see a lot of the coaches,” said Murray.
“We’ve always tried to differentiate ourselves from showcase camps that take place in the summer,” added Leslie. The West Coast Hockey Prep Camp, he said, is development and skills focused, with coaches taking an active role instead of “watching from afar and scouting.”
“The life experience that [students] get is the most important thing,” said Leslie.
One of the things organizers are most proud of, said Leslie, are the students who have returned to the camp to teach.
“Some of these kids were 12 or 13 when they started,” he said. “Now they’re 22, 23, 24 and playing college or pro hockey. We love bringing past players back. They were young when they arrived, and now they’re national champs.”
Local talent Maryna MacDonald, for example, has committed to Harvard University and will hopefully be a member of the Harvard Crimson women’s hockey team starting in the fall. Leslie said MacDonald has been attending camp since she was 11 years old, and this will be her first year working for the team.
“We are a service-based business,” said Leslie. “But you can’t deny, I hope, that we’re doing good things for youth hockey in this province.”