Varsity girls take part in a drill at West Coast Hockey Prep Camp back in 2018. (AV NEWS FILE PHOTO)

West Coast Hockey Prep Camp returns to Port Alberni, a little smaller

Prep camp owners rolling with COVID-19 changes, including smaller classes

An elite hockey development camp will be returning to the Alberni Valley Multiplex this month, but it will look a little different than past years.

Previously, the West Coast Hockey Prep Camp has drawn almost a thousand young hockey players—from PeeWee level to Junior A prospects—to Port Alberni for a morning-to-night development camp, with “celebrity” guest coaches and dorm rooms at the Alberni Athletic Hall next door.

With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting gatherings, this year’s camp will look “very different,” said camp director Nate Leslie.

“We’ll have no overnight dorming,” said Leslie. “There will be no catering for 280 people a week. We’re feeling disappointed that we won’t be able to help the Athletic Hall by renting their facility this year.”

Starting on Monday, July 13, 420 young hockey players will be attending the camp over four weeks. The camp has been condensed down to four-hour days, with players practicing in groups of 13-14. The two rinks at the multiplex—Coulson and Weyerhaeuser—will have separate entrances and will be cleaned every evening. Dressing rooms will be cleaned between each group.

The camp has previously had about 60 people working per week—for supervising, coaching, catering and cleaning—but this number has gone down to 15 or 20 people.

“We’ve had to hire as locally as possible,” said Leslie. “Although we’ve been doing more and more of that every year.”

While the out-of-province and -country coaches will not be attending this year, guests include Joe Martin and Rick Schievink of the BCHL’s Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Victoria Royals goalie coach Lynden Sammartino, who will be attending the camp for his 18th year in a row. Former Alberni Valley minor hockey players Maryna MacDonald and the Fitzgerald triplets will also be attending.

READ MORE: Fitzgerald triplets still ripping up the ice

West Coast Hockey Prep Camp also announced on Facebook that it will be hosting RCMP Sgt. Donovan Tait, who is a scout and advisor with the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Team. He helped the team capture the IIHF Latin American Cup in their first international tournament last year.

READ MORE: Jamaican ice hockey team gets an assist from Alberni

The camp is currently in the middle of a five-year contract with the City of Port Alberni.

“We’ve been working really closely with the city this year, and we’ve managed to come up with a plan that we’re all really happy with,” said Leslie. “As more information comes in, we’ll continue to adjust it.”

The “large majority” of participants this year, said Leslie, are commuting from other towns on Vancouver Island. Players travelling from off the Island will be staying at local hotels or bed and breakfasts instead of the dorms.

“When we announced back in May that it would be a day camp, within one day the local Best Western had sold 150 room nights,” said Leslie.

Previously, the camp has had around 60-70 players travelling to Port Alberni from the U.S., but with borders closed, international students will not be attending.

“We want to keep it safe,” said Leslie. “Most of our decisions have been making themselves—we’ve been listening to the province, to Dr. Bonnie Henry. We can sleep better at night knowing everything we’re doing is in line with what’s appropriate, and not based on the emotion of wanting to get back on the ice.”

While West Coast Hockey Prep Camp helps players develop key skills with pro coaches, it’s also an opportunity for teenage hockey players to have some fun during a year that has seen many extra-curricular activities shut down in the wake of a worldwide pandemic.

“Our camp has been a big part of teens’ lives for a long time,” said Leslie. “Now, more than ever, we’re focusing on the mental health of our players. Caring for their well-being has never been more important than this year.”

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