28 August 2006

Heartland hockey camp

I came back from Heartland hockey camp a week ago. What an experience.

The camp is run by former US Olympian and NHL player Steve Jensen. I arrived at camp late on a Saturday night. Waking up Sunday morning, I got a good look at my new surroundings (rural northern Minnesota). The camp is completely devoted to hockey -- comprising of a dining hall, administrative office, dormitory, rink, power shooting range and recreational facilities (tennis court, roller hockey court, and lake).

This is the room I woke up in. Yeah, the dorm rooms were sketchy looking, but servicable.

The interior of the dorm was decorated with photos of Coach Jensen from his Olympic and NHL days, as well as a few junior teams he's coached.

Besides Jensen memorabilia, I saw appropriate NHL decorations on the dorm walls.

The walls were also covered in motivational sayings, particularly in the weight room. A bit hokey, but cool.

We campers ate all our meals in the dining hall attached to the dorm. The food was actually pretty good.

I then explored outside. This is what the dorm exterior looks like.

Just a few steps from the dorm, the rink!

A closer look at the statue in front of the rink (the hockey player even has stitches on his forehead.)

I guess if you are bad, you will be eaten by the "Heartland security guard."

There is a power shooting range next to the rink. We went there every morning to practice our wrist shot, backhand, and slapshot.

In case you still have energy after skating 3 hours a day, you can play roller hockey.

If you only have a little energy, you can play mini-golf.

I heard that there was a lake across the street from the camp. So I walked over. On the way, I passed this sign (unfortunately I forgot my ID).

The lake was well stocked with toys and boats. You can go fishing in the lake and even water skiing.

In the distance, you can see the "ice berg." It has handles on the side so you can climb up. At the beach, there is a sign listing a bunch of rules, including that you are not allowed to play "king of the berg."

Yes, that is a water slide. I watched a fellow camper go down it three times. I hate swimming, so I acted as "life guard."

So this is the bizarre, whimsical place I ended up in for my one-week vacation. It was essentially a kids camp for adults. But that was fine with me, after all, I still play Mario video games. I was the youngest person there (most people were in their 30s and 40s), but everyone was young in spirit.

There was no TV, one modem connection for internet access (provided you brought a laptop); all hockey all the time.

For five days (Monday through Friday), we honed our hockey skills. The 50+ campers were divided into a beginners and advanced group (I was in the beginners group). A typical schedule was wake up at 8 am, breakfast at 8:30 am, power shooting practice at 9 am, an hour of ice drills, lunch, classroom video review for an hour, another hour of ice drills, a one hour break, and a one hour scrimmage. (The schedules were staggered so that one group would be doing power shooting while the other group was doing ice drils, etc.) Then we had dinner at 6 pm and afterwards you could go skate and play more hockey if you wanted! Some nights I did work on more hockey skills, but other nights I went to the bar and hung out with my fellow campers (yup, there is a bar inside the rink, overlooking the ice -- kind of surreal drinking beer and watching people playing hockey).

I'll try to describe some of our workouts. Power shooting was focused on learning good form. The mechanics in all hockey shots are basically the same, but it is unbelievably hard to do everything right simultaneously. You have to plant your feet correctly, flex the stick blade, transfer your weight, and aim all in one motion. I have the most trouble flexing the blade and I was frustrated that my shots were always low (everyone says that's a good thing, but lifting the puck definitely looks cool). We had our shots video taped, timed with a radar gun, and evaluated in the classroom. There was one coach (Jerry) whose job was to do all the video taping and photo shooting.

Our ice training sessions were intense (see this page for video examples; the closest example to adult camp would probably be bantam camp). Coach Jensen outfitted his rink with an audio system so that up to two coaches can wear a headset and everyone can hear their instructions all over the rink. Yup, that means that we would hear Jensen screaming "No, we do not go to the net with one hand on our stick" or the coach would tell me "you forgot to do your backwards crossover" and all the other campers would overhear. We had a great ratio of 4-5 campers per coach, which meant we got a lot of personal instruction. Some of the drills I had seen before, but there were quite a few new ones. There was a lot of emphasis on forward-backward transitions (change the direction you're moving without changing the way your body is facing). I had the most fun doing the obstacle course which involved jumping over a hockey stick and sliding under another.

Jensen had quite a few contraptions for improving our stickhandling. One was the "triangle." You had to stickhandle through the triangle, using the toe and backhand of your blade. Another was the "poke checker." It's a teepee that has a puck hanging from a string. You skate up to it and poke check the hanging puck. We also used this thing that looks like a bridge. You skate around the ice (sometimes backwards) and then have to push the puck underneath the bridge.

Coach Troy had a few evil drills. One was the leg burner (you drag your skate edge across the ice). Another was bouncing the puck off your inside and outside edge and picking up the puck with your stick (umm, that's practically impossible?). Troy also had us do some power skating stuff that I had seen before.

Coach Jerry came up with a lot of "fun" drills. For example, all the players would skate from one end of the rink to the other while four poke checkers would try to take their pucks away. Another drill was the classic "monkey-in-the-middle." Jerry even had us all take penalty shots on the goalie at the end of practice.

In the beginning of the week, we mostly worked on skills -- skating and stickhandling. It was exhausting because Coach Jensen would have us rotate through 5 or 6 stations. The idea of using stations was certainly efficient since all 20+ of us campers were skating the entire hour and getting an exhausting workout. In the middle of the week, we progressed to half and full-ice drills. I was a bit disappointed with the inevitable standing around that comes with these drills, yet relieved to get a bit of a break. We learned some basic tactics including cycling and the triangle offense. Coach Jensen got a little frustrated with our lack of fundamental tactical understanding (we were embarassingly bad at times), but he was extremely patient, gently progressing from 1-0 to 2-0 to 1-1 to 2-1 to 3-0 and 3-2 read-and-react drills. When we did a good job, he would yell "A+!" into his headset.

Each day would end in a scrimmage. The first few scrimmages were a riot since they were video taped by Coach Jerry and "commentated" by Coach Jensen. I remember our very first game, I had the puck and Jensen yelled into his headset "shoot it!" Kind of bizarre that he was telling my opponents what I would be doing. At the end of a terrible defensive play, Jensen stopped the action and had us watch an "instant replay" on a gigantic projection screen in the rink (nicknamed the "Jumbotron"). I've never played a game where the coach yells "Get back! Get back!", "Oh come on, you've got to put the puck on the net" and you can hear his voice amplified all over the rink. Definitely a bizarre experience, but very educational.

On the last night (Friday), we had a fancy meal with prime rib and other delicacies. Coach Jensen even served us wine! If that wasn't enough, after dinner, we enjoyed a bonfire (soaked in beer of course). This is what the bonfire site looks like in the daytime.

The next morning, we had one last scrimmage including the coaches!

A shot of Eric, our young goalie. His parents also attended camp.

Some of my teammates on the bench. We were the yellow and white team.

Before I left camp, I received a panoramic photo of me and my fellow campers and coaches as well as a report card with ratings on my shooting speed, skating speed, and skills. Coach Jensen really gives you your money's worth!

Some things I need to improve on:
  • Backward skating
  • Forward-to-backward transitions and vice versa
  • Stickhandling, stickhandling, stickhandling
  • Backhand shot
  • Shooting while moving on the ice

The priorities here are skating first, stickhandling second, and shooting last. I've heard many people say that the majority of being a good ice hockey player is skating and I agree. Fortunately, my forward skating, turns, and agility are pretty good. I just need to get better at backwards skating. If I do, maybe I can switch from forward to defense.

Needless to say, everyone (myself included) wanted to come back next year. One guy has been going to adult Heartland hockey camp for 13 years!

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