As practice winds down at the Miracles on Ice camp, it’s time for a game of Sharks and Minnows. The coaches line up along the goal line as the Minnows, while the 32 campers position themselves around the neutral zone in their best Shark-like stances.
For these kids, most of whom have never played hockey before, the odds seem stacked against them. But they have a secret weapon. Standing among them is a hulking 6-foot-3 former NHL player who is serving as the ad hoc cheerleader.
As he raises his stick above his head he yells out “Yay” in a booming voice that echoes throughout the cavernous Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver. Then he points his stick in the direction of the coaches and bellows out a loud “Boo.” Back and forth he goes, coaxing his young charges to join in.
“These kids have never played hockey, and most are never going to play hockey again. This is a way
Finally the whistle blows and bedlam quickly ensues with some Minnows caught right away while others are lucky enough to escape to the safety of the far goal line. This goes on for several minutes before all the Minnows are eventually snagged, leaving everyone on the ice and most of those watching from the benches laughing hysterically.
Still, nobody is laughing louder or smiling more than Peter McNab, the former NHL star turned television commentator.
“I don’t think anyone is having a better time on the ice than Peter,” says Gary Howard who, along with his wife Leslie, created the Miracles on Ice camp five years ago as a means of instilling confidence in these inner-city kids.
McNab has been with the program from the beginning, coaxed by a mutual friend of the Howards into stopping by the campus where he played his college hockey to check things out. At first he thought it was just another hockey camp, until he spent a few hours with these special youngsters and followed them from their on-ice session to their reading and math lessons and on to their dryland training with an Army drill sergeant.
Along the way he got to know these kids, ages 9 to 11, listened to their stories and learned about the lives they lead in some of Denver’s housing projects. And just as important, the kids got to know McNab, not as a professional athlete or television personality, but as a friend who genuinely cares about them.
“You’re constantly having your perspective rocked when you listen to this story or that story,” says McNab, who came to town when the Colorado Avalanche arrived in 1995 and remains a staple of local broadcasts, and the community.
“The number one thing is you can listen to their stories and try to understand their situation, but if you think you’re going to come here and feel sorry for them, they look at you in the eye and say, ‘I’m fine. Today is a great day.’ People want to coddle these kids. They don’t want to be coddled. They want to learn and be able to do it on their own.”
McNab is more than celebrity window dressing at this camp. He arrives early and stays late, walking with kids on their way to class and encouraging them to solve a complex math problem, which may be somewhat easier than putting on their hockey equipment for the first time.
“On the first day we have kids who take out the protective cup and try to figure out where it goes,” laughs McNab. “They try to put it on their ear, nose or knee cap. Never do they think about putting it on the right spot until you show them and they say, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ ”
For someone who has accomplished so much in his own life, McNab has the cache to deliver that message to these kids. Still, he never plays the star card, telling these campers about the 363 goals he scored during his 14-year NHL career, or how he skated with some of the greatest players in Boston Bruins history. Most don’t even know that he’s entering his 15th season as the color commentator on Altitude, the broadcast home of the Colorado Avalanche.
“Many people have passion for hockey because they love the game. Peter also has a passion for kids, and he fully puts the two together,” Howard says. “As far as Peter is concerned, it’s all about the kids.”
McNab cringes when asked about the satisfaction he derives from being part of such a camp. His reward comes from watching the strides each child makes over the course of the week, whether it’s in the classroom or on the ice.
“My favorite story is about a girl who just could not skate,” McNab says. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t.’ Then last year she showed up and she could skate backwards and she came to me and said ‘watch this’ and she did it.
“She went from absolutely impossible to she did it. It was just a little example in her life of something that may seem impossible today but she worked at it.”
And that’s what this camp is all about. The Howards aren’t looking to develop college players. They’re looking to create college students by helping them gain the confidence and work ethic necessary to propel themselves toward a brighter future. And McNab is happy to help any way he can.
“I’ve been to a lot of hockey camps and love helping out at them, but this one is so different,” he says. “These kids have never played hockey, and most are never going to play hockey again. This is a way of using hockey to show them what they can accomplish in whatever they do in life.”