Camp Package: Launching Pad

Jim Christopher is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, N.Y.

It’s mid-July and the Northtown Center in Amherst, N.Y, is buzzing with activity.

The four-sheet facility on the outskirts of Buffalo is wrapping up a summer of development as it plays host to more than 200 of the top 15-year-old American hockey players.

Each of them proudly sports the “USA” on the front of their jerseys. But rather than wearing the traditional red, white and blue, they are decked out in jerseys of forest green, navy blue, orange and a variety of other colors. While they have already completed the arduous process to get here, they each have a long way to go before they can wear the stars and stripes.

Welcome to USA Hockey’s annual Player Developmental Camps. The weeklong sessions play an important role in the overall player development system by providing many of the United States best young hockey players, boys and girls ages 15 to 17, with concentrated on- and off-ice training and coaching, as well as the opportunity to compete against their peers.

Over the course of three one-week sessions, USA Hockey staff members along with high-level collegiate, Junior and prep school coaches and even some NHL assistants will get a chance to see what each age group has to offer.

Players punch their ticket to camp after a competitive process within their respective Affiliates and Districts. They are then ranked and randomly assigned a team in an effort to make a level competitive playing field.

Over the course of the week they will get the opportunity to pick the brains of some of the finest hockey minds in the country. One of them is Mike Corbett, the head coach at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who is working his 17th Developmental Camp.

One thing he’s noticed over the years of working these camps is that change is the only constant. Projecting how a 15-year-old player will develop through his teenaged years is a tricky and uncertain proposition. Those players who excel early could find themselves being passed up by a late bloomer.
“Some of the kids here are boys. There’s such a difference in maturity with these kids. Not just physically but mental maturity,” Corbett says.

“The kids who mature physically early may be men here right now, but other kids might catch them. It’s a double-edged sword.”

The numbers seem to bear witness to that. With an estimated 50 percent turnover from year to year, an invitation at 15 doesn’t guarantee a return engagement at 16 or 17.

“Hopefully they get the message that ‘I worked my tail off to get here, I need to continue to work to get back,’” says Mike Bonish, who has worked multiple camps over the past seven summers.

“The stakes are higher here. They are out of their comfort zone and we hope to send that message home.”

The camp not only works on players’ on-ice abilities, but their off-ice skills as well. They learn to come together and play as a team with relative strangers in a short amount of time.

“I’ve gelled with a lot of kids in the dorm, and hanging out with the kids is a good experience,” says Hopkinton, Mass., native Jack Sloan, the only Bay Stater on the Forrest Green team. “Playing in the games is fun, overall it’s a good time.”

Many end up building relationships that continue on throughout their Junior and college careers, and beyond.

“I think my social skills have gotten better,” admits Jake Dunlap, Sloan’s teammate from Windham, N.H. “I wasn’t so social and now that I’ve gotten to know the kids we’re gelling and having fun.”

Those who excel at a camp can find themselves representing the United States at an international showcases, such as the Ivan Hlinka (17 camp) or the Five Nations (16 camp) tournaments. Those competing here at the 15 camp could catch the eye of scout with the National Developmental Team Program and receive an invitation to a tryout camp in Plymouth, Mich.

The remaining players will head home armed with an honest assessment of where they fit in the ever-growing U.S. talent pool and what they need to work on to punch a return ticket next year.

“It’s a great evaluation tool, having all the best players together in one spot,” says Ken Martel, technical director for the American Development Model.

In addition to some intense competition, players attending a USA Hockey Player Development learn from some of the top coaches in the country.In addition to some intense competition, players attending a USA Hockey Player Development learn from some of the top coaches in the country.







“What the Festivals give us is a snap shot in time. It gives us a pretty good sense of where these kids are at this point in their lives. Some have an off week and others have a career week. We’ll make a note of kids and throughout the hockey season we’ll follow up on the players in their own environment.”

It’s difficult to know with any degree of certainty if the next Jack Eichel or Matthew Tkachuk—both alumni of these camps—is spending part of his summer in Amherst.

And regardless what transpires over the course of the week, the confidence and experience that each player receives will help him in the future.

“It’s a good experience because about a year ago I didn’t think I was this good and I didn’t know where my hockey career was going to go,” Sloan says.

“But now that I made the camp and I’m playing with some of the best kids in the country it’s good to know I’m one of those kids and I can play at a high level.”

Jim Christopher is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, N.Y.


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