Shooting for the stars

The pros come out for a summertime hockey camp and leave Iqaluit kids in awe



CAPTION 5: A young hockey player listens as a drill is explained.

Eight-year-old Julie Hanson-Akavak has to crane her neck back to look up at the man beside her.

“Excuse me, could you sign right here please?” she asks, holding a hockey stick in one hand and a black marker in the other.

Hanson-Akavak waits as six-foot-five former Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cory Cross smiles and signs her stick before posing with her for a photo.

Cross was in Iqaluit last weekend, along with Ottawa Senators defenseman Wade Redden and seven other trainers to participate in the Iqaluit Amateur Hockey Association’s annual development camp.

It’s the first time an IAHA hockey camp has been held in the summer, and as several Pee Wee hockey players start to congregate on the ice at the Arnaitok arena, the group’s president, Glen Higgins, stands behind the boards and explains how this camp came together.

In the mid-1990s, national hockey coach Mike Pelino came to the North to help with the evaluation of a territorial team. Pelino, Higgins says, fell in love with the area and has kept coming back to help encourage players who dream of one day being drafted by an NHL team.

Mike’s brother Joe Pelino, a chiropractor, has also fostered a love for the North. His professional contact with big-name sports figures led him to ask Cross and Redden to visit Iqaluit and participate in the three-day workshop, running drills and offering advice.

And Higgins says, for the first time this year, off-ice development will be part of the training.

“Up till now we’ve just focused on the ice, hockey-related aspect of the whole program, speed-skating, shooting, drills,” Higgins says. This year, after the on-ice sessions have finished, the players are expected to cross the street to the lobby of the curling rink and participate in off-ice workshops geared to teaching the importance of nutrition and overall fitness.

“I think the kids are fairly ignorant of the impact of not having the right food for energy prior to a game,” he says.

The camp, offered free to hockey players who registered, catered to all levels of athletes, from Novice, to Mites, to Midget, and even to a group of young offenders. Coaches, trainers and NHL players all volunteered their time, and First Air, Nunavut Auto and the Frobisher Inn all donated services.

“In the short-term, I think it just provides the kids with a little excitement and a different activity,” Higgins says. “Obviously, ice hockey in August is altogether different for [Nunavut]. They get out of the house, it’s something structured for them and it’s fun.”

The long-term benefits are the things the kids will pick up without knowing it, he says, like teamwork and discipline.

Redden and Cross come from the same small town, Lloydminster, Alberta, and are quick to point out the benefits of sport.

“I know it kind of gives you some direction,” says Redden, who, in his skates, towers over the kids. “There are so many other things you could be doing that could be detrimental. Growing up, I played a lot of team sports and it’s good for young people to learn how to work together. It goes a long way even after you quit playing.”

The soft-spoken Redden says the Arnaitok arena is nicer than the facility he used as a youngster and Iqaluit is lucky to have two rinks.

“There are some good little players here,” he says. “I guess that’s the thing, you want to get them out on the ice as much as you can and let them have fun with it and improve. That’s going to help them. As the season starts and they’ve got two rinks, there’s lots of ice for the kids to practise and play games and stuff.”

Cross, who went to school with Redden’s older sister, ran a hockey school in Florida for a couple of years, and he worked summers at hockey schools when he was a student at the University of Alberta.

“I’m used to being around the kids and working with them,” he says. “But this is the first time I’ve really come to a small town.”

At one point in the morning, a tiny novice player, dressed head-to-toe in Ottawa Senators gear, determinedly skates his way toward a net guarded by Cross. Just as the little boy is about to fire a shot, he trips on his skate and slides, face down toward the net. Cross smiles and makes sure the player is up and out of the way before facing another challenger.

Some of the young hockey players are a bit intimidated by him, Cross admits, but many have asked to see his hockey stick. Adults in Iqaluit have less trouble asking questions of the 1997 Team Canada World Championship gold-medal winner.

“They’ve asked everything from how the Leafs are going to do this year to saying, ‘It’s great watching you on TV,’” he says.

For Cross, hockey, he says, “did everything.”

“It helped my self-esteem, making friendships, career-stuff, like teamwork, and discipline transfers over to the real world,” he says. “We’re pretty fortunate to be where we are, but even if we didn’t get to the NHL we could take what we learned playing hockey into the work world.”

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