Oilers: Reaping the benefits of summer camp

By Guy Flaming

To many parents, summer camp is often used as a way to broaden horizons and open new doors in a young person’s life. They ship their kids off to a strange place and the children soon make new friends and build fresh relationships in a neutral and unfamiliar setting that helps make them better people.

The Edmonton Oilers tested that theory on their kids back in June.

The hope was that a mid-summer prospect camp in Edmonton would give the future stars of the team a leg up in their preparation for the main training camp in the fall. It was the first time the organization had taken such a step but with the accumulated depth of young swimmers in the talent pool, the timing certainly made sense for such a venture.

In the end, the twenty-some players who attended the mini-camp came away with first hand knowledge of what to expect once they got to their first September camp and also plenty of expert advice on their own games. Some of those players returned to their college teams or went back to Europe, but many are in Edmonton’s training camp now armed with what they learned a few months ago.

So was the off-season experiment a success?

“I think it was a huge success because we’ve got so many good young prospects,” concluded Edmonton’s VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast. “It’s easy for me and the scouting staff to say it but for Kevin and the coaches, they might see one player but not get an opportunity to see all of them.”

Clearly it was a good tool for the organization to view the players as a group, especially the ones that are ineligible to attend a regular fall training camp like the collegians and Europeans. But was the week-long camp beneficial for the development and preparation of the players?

“All these kids are reporting in now, in better shape than they did at the June camp,” said Prendergast. “You can see that they’re adapting to everything going on around them a lot quicker than they normally do.”

The summer session was also great for the die-hard Oil fans that also want to know what the future holds for their team.

“Every day we were there that building was full,” Prendergast recalled. “People want to see the people we are bringing in, they want to see what they are going to bring to the organization. It’s easy to say it or put it the paper or listen to other people’s opinions but until you see them yourself, you’re not really sure what you have.”

Let’s recap then. The coaches, management and scouting staff think it was a success and the fans are happy for the opportunity to see the prospects too.

But what do the players think?

“It was great; they did a good job of putting it on,” mini-camp participant Zach Stortini stated simply. “It was great to meet everybody and it kind of eases you in a bit and you get a chance to see your surroundings, get a feel for what’s going on and it’s made it a lot easier coming here in September.”

Those sentiments are echoed by many of the players who were in town three months ago.

“In June they showed us how to train and at what level we have to train to be in the best shape,” explained Jean-Francois Plourde. “I think my summer training was better because of that camp in June so I am more prepared for this camp now in September.”

It was not an evaluation camp so the atmosphere was a lot more relaxing than the time they are spending in Alberta this time around. June was a week meant for learning, familiarizing and bonding with those around them in an environment that was new to most of them.

“It’s a great thing to be familiar with the other players and the organization,” offered future goalie Jeff Deslauriers.

Brad Winchester joined Deslauriers in giving the summer session their two thumbs up critique.

“The summer (mini-camp) was great in that it helped me out a lot, and it helped a lot of other guys out to just to know some faces,” said the skilled forward. “I think you can really tell the character of the guys the Oilers have drafted because all the guys got along really well and hit it off.”

Obviously it was a golden opportunity for the players to get acquainted with one another and build some camaraderie. Some also took away advice from the Oiler staff on what they could do to improve their chances of having success with the organization down the road.

“This summer at the rookie camp we did some testing and it’s nice that they let us know what we’ve got to improve on,” said Joe Cullen as one example. “For me it’s my speed and my quickness and I’ve been working on that a lot.”

Sometimes the language barrier between youngsters gathered from around the world can cause communication troubles between the players and also with the staff. Head Coach Craig MacTavish doesn’t feel that there are any significant problems due to language despite having many young players in town from a myriad of different nations.

“It’s the universal language of hockey,” replied MacTavish to the question.

In fact, the differences in culture and language can sometimes leave positive and lasting impressions on people. MacTavish laughed when he recounted an anecdote about Czech prospect Tomas Micka whose limited English means the winger sticks close to fellow countrymen Ales Hemsky or Frank Musil.

“We had a written self-evaluation that we gave each of the kids that came to our mini-camp in June,” described MacTavish beginning to chuckle at the memory. “Some of his points were: ‘I love the Edmonton Oilers. I want to be on the Edmonton Oilers. I love the Czech Republic’ and then on his bottom line he wrote: “I must get a water bottle!”

The proof is in the pudding, as the expression goes, and because the mini-camp appears to have been such a smashing success it is certainly going to become a mainstay in the Oilers’ off-season schedule.

“I think from an organization’s standpoint it was huge,” concluded Prendergast.

Sending the kids off to summer camp just took on a whole new meaning. If only we could hear the campfire stories and share in the s’mores.

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