In the words of Bell MTS Iceplex’s Press Box Restaurant Head Chef Leonard Church, “Good company makes the food taste better.”
If that’s the case, one lucky Winnipeg family had a fantastic meal on the evening of Feb. 23. Not only were they able to cook and dine on a first-class meal alongside Church, but their company also included Winnipeg Jets centre Adam Lowry.
The evening was all courtesy of the True North Youth Foundation (TNYF). When the foundation hosted its Winnipeg Jets Gala…At Home virtual fundraising event back in December, the evening of cooking with Lowry was one of several one-of-a-kind experiences available for attendees to bid on.
In normal times, such an event would have brought the group together to cook and share the meal in-person but being in the midst of a pandemic meant the family, Lowry, and Church all had to congregate virtually via videocall. That created the need for a little more advance preparation for Church, who assembled the ingredients and prepared the meals that the group would be cooking together.
“Earlier in the day, I cut everything up, got everything portioned, and pre-cooked,” said Church. “Then we had the food delivered to their houses. They had two boxes of food each, which they could keep in the fridge until we started cooking together.”
Church found a way to ensure the same gourmet experience would deliciously translate to the virtual soiree. The main course consisted of AAA beef tenderloin steaks, pan-fried baby potatoes and honey dill carrots, while the meal started with an artisan lettuce salad featuring dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, red peppers, pickled carrots, feta cheese, and a cranberry-mango olive oil vinaigrette. A warm apple pie for dessert finished off the meal just right.
Having Lowry and his girlfriend as guest chefs/hosts for the night was a perfect fit in the eyes of Church. Their easy-going demeanour and humour made the evening enjoyable for the whole group, whether the conversation revolved around having his dad as a coach or asking him what he said to a certain ref after a missed hooking call on a breakaway.
“All of the Jets players are just regular human beings,” noted Church, who has the pleasure of cooking for and interacting with both Jets and Manitoba Moose players whenever they practice at the Iceplex. “Anytime we see the players, we say hi and they’ll share a story and things like that. Lowry in particular is a pretty funny guy – he’s always got something interesting to say.”
Church was certainly happy to facilitate the cooking and give of his time to create a fun evening and support the TNYF.
“It was just good to see other people and interact. They weren’t my family members and I could talk to them,” joked Church.
As tasty as the meal was, that interaction was clearly at the heart of the evening, especially in a time when nobody is taking social interaction for granted.
“It’s not so much just the cooking that makes it a good experience – it’s when you sit down and enjoy the meal together,” said Church. “When you’re sitting down with family or friends and you’re having that social interaction and enjoying the meal with people, the meal always tastes better.”
There’s something special about playing hockey on an outdoor rink. It’s a way of taking the game back to its roots where it all began on frozen ponds and lakes.
With public health restrictions in Manitoba continuing to prevent group training sessions at indoor facilities, the Jets Hockey Development (JHD) team that operates out of Bell MTS Iceplex will be pivoting their group sessions to an outdoor setting and utilizing a safe space for teaching and development on the NHL-sized rink at Camp Manitou.
Over the next three weekends from Feb. 20 through March 7, JHD coaches will run the Outdoor Skills Program with sessions on Saturday and Sunday each week. Though hockey skills programs are the name of the game for JHD coaches, they’re particularly looking forward to this program.
“These hockey skills sessions are going to be really significant,” said Dave Cameron, Head On-Ice Instructor and Program Manager for JHD. “First off, it’s not everyday you get to run high-level hockey training on an outdoor rink, which will be a lot of fun for us and the players. On top of that, it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to work with players in person and in groups. Coaching groups of players and seeing the improvement that happens is what fuels us to do what we do.”
Cameron and the JHD team will get to see plenty of development each weekend of the program, as four hour-long age-divided sessions will be available to hockey players born in 2004/05 through to 2010/11, with 16 spots available in each group. Each age group will get a total of six sessions throughout the program.
Having faced a long break in being able to play organized hockey, the primary goal of the camp will be to get players’ development back on track.
“There’s always a period of shaking off the rust when players have had a break from the game,” noted Cameron. “In a typical off-season, we try to eliminate that by offering plenty of programs in the summer. It’s been a totally different situation in this pandemic with public health restrictions. We’ve been able to offer online training videos along with webinars. Players and teams seem to have enjoyed the sessions and really bought into that ‘do what we can’ mentality, but at the end of the day it’s just not the same as being out on the ice together. The goal of this camp is to get players back to where they were prior to the league and facility closures.”
To get the players back to the levels they were at prior to the latest pause, the JHD coaches will be focusing on individual skill development in the camp – a hallmark of the JHD program – centered on puck control, shooting, skating, passing, and reading the play.
An individual skill development focus will prove to be important beyond just a player development aspect – it will create a safe environment for players to practice their skills as Manitoba continues to manage the COVID-19 virus. Strict health protocols will be in place for the program to ensure the safety of coaches and players alike, first and foremost through coaches and players wearing face masks at all times, whether on or off the ice. Players will also not have access to dressing room facilities at the outdoor rink and will need to arrive at the camp fully dressed aside from their skates, which they can put on at the outdoor team benches.
“We’re obviously thrilled to get back to what we love doing, but by no means can we do that at the cost of anyone’s health,” stressed Cameron. “We’ve always taken the health and safety of our players and guests seriously, and this camp will be no different. Like on a hockey team, we all have a role to play and we all need to do our part to keep each other safe.”
The pandemic has gone on far longer than any of us had hoped. With no clear end in sight, and with sports seasons cancelled or on hold, this has extended the length of off-season training for many people. This hasn’t just affected pros and college players, but also recreational athletes who now find themselves in the gym for their primary source of exercise. The season is changing as well – we have less daylight, and the temperature is dropping to frigid lows. All of this combined might seem like reason to complain but remember that 90 percent of life is how we look at it and that our perception can quickly become our reality.
Having the opportunity to exercise and reap the mental, physical and emotional benefits of exercise is an amazingly positive experience. We cannot look at going to the gym as a chore; it is a celebration of what we can do, and we are all capable of doing amazing things. Part of this ‘gym as a chore’ mentality is perpetuated by social media posts that I assume are meant to be inspiring – talking about how the gym is a grind or you are preparing to go to war or something along those lines. Nonsense. Working a dead-end nine-to-five job is a grind, working to pay bills is a grind, life’s responsibilities can become a grind, and brave women and men who work jobs that put themselves in harm’s way are the ones going to war. Having the opportunity to go to the gym to better ourselves – that is a privilege. That is a ray of light that breaks up the monotony of the daily grind. It injects positivity into our lives and elevates our level of confidence. We should feel grateful that we have the ability to perform physical activity no matter what level we are starting at. We should feel grateful for where we are at and excitement for where we are going.
Use this time in a positive way. If our off-season is longer, when we finally do get back to playing again, we should be bigger, faster, stronger and in better shape than we have ever been. It can be a positive experience if we choose to make it one. Remember: training and being in the gym is not a grind – it is a privilege. Do not forget that.
Nobody would disagree with the opinion of hockey player Zak Smith, a 19-year-old Red Deer Rebel left winger from Austin, Man., and certainly no Western Hockey League (WHL) players like Smith would disagree with him.
Despite all that has transpired since the last time a puck dropped for a WHL game, players like Smith wouldn’t have made it to where they are – and won’t make it to where they want to go – without capitalizing on an off-season like this by turning it from ‘long and crazy’ into ‘productive and developing’. That’s why Smith, along with 11 other WHL players and three WHL goalies from Manitoba are spending their extended off-season with Jets Hockey Development (JHD).
“We obviously don’t normally train with WHL players at this time of year,” said Dave Cameron, Head On-Ice Instructor and Program Manager with JHD. “But we looked at how we could help these players get the most out of their off-season, and what we could provide to make them as good as they can be. That led us to developing the WHL Camp.”
Though the fall WHL Camp is new for JHD, and the circumstances are far from normal, Cameron notes the goal of the camp is the same as any other off-season training program.
“We want them to feel like they are a better player when they go back to their regular season, whenever that may be.”
Smith had actually never skated with JHD prior to the WHL Camp. After the end of last season, Smith was looking for something new with regards to off-season training. He had heard plenty of good things about Cameron and the JHD team and already feels that he has been advancing his skills at the WHL Camp.
“The coaches at JHD have been nothing but excellent to work with,” noted Smith. “They truly want to make the players better. I like their coaching style because we are always working on different things to help our game grow. Dave is always wanting to work on little parts of our game that will help us get to the next level.”
Winnipegger Evan Toth, an 18-year-old defenceman who finished his first season in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen in 2019-20, has also had that improvement mindset during this crazy off-season. Toth worked with Cameron for years and had no doubt about the benefits of working with JHD’s experienced coaches at Bell MTS Iceplex to get the most out of his time away from regular season play.
“Two words: Dave Cameron,” said Toth when asked why he wanted to participate in the WHL Camp. “Dave has the unique ability to make everyone feel like their development is his top priority – not just with his words, but more importantly by his actions and the way he teaches the game. I believe that coaching will allow me to advance myself into a top role on the team where I can contribute and showcase my talent on a nightly basis.”
Toth and Smith aren’t the only players with a strong commitment to having a productive off-season. Some of the athletes in the camp have come from as far as Brandon, Beausejour, and Virden for the camp that ran twice per week in September, and three times a week in October and November – a schedule designed to help players build towards their teams’ training camps, which are scheduled for January.
“We have a mix of guys who have trained with us before, and some who are new to us,” said Cameron of the camp participants. “They’ve made a serious commitment to come out for training. We want to give these guys the tools to succeed and expose them to skills that will help them advance in their careers. I think the players are enjoying it and seeing the benefits of it.”
Listening to Smith and Toth rattle off the skills they’ve been working on and improving is a testament to that, and the fact that each player is coming away from sessions with different takeaways shows just how committed JHD is to that personalized experience and improving players in the areas they need to work on.
“The JHD coaches offer a unique targeted approach for each individual part of my game, not just physically but mentally as well,” said Toth. “I’ve worked on my hands in tight and getting off a quick shot from both the slot and the blueline, along with reinforcing my skating and defensive capabilities.”
“I have learned so much about new ways to create space and get open in the offensive zone,” added Smith. “Also, working on little things like getting your head up to find open guys and being able to make plays at a high pace.”
Though personalized development and treating each player as an individual with unique needs from others is a cornerstone of all JHD programming, that approach has been highlighted in the WHL Camp where the coaches are not only developing players in what they need to improve on, but based on what each of their respective WHL teams wants them to work on.
“It’s unique to see how each player works within their own team’s structure,” said Cameron. “Each of their own coaches gives each player different things to work on, so we’ve been trying to help them with those skills.”
Though there is so much uncertainty during this time, the JHD coaches are certain that the WHL Camp will show its benefits for the 15 WHL players whenever their season does start. The players, too, seem certain that thanks to the camp, they’ll be able to show their teams just how long, crazy, and productive their off-seasons have been.
Return to Play is a term that was added to the vocabulary of athletes, leagues, and programs across the sporting world this year. With Manitoba back under code red restrictions and all programming at Bell MTS Iceplex on pause until further notice, the team of coaches at Jets Hockey Development (JHD) has been working to ensure that it is indeed a return to play for young hockey players in Manitoba, and not a return to hockey when they can hit the ice again.
The difference? JHD wants to ensure that hockey and development are still front of mind for young athletes, even if playing isn’t possible right now.
To do that, the JHD coaches have turned to Zoom to stay connected with teams from around Winnipeg and beyond by hosting virtual seminar-style presentations – not unlike the boardroom sessions that would run in person at the Iceplex under normal circumstances.
Having been faced with a similar situation of being locked down in spring of this year, the JHD coaches had some experience to draw from.
“We had done presentations during the first lockdown, more as recordings for players and coaches to find, to put some information out there, and to keep players engaged,” said Dave Cameron, Head On-Ice Instructor and Program Manager with JHD. “JHD On-Ice Instructor Devin Himpe and I both do presentations for the Hockey Manitoba coach development program as well and did several of those through September and October. It started to open up the possibility of doing this a bit more, and as soon as things got shut down, we had a number of players, teams, and coaches reach out to do some Zoom calls and to keep their players engaged that way.
“Every session is an hour, where we typically present for about 50 minutes and leave some time for discussion and questions at the end,” continued Cameron. “Sometimes, those 10 minutes at the end have been the most valuable part of the conversation because players get to interact and ask any questions that they have.”
Despite not advertising these virtual team presentations formally, JHD has already run eight sessions with teams of various ages and levels from junior teams to AA U13 teams, with more to come.
Teams can request presentation topics that fit their team best, whether that be defensive positioning or developing good habits on the ice.
Chris McColm, head coach of the Eastman Selects AAA U15 team made sure to take advantage of this opportunity early with his team. The team took it so far as to do two sessions in one night – one for forwards, and one for defence.
“Us as coaches were thinking of what we could do to keep our players engaged. We can’t go to the rink, we can’t go to the gym, we can’t get together as a team. We had a couple team meetings on Zoom, so we thought why not use this platform to have some presentations?”
Judging from the reaction of the players, the sessions are more than just making the best of a situation that finds them sidelined.
“The kids really loved it,” continued McColm. “A couple of the players told me after that they could’ve stayed on all night to talk with Dave.”
For Cameron, the call with the Eastman team has been an early highlight from the initiative as some of the players did in fact choose to stay nearly all night to talk hockey.
“The thing that was really exciting for me was that many of the forwards joined the defencemen call, and many of the defencemen joined the forwards call,” said Cameron. “Their coach had told me that their group was really eager to learn and get involved. To me, that showed just how excited these kids were to be talking hockey that they were willing to spend an extra hour on with us virtually just to learn about somebody else’s position.”
Knowing his team well, McColm wasn’t surprised to see his players’ commitment. He was just happy to have another well-respected voice stressing the fundamentals of the game.
“There are a lot of kids on our team that are showing the commitment to make it to the next level, McColm said. “They’re showing that they want to learn – they’re sponges, and they just want to soak in the information and be taught about hockey. The kids were able to hear Dave, who has a lot of credentials in coaching, as another voice who is stressing the importance of all the small things.”
That kind of engagement from players has the JHD team excited about the possibilities for the virtual team sessions and Cameron sees them extending beyond the Iceplex closure, code red, and the pandemic.
“This is a way that we will for sure expand our programming because of the interest level and the ease of having us all together without people needing to be in one room. Teams can eliminate travel time and make it a bit more cost-effective without gas, meals and those things. We can just be in our living rooms and talk hockey.”