Hockey is OUR game – yours, mine and everyone’s – regardless of ability level.
In the Hockey Canada Skills Academy at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Woodstock, Ont., inclusion is what students and instructors are most proud of.
When the HCSA took to the ice two years ago, the goal was to field a class of 18-20 students. Instead, registration swelled to well into the 30s – with numbers growing each year.
Students from all types of hockey backgrounds signed up for the program – AAA, house league, boys, girls, several students with special academic needs and some players who had simply quit organized hockey but still had a love for the game.
Although the numbers were encouraging, it led to some immediate challenges. How do you develop a program that challenges kids at a level they will enjoy, while still meeting everyone’s needs with such a diverse group?
At St. Mary’s, they start with the basic premise that there are only two things you really need to play hockey – a smile on your face and sweat on your head. Everything else will take care of itself.
“I gave up organized hockey when I left New Brunswick and moved to Ontario. I did [the HCSA} instead. I really enjoy the sport and it was how I made some close friends after moving here. It’s really cool to have a sport I love so much actually be a class.” -- Keeley Lockhart, Grade 10
“Playing with the boys is challenging, but the hockey academy has provided me with skills, confidence and training that I can use both on and off the ice. It’s about being a member of a T.E.A.M. – Together we deliver our best, Earn a place alongside our peers, Assert pride in what we accomplish, and make Memories.” -- Abby Richards, Grade 10
The drills and instruction are designed so all students can do them but are challenged at their own individual level. For HCSA students who want ‘elite’ training, next to hockey skates, SWEAT is the best accessory.
As an enrichment to the regular curriculum, this year St. Mary’s is bringing in guest instructors, including former NHLers Keli Corpse and Dwayne Hay and Brantford 99ers (OJHL) head coach Damon Racicot, who are running four- and five-day mini-clinics within the HCSA. These sessions push the students to their limits and challenge them to step up their game.
“It’s both challenging and fun. I love going on the ice and meeting and interacting with new people of all abilities.” -- Logan Van den Akker, Grade 9
In addition to the on-ice component, students have field trips to challenge them to go outside their comfort zones. These include high ropes courses and ziplining at Boler Mountain in London, Ont., and yoga on Fridays through October.
The goal of the Hockey Canada Skills Academy program is to create a supportive and fun environment for players to develop not only as hockey players, but also as human beings. Throughout the year, not only will you see great advancements in hockey skills but, more importantly, you will see social development through leadership and empathy. The environment is such a different approach to organized hockey in that it allows children with varying abilities and skill levels to enjoy hockey together.
A great deal of responsibility is put on some of the older students, not only to work hard on their own game but to act as ‘buddies’ to other students in the program and help with their skill development.
“It is a real challenge to switch gears back and forth, working ‘all out’ with a high degree of intensity and then slowing things down to work with others who are not at the same level. It’s very rewarding to not only develop my own skills but also develop skills in others through my leadership. Breaking down the skill for others has helped me to a deeper understanding of the skills and really helped my game.” -- Matt Searles, Grade 12
Searles, along with other students, buddies up with one of the three HCSA students who also play on the weekends with the George Bray Sports Association out of London, a program for kids in special learning classes in elementary or secondary schools.
“It’s so important for these students to feel as if they are part of a group and treated equally with their peers. This is something they might not get in their other classes. When I asked what the kids thought of the Academy, what they told me was ‘Being part of the Academy is fun! We feel like one of the guys and we really feel like we are part of a team.’ On the ice, they aren’t students with special needs, they are just hockey players.” -- Barb Core, HCSA educational assistant
And in the end, isn’t that what we ALL want to be?