The Hockey Canada Skills Academy in Invermere is still going strong thanks to a large amount of help from all corners of the community. For program co-ordinator Daphne Neal, the best part is seeing students grow their skills.
“I just love seeing the smiles on their faces,” Neal said. “It’s pretty special when you’ve worked and worked on something and then a student comes back… from a game or something, and says, ‘You should have seen what I did, I used that move’.”
Taking place at Eddie Mountain Memorial Arena each school week, students from J.A. Laird Elementary School and from David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS) have had the option of trading in their normal gym classes for hockey bags and a pair of skates.
DTSS, where Neal started the program, has now entered its fifth year of the program, and J.A Laird has entered its third year. There is currently a total of three classes — two from J.A.. Laird and one from DTSS — and the total number of students is around 77, with about 55 coming from J.A. Laird and another 22 from DTSS.
“For the students who are new, it can be fairly overwhelming — even just getting dressed and getting on to the ice quickly (can be difficult),” Neal said.
“But once the first couple weeks… are under their belts they’re falling into routines, and they’ve got things figured out, and these new students begin to love hockey really quickly.”
The program isn’t free. Students pay $250 from J.A. Laird and $200 if from DTSS. However, the program does its best to assist any students who are interested in joining the program but don’t have the means to do so. The program also has 24 sets of hockey equipment, donated by the National Hockey League Players Association in the inaugural year of the program, for anyone who doesn’t have their own. The program also boasts several key sponsors, including Copper Point Resort, the Invermere Old Timers’ Hockey League and Kicking Horse Coffee. This past summer, Copper Point hosted the Kelly Hrudey and Friends Golf Charity Classic, from which some of the proceeds were donated to the program for off-ice equipment and student fees.
As the program often replaces a traditional physical education class in school, it also has a strong off-ice component as Neal, a DTSS science and physical education teacher, teaches students subjects such as healthy living and even basic proper hygiene for younger students.
“It’s not just about hockey either, especially at the elementary level,” Neal said. “I don’t just do on-ice, I also do off-ice, and I think that’s important too, to be able to connect with students as a teacher in the classroom and them knowing that I’m not just another hockey coach.”
The program runs from September until January for DTSS students and from September until June for younger students, although the program is significantly modified once the ice is taken out of the arena in April. Students from the DTSS program assist during sessions for the younger students, and Neal also has a former student and current member of the Columbia Valley Rockies who volunteers his time, defenceman Brendan Sage. Neal said the older kids serve as great role models for younger students, and that they often learn a lot themselves in learning how to teach applicable skills.
“There’s so much to hockey. Everybody says it’s a simple sport, but it’s not; it’s actually quite complex,” Neal said. “The (older students are) a huge part of the program, I couldn’t do it without them.”