It was hard to tell who was having more fun.
Pucks soared, ice flew, hockey sticks slapped hard surfaces to congratulate good plays Tuesday, Aug. 3. Heavy breathing was the norm at Essentia Health Sports Center as 18 varsity girls hockey players skated endlessly on the second to last day of the Lakes Hockey Academy.
While smiles twinkled behind the players’ hockey helmets, it was easier to see the smiles of the four camp hosts and coaches.
“The whole camp has been good and it’s encouraging that each group has been asking why aren't we skating more,” camp instructor Mitch Mclain said. “We could have gone the other way where they were asking us to be done. It’s encouraging that they’re the ones asking for more. And again, it’s fun. We love coming to the rink. That’s why we do this. We love coming to the rink.”
Lakes Hockey Academy was a five-week hockey clinic conducted by McLain, Cole Smith, Chris Pohlkamp and Joey Frazer with the help of Brainerd High School speed and strength coach and Takedown Gym’s fitness and recreation advisor Mike Holtan.
The four former Brainerd Warriors all went on to play junior hockey after high school. McLain and Pohlkamp then landed at Bowling Green State University, while Smith played at the University of North Dakota.
McLain landed a spot on the Minnesota Wild preseason roster in 2019, while Smith is in the Nashville Predators system.
Frazer played and now coaches for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League -- the highest junior hockey level.
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“I just think having all these guys who played at a really high level makes us want to do better, first of all,” current Brainerd/Little Falls Warrior Molly Hagelie said. “Then it’s just so much more fun. I’m excited to come to the rink every day and just work hard and try my best.”
Hagelie said she’s seen growth in all her teammates during the five weeks. She said for someone hoping to take their game to the next level the academy was a good fit.
“They’re just letting us know what we have to do to get to that next level and how much harder we’re going to have to work. Knowing they are so good at what they do just makes us want to copy that.”
The focus of the academy was to develop a player’s foundation with an emphasis on their preparation, drive, attitude, integrity and accountability. It wanted to apply the day-to-day processes modeled by players at the highest levels while teaching the fundamentals and how to apply them at game speed.
“They definitely make us go to a level we haven’t been at before,” Josie Kappes said. “It just puts more confidence in us knowing we can do this stuff and keep up.
“It’s pretty hard. I would say the hardest part is the scrimmages just because we compete against each other and we like to do that a lot. Just the work ethic that they expect out of us makes it hard and helps us get a good sweat going.”
Kappes played in all 19 varsity games for the Warriors last season. She tallied four goals and two assists.
“I was really excited about this academy,” Kappes said. “We got to know these coaches during our bridge season and just the way that they coached and the way that they came to the rink every day just made it fun and had me so excited for summer ice.”
The academy also wanted to foster creativity and grow a player’s feel or hockey IQ for in-game situations.
When not on the ice, players focused on weight training and plyometric development and also received video training.
“This is definitely way more than other camps I’ve been to because (the coaches) played at such a high level so it makes us want to be as good as them,” Macy Peterson said. “Other camps it’s just like dads coming out here trying to teach us.”
Peterson tied for the team points lead last season for the Warriors as she tallied nine goals and 11 assists. She really enjoyed the intensity the four brought to the ice every day. The attitude was also a big reason Avery LeMieur enjoyed coming to the ice.
“Unlike other coaches, their attitude is the best that I’ve ever been coached by,” LeMieur said. “They're always happy to be here. They are hyped up when we do something good and they teach us when we do something wrong. That’s something I really look for in a coach. Just the energy that they bring to the ice makes me want to be more positive than I already am. That’s one big reason why I love coming out here every day.”
And coming every day was a struggle for LeMieur, who has also been busy with soccer this summer, but she said the coaches have made it so she doesn't mind the time commitment.
“It’s really difficult because I come from turf time before this every single day,” LeMieur said. “I’m a senior for soccer so I help run the captain’s practices and I really have to dig deep and find that extra energy and mental toughness to come out here and compete my hardest and do my best. I think it’s a challenge, but I’ve been doing it all summer so my body has gotten used to it.”
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The academy had five different groups starting with the boys varsity players early in the morning. They were followed by the girls varsity players. In the afternoons, bantam, peewee and squirts all got ice time with the coaches.
“I think we were fortunate enough, during this COVID season, to be home and we saw and got to work with youth hockey and the biggest thing for us was we wanted to teach these kids that they have another gear,” McLain said. “If they believe in themselves they can do big things in hockey or in life. We’ve taught that kind of the whole way that you don’t want to take a day off or take your time for granted and we just want them to work and work full speed.”
Cole Smith said one of the more unique aspects of the academy is the different backgrounds each coach offers. Despite all being from Brainerd, all four players went different paths to get where they are today.
“I think each one of us brings a unique asset to coaching,” Smith said. “We’ve all played at different programs, different levels, higher levels than high school hockey so we’ve been exposed to a bunch of different drills, skill drills, team drills and that kind of stuff. When you can get a combined knowledge from different areas you can really teach people different ways and different ways to play the game. As a group of coaches, it was nice to kind of bounce things off of each other and learn new drills from each other.”
Despite coming from coaching parents, Smith said he never focused on the coaching aspect of hockey. By doing so this summer, it’s given him a different perspective he hopes helps him next season in the NHL.
“I haven’t really stepped into the coaching aspect of things and to be able to look back at some of the different things our coaches were doing, even back in college, and why they were doing it and be able to relay that back to the kids,” Smith said. “Now next season when I go back and play, I can understand the game a little bit more and understand where my coaches are coming from and just see the ice better.”
And while hockey development is the key, having fun makes the process easier.
“We aren’t their usual coaches during the season where it gets repetitive,” Pohlkamp said. “We’re more friends than coaches, but at the same time, we’re still coaching. So we have that and plus, we’re a friendly face, but also working hard at the same time is what we’re trying to do.”
And as long as the group stays close to home during the offseason and the players keep coming back McLain sees the academy sticking around for a while.
“I think the coolest thing for the players is that we wear the same skates that they wear,” McLain said. “We’re still playing. We’re in their position so we know what they’re feeling. We know what they’re seeing. We can ask them what they are seeing and we can bond in a certain way and I think that’s the biggest advantage that we have right now.”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.