Hockey school builds heroes on, off the ice

by Don Wells
Staff writer

The UBC hockey school instructors are standing on elevated platforms, each armed with tennis ball shooters, the kind used by tennis instructors to simulate serves.

As about 25 kids attempt to avoid obstacles while completing team challenges in a maze constructed on the cement floor of the Winter Sports Centre, the instructors fire tennis balls at them. The arena is dimly lit with whirling coloured lights, resembling the atmosphere of the popular laser tag facilities.

The tennis balls don't hurt. The kids are all wearing their protective hockey equipment, but if a participant is hit, he or she has to return to the start of the obstacle course. The kids are obviously having a great time, but could this be hockey school?

It is, and although the kids are given top-notch instruction on skating, puck-handling and shooting, the summer sport camps offered by Athletics' Community Sports Program focus to a greater degree on developing skills which are far more essential.

"It's simply about helping them to become better human beings," says program co-ordinator Brent Berry. "We use sport as the vehicle for positive growth experiences, starting with the principle that each participant is a significant, capable and respectful person."

The maze is one of five off-ice activities the kids take part in during their week on campus. It is designed to provide participants with a sense of real-life adventure in which each person can make a positive difference in a particular situation, says Berry.

"It provides opportunities for each participant to be a hero by helping and co-operating with others."

A closer examination of the activity reveals the rest of the principles which guide the dedicated team of instructors.

It encourages honesty, because it is up to the participants to voluntarily leave when they are hit, as well as perseverance, because the game requires repeated and sustained efforts to overcome the obstacles.

It also promotes teamwork, as the activity is set up so that no one person can win it alone, but requires the whole group working together, communicating effectively and co-ordinating their efforts towards a common goal.

In his 17 years as program co-ordinator, Berry has received hundreds of written commendations from parents, most crediting the hockey school for making a profound impact on their children's lives that carries well beyond their experience at UBC.

They talk about how their kids have developed better technical skills, but more importantly, they explain how their attitudes are more positive, that they have learned to better control their behaviour, to treat officials more respectfully, and to be a team player and a good sport.

One letter in particular was perhaps the greatest tribute to the program's direction and the quality of its instructors.

A terminally ill father called in the spring to alert the Community Sports staff that by the time his son showed up for hockey school in a few weeks time, he would be dealing with his recent death. After the boy returned home, his mother wrote to thank the instructor for being extra sensitive to her son's emotional state, unaware that the instructor was never informed.

"We discussed that situation and decided that no special treatment was warranted," says Berry. "All of our instructors are caring people, and so her son's experience was no different than any of the other kids. In the end, I think it was the right call."

Throughout July and August, approximately 5,000 kids will spend a week each on campus, enrolled in any one of 24 programs in 18 different sports and six non-sport activities including cycling, fencing, sailing, adventure and soccer. Activities are offered for children and young adults aged four to 16.

They receive instruction from a carefully selected and trained staff of approximately 120 instructors, most of whom are UBC students, including a handful of varsity athletes and coaches.

As the world of professional sports becomes increasingly fraught with instances of inappropriate behaviour and criminal charges, Berry believes that there is an ever-increasing societal need for positive, responsible and well-rounded role models.

"After all," he says, "the world isn't crying out for people who can skate faster or kick a soccer ball harder."

For more information about the summer camps call 604-822-3688 or e-mail