“It’s been a very long and crazy offseason.”
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 hockey for all centre 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.
For more information on Jets Hockey Development and the many different camps and training opportunities they offer, visit BellMTSIceplex.ca/JetsHockeyDevelopment.