A quick glance outside the Angus Glen Community Centre gives the impression of an ordinary hockey camp. The parking lot is full of mini-vans, SUVs, and one lonely, little Echo. Inside is a damp, sweaty arena with kids lined up behind the net, awaiting instructions, while parents sip lukewarm double doubles. Everything about this March Break 2009 camp is typical except for the coach.
Like most of his young charges, he too dreamed of playing hockey for a living. As a little boy in Scarborough he donned hockey gear to spend Saturday nights in front of the TV watching the Toronto Maple Leafs play in the boom of Foster Hewitt’s voice at Maple Leaf Gardens.
As a teen he was a high-scoring junior in that same arena, hanging his helmet a stone’s throw from his hockey heroes.
As a man, seven years into his pro career, his childhood dream finally came true. January 16, 1991 Peter Zezel became a Toronto Maple Leaf.
In the summer of 1998, anticipating a post-playing career, he became a camp director. 11 years and hundreds of clients later, he still operates Peter Zezel Hockey and Sports Camps. The one week summer camps run all day and include swimming, soccer, and golf in addition to hockey drills.
Christmas and March Break camps consist of 90 minute, on-ice sessions Monday through Friday.
At some celebrity camps the namesake shows up only in the brochure. That’s not the case here. “With my name attached it has to become a good camp,” said Zezel. “You know how word of mouth really travels? We have a lot of kids that come back.”
Zezel and his senior instructors, Jim Carey and Sam Katsuras are usually first to arrive at the rink and last to leave.
Carey was the Toronto Maple Leafs equipment manager during the Pat Burns glory days and has had a successful career. In addition to being a Level III coach, Carey has won awards as a trainer and equipment manager including a Canada Cup ring.
Katsuras is a full-time school teacher who has played in the OHL, CHL, and ECHL. He also plays for the Hellenic Lightning of the CMHL, where he tied for third in 2008 tournament scoring.
When the former faceoff phenom isn’t around, all is in good hands, but make no mistake - this is definitely Zezel`s baby. He is hands on, spending a good 20-30 minutes planning drills and assessing progress before heading onto the ice himself. He`s even been known to do the odd coffee run.
Back at the March Break house league camp, one young defenceman gets hands-on help with pivot techniques while another receives assistance with goaltending, including how to correctly put on the pads.
The youngest one, nicknamed Timbit by one of the rinkside parents, looks like a bobblehead on ice, warming the hearts, if not the quickly cooling coffees of all who watch. Occasionally he takes a break and lays down on the player bench, but not for long.
Within a few minutes, big, caring hands come along to prod Timbit back onto the ice.
Like his coaching mentor, Mike Keenan, Zezel expects a certain work ethic, “The parents want hard work, they want the kids to work hard and get something out of the camp.”
Don’t worry though – the kids don’t have to retrieve their hockey bags from the bowels of the arena the way some of Keenan’s players did. At this stage, it’s still about enjoyment. “We provide something that revolves around having fun for hockey again,” said the ex-Leaf. “I see over years and years of developing these kids now that the fun is really starting to get out of the game. We’re in this camp to provide fun for the kids and to develop the kids as best we can, and mostly to have fun doing it.”
Judging by kids who are reluctant to leave on the final day of camp, it looks like they’ve succeeded.
Being a former Toronto Maple Leaf has some perks. Immunity to the current economic downturn isn’t one of them. There were only nine participants in the house league group for the March Break camp. That said, the AA, AAA, and team sessions were full.
Parents don’t think sending their children to this camp, any camp, will magically give them a 15-year NHL career like Peter Zezel’s. They do believe, however, the skills and discipline they learn from participating will benefit their children off the ice as much if not more, than on it.