The final whistle blew and the coaching staff brought the young skaters together for some final words of wisdom. Among things they told them was to always work to get better.
Those words came from former NHL defenseman Brian Rafalski who, seeing that there was no real youth camps catered towards young defensemen in South Florida held a two day camp at Saveology.com Iceplex on May 18-19. The camp brought around 40 skaters from the 2000-04 age groups, including one of his three sons, Matthew.
"We've been coaching over at Germain (Arena) and it's something we started because we saw a need for the time for defensemen to work on their back-ward skating, all the different skills that are required for defensemen," said Rafalski following the close of camp. "(During) the season, a lot of coaches don't have the time or the knowledge how to do that properly so Ryan Brindley and I have been developing this over the last 15 weeks with our program and it's been successful."
Since retiring from the NHL in 2011 after playing 11 seasons with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings, the Michigan native and his family have lived in the Ft Myers area where he helps out as an assistant coach for the JR Everblades. This idea started with a meeting during the JR Panthers Early Bird Tournament and rolled from there.
"We talked about doing a defenseman camp before he took off for the summer and it went from there," said Director of Hockey for Saveology.com Iceplex and JR Panthers General Manager Jeremy Mylmok who also was apart of the coaching staff for the camp.
The camp was a huge success in the eyes of the coaching staff and skaters alike. What was all-apart of the plan was to throw as many drills at the kids as possible.
"We want to keep the kids moving. We (had) a lot of kids out here on the ice," said Rafalski. "We have them all working. They're all dead tired by the end and that's what we want."
Among the drills, included skating slaloms both forward and back to work on proper footwork, how to properly take a slapshot, battle drills in the corner and of course some of the fun variety; team skating races.
"It's great to have guys like Brian teach these players and reinforce a lot of the things we've been talking to the kids about this season," said Mylmok. "He really emphasized the basic fundamentals of defensive play and let the kids know what they need to keep working on. Don't over complicate the defenseman position and most importantly keep working on your skating."
Traveling to tournaments across the United States and Canada, Rafalski along with the other coaches thought the camp and development would be great for the kids. It would help them compete against and consistently defeat those teams that are regularly known for their hockey.
"It's to open their eyes to what they need to work on as defensemen or be good defensive players," said Rafalski. "You see the best players now on the teams that win, you have to play good defense. Not only just be offensively talented but you have to be good defensively. You have to be able to shut down the other team's players and that's something we try to stress."
"First and foremost Brian is a quality person," said Mylymok. "Couple that with his playing background and we were obviously thrilled to have him out there on the ice teaching all of these South Florida kids."
Having been down in South Florida and apart of the youth hockey atmosphere, Rafalski knows that there is certainly some great talent and the South Florida and Florida teams are only going to get better.
"It's nationwide now," said Rafalski.
"We have kids from Northeast coast of Florida," continued the blueliner. "We have kids from Tampa. We have got kids from over here in Southeast Florida, Southwest Florida, the whole state and it's great. The kids, when they play together like this in the spring when we have our team together, during the regular season they're buddies just working hard and they're enjoying it and it's just a fun atmosphere."
"To have a camp of this quality in Florida is great. It just proves that we have a lot of quality coaches in Florida to go along with some quality players," said Mylymok. "Combine both of them and you will see some high end players coming out of Florida here in the near future."
This upcoming season, Rafalski will move from Squirt Minor to Squirt Major with the JR Everblades and is looking forward to continuing teaching young kids and "seeing them grow and have success". As far as making the Defensive Camp an annual occurrence, he's hopeful to train the area coaches to empower them to make youth skaters better in the defensive zone.
"My goal would be to (teach) up the coaches, let them do it in their own building and to work on those things," said Rafalski. "Hopefully they can apply it...and it can develop organically."
As far as those parting words with the camp coming to a close, it was simple for Rafalski. Never take for granted the talents you may have been given.
"Whatever you do, whatever God has given you talents to do, you want to improve in that area and use them as best as you can," said Rafalski. "You don't want to waste those blessings...The parents and the kids put forth time and money and effort working it so if you're here you might as well do your best and try and get as good as you can and let it go from there."
And if all continues to develop, the hockey in Florida will continue on it’s upward path for both the individual players and teams alike.