Training Camp Report: The Rookies

An estimated 150 players are in Kelowna this week for Rockets rookie camp at Prospera Place.

From his perch inside the Prospera Place press box, Lorne Frey sees hockey players who can all skate like the wind. They have great hands and they can shoot the lights out.

It’s midway through the Kelowna Rockets rookie camp, and below him are 150 kids ages 15 and 16 years old going through their paces.

Some of them will eventually find their way into the Rockets’ lineup in a year or two. Before that, however, they will return to their minor hockey teams after this week concludes for more seasoning at home.

What Frey hopes happens before they return to the Rockets next summer is simple: “Have some fun,” he said.

Frey is the Rockets’ director of player personnel and assistant general manager. He’s a guru to many in the hockey world, given credit alongside team president Bruce Hamilton for building one of Canada’s most successful junior hockey franchises.

The list of NHLers who have called Kelowna home is lengthy, and growing: Jamie Benn, Shea Weber, Tyson Barrie, Tyler Myers … that’s just scratching the surface.

Frey has been with the Rockets since the beginning, and he’s seen tremendous changes in hockey, some good and some that he could live without.

Playing hockey 12 months of the year is something the big business of sport has created, but isn’t in the players’ best interests, he said.

He’d still suggest young players — like those in Kelowna this week for their first taste of the Western Hockey League — get off their skates in the summertime.

“I’d recommend that to anybody,” Frey said Tuesday afternoon. “I still think, basically, they play too much. The kids have to play other sports … at this age especially.”

Cross-training with golf, soccer, lacrosse or baseball helps build a range of skills.

Their bodies also need time to mature and heal. After minor hockey ends in March, many join spring hockey leagues. Then they attend summer hockey camps to work on skills and skating. Many have personal trainers.

“If you’re a good hockey player, you don’t need the summer to get better,” Frey said.

Part of the issue is the pressure to rise above their peers earlier. By the time they’re 14 years old, many kids are urged to choose a sport in the hopes they excel at it.

It’s creating an army of hockey players in Canada and beyond who can all skate better than their dads or granddads could at their age. They know how the structure of hockey works, and they’re physically stronger with greater endurance.

But where grandpa had an advantage is harder to find, and that is more about the creativity of the game.

A young player’s mind can’t think the game as quickly as his legs can push him up the ice. He might be thinking about what the coaches have told him to do rather than letting the game flow naturally.

“A lot of that is based on the structure of the game now,” Frey said.

“It’d be interesting to see what the game would look like if there were no referees or coaches.”

Frey said there are still plenty of kids who use their summers for something other than hockey, especially those who live in smaller, rural communities.

He doesn’t see that as an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to choosing the next generation of hockey players.

Instead, he’s looking for kids who can help build a team.

“Work ethic is always important,” he said. “You look to see who has more of a complete package. … We also need good two-way players, too. Not everybody can score goals all the time. You also need players that can play well defensively, play both ends of the rink.”

AFTER BURNERS — Rookie camp concludes Friday. … Main training camp begins Friday and concludes Aug. 29. … The Rockets’ first preseason game is Aug. 30 against the Victoria Royals at Prospera Place. … Dan and Emily Eising of Kelowna won the Ultimate Fans contest. The 12-year season ticket holders will have their Memorial Cup tickets paid for and they’ll attend the opening dinner banquet, receive VIP tickets to other Memorial Cup events, apparel and more.