HAZELWOOD - Jack Bystrom had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
The 11-year-old played a hockey game Friday at the official practice facility of the St. Louis Blues, and lo and behold, there was Head Coach Ken Hitchcock behind his bench, calling out for him to make a line change.
No, this wasn’t a dream, at least not in a literal sense. It was the annual Blues Youth Hockey Camp, which all but fulfills the dreams of young hockey players hoping to one day become NHL stars.
For an entire week, 85 children of various skill levels participated in the camp, which was held daily at the Ice Zone at St. Louis Outlet Mall. Through on-ice and off-ice activities, campers learned the basic skills of the game, the importance of teamwork, accountability and more. In addition, campers got to tour the Blues practice facility, including the locker room, gym, offices and media interview areas.
It’s an experience that none of them will likely ever forget.
“I think the big thing here is these kids are dreaming about playing in the NHL at some point,” said Sean Ferrell, the camp’s lead instructor. “To be in a facility like this, have current NHL coaches and former NHL players come out and share some of their experiences, it helps foster that dream a little bit more and puts a little extra energy and smiles on these kids’ faces.”
Throughout the week, campers met Hitchcock and Blues TV analyst Darren Pang. In addition, they received on-ice instruction from former Blues Reed Low and Bruce Racine, and Blues Chairman Tom Stillman showed up Friday to help out behind the bench for the final scrimmages.
Hitchcock, who has conducted practice sessions with several college hockey teams in the past, said he enjoys working with players of all skill levels.
“It’s so funny because the coaches spend all week on passing the puck, using each other and team play,” Hitchcock said. "(But) as soon as you drop the puck, it’s every man for himself. Nothing has changed. And I know it drives coaches nuts, but the kids are having fun…man were they having fun today.
“They were having the time of their lives.”
Bystrom would agree. He started out as a forward, but recently decided to become a defenseman, and he feels there’s no better place to make the transition than the Blues Youth Hockey Camp.
“I think this is really fun,” Bystrom said. “I think it’s a good experience for kids. It’s really fun, it’s active and it makes you a better hockey player.”
“This has been amazing,” added Matt Wilson, a camp instructor. “Just to see how much enjoyment (the kids) get out of the sport, just seeing their faces light up when they get to be out here with these instructors and (Blues) alumni…the overall experience is more than I could ever ask for.”
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