EKATERINBURG, RUSSIA – The language barrier here is thick, but it doesn’t stand in the way of the English instructors connecting with their Russian students and vice versa.
As Day 1 of the PD13 Hockey School took off Monday, the 80 kids were split into two groups – one of youngsters and one of the slightly older ones.
When asked which day of the camp was his favorite, Datsyuk answered and couldn’t help but show a small piece of his always-joking personality.
“My f…? Day off,” he said with a wry smile and a brief pause. “No it’s the first day, starting day, seeing lots of new kids. It’s new for them and they’re shy, but some kids when they get to their second camp they’re really open and they like it more and more.”
I took to the ice for the morning session, followed the young group through their rigorous day of training and got to see first-hand just how seriously uplifting the goals of this camp are. We’re only 20 percent through, but I’m beginning to understand Pavel’s joke and why the respite at the end of it will be both needed and rewarding.
The first thing to note is the fact there are 11 instructors on the ice for about 30 kids. The second thing is how vocal all of the guys in red tracksuits are throughout each drill, despite the language divide. There’s stick-slapping to urge players to finish a drill hard, body language to get players to keep their heads up when carrying the puck, and high-fives, fist-pumps and head-pats that reward the mostly mullet-topped kids.
That’s part of the design of this camp: Pavel’s desire to ensure every kid learns from the experience and interacts positively with it has led to this almost overblown number of teachers.
“When you have one coach for 20 kids you don’t see everybody, but when it’s 10 coaches for 30 kids they teach every kid and give it to him good,” Datsyuk explained. “But it’s a five-day time, it’s small steps. The parents see and we tell (the players) every day what they need to be a better player, but when we talk about the camp…it doesn’t only make you a better player, but a better person.”
The day for each group was split into five rotating sessions, two on-ice, two off-ice and one for video. We began in the morning with skating drills: cutting hard corners on your edge and being led by your stick, quick-feet with explosive starts over three sticks and pivoting.
Skating drills turned into puckhandling drills, getting the kids to skate with the puck in front of them, and learning how to stickhandle with their heads looking straight forward. The afternoon turned more towards shooting, with five stations set up for different scenarios.
As difficult as it can be at times to communicate with these Russian kids, the camp has a couple of instructors who speak the language to translate and speak directly. One of those teachers is Vadim Podrezov, a sturdy former Russian League defenseman with an imposing presence, thick accent and kind personality.
Currently a Florida Panthers scout, it’s not terribly shocking to learn he played against legends such as Vladislav Tretiak and Sergei Makarov when he moved away from home at 18 to suit up for the Novosibirsk team in Siberia.
It’s his second year at the camp and he enjoys the instructing, but the bigger reason he participates is simple: his son, Dameed, gets the opportunity to skate on the same ice as one of this generation’s legends.
“I’m really excited to be here,” Podrezov said. “I was here last year and it was a great experience, especially for the kids because Pavel Datsyuk is the same kind of legend for them like for us when we were small guys with (Vsevolod) Bobrov or (Valeri) Kharlamov.”
When the kids are on the ice it’s not Pavel running the camp and explaining the practice. Instead, he’s constantly talking one-on-one with the kids, gathering pucks, setting up pylons and demonstrating a couple of drills. He’s more in the background than up front, but you can imagine each word he speaks to them is gospel and each moment he spends with them is surreal.
Think about the names Tretiak, Bobrov, Kharlamov – then add Datsyuk to the mix. And then think of this: At lunch in the cafeteria, there was Datsyuk playfully fielding questions from a few kids asking him something in Russian. When I asked him what they were saying, he told me they wanted to know what time they went back on the ice, but he didn’t know because he’s not running the show.
“He is a superstar in the hockey business,” Podrezov said, “but he’s so simple and easy to talk to.”
212 AWARD FOR MONDAY
Each day, the camp hands out the 212 award to a kid who “takes it to the extra degree.” It stands for the temperature water boils at and doesn’t go to the best player, but the one who works extra hard and has fun doing it. The winner gets a Datsyuk-signed hat, a special jersey to wear the following day, plus he gets to lead his group on the ice and start every drill in the next session.
Congratulations Monday goes to Matvei Nasyrov from Khanty-Mansiysk, whose smiling and eager face I ran into a number of times on and off the ice. His hometown is another 500-plus miles northeast of here.
Rory Boylen will file reports regularly over his time with Pavel Datsyuk and Co. at his hockey camp held at the Kurganovo Complex near the Red Wings star’s hometown of Ekaterinburg, Russia.