PORT McNEILL — When Clayton Stoner’s weeklong Vancouver Island Summer Hockey Clinic drew to a close Friday evening, there was a distinct feeling of sadness that the skating, the drills, the laughs and the camaraderie was over.
And the kids were disappointed, too.
“I was surprised to find I felt sad to see it was over,” said Stoner, a Port McNeill resident who plays for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. “Seeing the kids’ faces, how much they enjoy being out there, it makes you appreciate your job.
“That was me 18 years ago.”
The camp, set up by Victoria-based Progressive Hockey, was the first Stoner has taken part in. After agreeing to participate when he was approached by Progressive Hockey owner Andy Seppanen late last summer, Stoner developed some strong ideas about how the camp should run.
Those ideas went out the window pretty quickly when the 43 camp participants skated onto the ice.
“I wanted things to run perfectly,” said Stoner, who was joined on the camp staff by fellow Port McNeill pro Ben Olsen. “But you come back to reality pretty quickly. I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of young kids who just want to come out and have fun. If I can teach something, or increase their interest in the sport, to me that’s a success.”
It was a success all around.
Seppanen, who was joined by Progressive counselors Brendan Enns, Kieran Anderson and Jordan Rauser, is trying to build his camp — which began as a goalie-specific clinic — into Vancouver Island’s pre-eminent summer hockey school.
“In talking with (Port McNeill Minor Hockey president) Scott Mitchell, it sounded like their association’s participation was down a little this year, and we’re trying to spark an interest in hockey again,” said Seppanen. “For Clayton, it was a chance to give back to the community he grew up in.”
For Mitchell and Port McNeill Minor Hockey, the 43-player turnout was deemed a success, particularly since it didn’t seem to detract appreciably from registration for the third annual Lou Lemire Summer Hockey Camp, which is going on this week at Chilton Regional Arena.
With sponsorship help from Strategic Forest Management, the association offered its enrolled players $50 rebates on registration to both camps. In the past month, Port Hardy Minor Hockey matched that offer for its players, and last week’s camp was well-represented by both communities, along with skaters from Port Alice and Alert Bay.
“We had a lot of talented young men come up to do this,” said Mitchell, who added Port McNeill Minor Hockey hopes to bring Seppanen back for a preseason goalie clinic this fall. “Clayton is something of a Willie Mitchell protege. He’s given us a lot of prizes to raffle at our tournaments. He seems keen to give back to the community. And not only Clayton, but having Benn Olson, who just signed a contract with the New York Islanders. The feedback we’ve gotten from the players and parents has been nothing but positive.”
Olson, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman who has played three years of minor league pro hockey after going undrafted, signed a one-year contract with the Islanders in June to play for Bridgeport of the American Hockey League. The one-way AHL contract pays him at the NHL rate and suggests he has a legitimate shot to be called up to the NHL club this season. He left this week for New York for the team’s prospects camp and will play in the club’s Blue-White prospects game Saturday.
With his spot in Minnesota’s preseason camp secure, Stoner has been spending time with his family in Port McNeill following the tragic death this spring of his brother, Luke, in a logging accident.
“I’ve always called Port McNeill home,” said Stoner. “Being here in the arena brings back some good memories, of playing with the North Island Eagles and being with those guys in the locker room.
“But it’s still as cold as it ever was.”