Long before the snow melts, the days grow longer and the warm weather returns, families across North America will turn their attention to their summer plans, and ultimately what hockey school they will attend.
With the economy tumbling like a snowball down a hill in recent years, parents have become more proficient at looking for a hockey school that provides the most bang for their buck. They are more savvy, doing their homework while talking to friends and teammates in search of a camp that will provide the right mix of on-ice instruction and off-ice fun.
And adapting to the changing times, camps are more than happy to oblige.
“Two years ago we were down about 60 percent in attendance and revenue,” said Chuck Grillo, owner of Minnesota Hockey Camps in northern Minnesota. “We knew it was the economy, so we took that time to redefine our brand and make sure we were in sync with previous years and continue to be positive that we were going to come back bigger and better than ever. And I think we have.”
Greeted by the slogan, “A camp where people become what we believe they can be” and accompanied by hundreds of success stories from youth and professional players alike, Grillo’s goal is to give families the most bang for their buck each and every summer.
“We realize that the prices tend to be a little bit spendy, but really they are getting so much for that money,” Grillo said. “We want a kid to leave our camp at worst case a better person, best case a better person and better player.”
While Minnesota Hockey Camps is stationed in an already predominant hockey location, Planet Hockey camp finds its strength in the diversity of options it offers around the country. By staging camps in more than 30 states each year, Planet Hockey has found a formula for success that has allowed them to hold true to the core values they started out 17 years ago.
“The fact that we are set up to be mobile and can hit both traditional and non-traditional hockey markets has been huge in generating popularity and in turn income,” said Shawn Killian, Planet Hockey’s president and founder.
“It’s a lot of work but we have established such good relationships with local associations at each of our sites that we have actually had to expand the amount of staff and sites as each year passes.”
With thousands of hockey camps and schools across the U.S. and hundreds of new camps appearing each summer, a well-established camp is likely to be better suited to weather the economic storm than many start-up camps.
“A lot of people are doing their homework and are not so focused on the camp’s cost, but rather the quality of the camp and how well it is known,” Killian said. “Ours, along with plenty of others that have good reputations and put on good programs year-in and year-out, are doing well in spite of the economy because of that.”
The same may not be said for those looking to make a quick buck.
“The camps that appear out of nowhere
one summer and are gone the next are be- cause of the lower quality and because they are less known,” Killian said.
“Those camps that are committed and have worked harder at putting more quality on the ice sell the program themselves with that alone.”
Following a 10-year professional career, Jeff Serowick has dedicated his life to improving the skills of youth players all along the east coast. His Pro Ambitions Hockey Camp maintains a steady stream of campers by holding true to his core values while adding new and exciting training elements year after year.
“We have a very good return rate each year at all of our camps,” said Serowick who offers boarding, day, private and goalie camps among others at Pro Ambitions.
“We have a lot of siblings and family members coming through our programs after seeing how much fun the other kids have. It lets me tweak our curriculum each year, adding new drills and programs so I can keep those kids interested and offer something new each year.”
And for some families a particular hockey camp can stay all in the family for years.
“We’ve been around for 42 years, so we are at the point where we are seeing third generations of families coming back to our camps,” said Cliff Brown, program director at CAN/AM Hockey.
“People come in with their grandchildren reminiscing about coming here as a kid and then bringing their kids; it’s just really neat to see that sort of impact.”
While many families pass along their camp experiences to their young hockey players by dropping them off at camps, some hockey camps have capitalized on the family experience.
“For the past 15-20 years we have been doing both a family camp and a parent-child camp, which have always been successful,” Brown said.
“The parents can get out on the ice and do what they normally can’t do at other camps by being able to skate with their kids and even learn with them. It’s fun and it’s a good way to get together on the ice for all families.”
For Planet Hockey Camps, the family experience comes on their European trips, which continue to be one of the most successful aspects of their business.
“It provides hockey, European tours and the overall family trip, all while letting their kids get in some great competition,” Killian said.
While camps have changed with the times in this technology-driven world, most find that a slick Web site or flashy e-mail presentation can’t beat the good, old-fashioned word of mouth campaign from repeat customers. Camp directors know that if you provide a good product, players will not only come back again, they’re likely to bring a friend.
“Hockey parents talk quite a bit during the season and year-round. If you do a good job they refer you, which to another parent is much more enticing than any brochure or form of advertising,” Serowick said.
And on a hockey team, it’s not difficult to find new campers each year.
“We have about 70 percent of our people coming back year after year, usually with a new teammate each year,” said Steve Jensen, U.S. Olympian and owner of Heartland Camps, a privately owned hockey camp in northern Minnesota.
“We see kids leaving after camp so excited to tell all of their friends and bring them with next year, it’s a huge way of getting our name out there.”
According to USA Hockey’s American Development Model, getting the camp experience with your friends is exactly what kids should be focused on and less on the hockey aspect of things.
“Our advice is to pick a camp, grab your buddies and go have fun,” said Ken Martel, director of the ADM.
“Summer is about having fun, and getting that camp experience is great. That’s what kids and parents alike should expect to gain from a summer hockey school, a fun environment with some hockey on the side.”
And that experience is one thing that will never change at any hockey school, even if the times do.
“We measure our success with the photos and success stories on the wall,” said Grillo. “To me, that’s a pretty nice way of being rich, and that’s one thing that will never change.”