It may have been mid-July, but more than 120 young hockey players who gathered in Waskaganish for the fifth annual True North Wellness Hockey Camp only wanted to get on the ice. Jointly sponsored by Ottawa-based TMSI Sports Management and Ollson Sports Group, the True North Wellness Hockey Camp provides Cree youth aged 5 to 20 with an intensive training camp run by elite on-ice and off-ice instructors from a variety of sports backgrounds, including NHL prospects and scouts from the Boston Bruins and the Phoenix Coyotes.

The camp is the brainchild of Waskaganish Youth and Recreation Director Charles J. Hester and Gordon Hudson, a former CFL player and the current Regional Director of Youth Healing at the Cree Health Board.

According to Hester, the camp’s objective goes beyond teaching hockey skills to kids. The program’s holistic approach is designed to cover all aspects of well being for the young participants.

“We want to use hockey to pass on the message of wellness, eating right, staying away from drugs and alcohol and exercising,” said Hester. “We use hockey to draw the kids and the parents in. At the same time, we try to pass along the message to live a healthy lifestyle. That is how the camp got started.”

One of this year’s biggest attractions was the participation by members of the Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes organizations. Keith Gretzky, the Coyotes’ Director of Amateur Scouting, and Wayne Smith, the Bruins’ Director of Amateur Scouting, were this year’s highest profile instructors. A number of Boston Bruins prospects, including Ryan Spooner and Adam Courchaine, helped out on the ice.

While the NHLers left many young participants star struck, hockey veteran John Ollson of the Ollson Sports Group, brought them back to earth with rigorous on-ice drills. A former Chicago Blackhawks prospect, Ollson played pro hockey in the AHL, IHL and in Europe and was part of Team Canada’s developmental program. Upon retiring from hockey, he developed training programs with former NHLers Steve Yzerman and Darren Pang. In the 19 years since, Ollson Sports Group has provided hockey training to almost 90,000 young players.

“I am glad that we come up here,” said Ollson. “I’d say hockey is more popular (in Waskaganish) than almost anywhere. They’ve got it painted on their houses and garbage cans, on their cars. I think that we should pay more attention to hockey among First Nations. When we do these hockey camps, we know who the competitive kids are, just like at home in Ottawa. And the competitive kids are just as good as the kids at home.”

Dry land training is a key element of the True North Wellness Hockey Camp. Over the course of two weeks every attendee spends time in the gym and the classroom with former Montreal Alouette player and WWF professional wrestler Glenn Kulka.

“My goal is to make them better athletes, period,” says Kulka, who now operates a personal training studio for elite athletes in the Ottawa area.

“I do three sessions in the morning with younger children and intense afternoon sessions with older athletes,” explains Kulka. “I teach them how to train properly. How to do a proper bench, proper squat, proper dead lift and a proper power clean,” referring to the weight-lifting techniques he has mastered throughout his athletic career.

But Kulka’s sessions with the kids go well beyond weight training. As a former pro football player, hockey player, wrestler and mixed martial artist, Kulka is no stranger to the dangers that drugs, particularly anabolic steroids, pose to young athletes.

“I have never hidden any of the (drug) use I have been through,” he explains. “The ramifications; the fact that I won’t live as long as the average person because of my abuse of anabolic steroids throughout my CFL career and into my wrestling career. These types of things I let these kids know.”

During a half-day educational session, Kulka does not pull any punches when educating teenaged players about the risks of substance abuse of all kinds; risks both to themselves and to their family and community.

“Sometimes, kids just need to be scared. Whether you are going to the CIS football league or hockey league or junior hockey or the NHL, they have drug testing now. I talk about embarrassing your family and yourself. The humiliation you’d go through if you tested positive and got suspended.”

Charles Hester puts special value on this real-life education. “We want to bring in people who can serve as role models for our youth,” said Hester. “I think it has given more credibility to our camp.”

In its short history, the True North Wellness Hockey Camp has helped hundreds of young people become better hockey players, with some even going on to play at a high level in AAA Midget and the QMJHL. But for Charles Hester, the true value of this hockey camp is its long-term impact on the community. When these young people reach adulthood and return to their communities after their playing days are over they will pass on what they have learned.

“We are trying to build human beings,” says Hester. “That is our number-one goal.”