While most people are still enjoying summer sun and outdoor activities, hundreds of young hockey players reported in early August to training camps across Canada in preparation for the start of the 2011/2012 Major Junior Hockey season.
One of the players in attendance at the training camp of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Val-d’Or Foreurs is Waskaganish’s own Brett Hester. The 18-year-old is seeking to build on a strong 2010/2011 campaign with the Foreurs after making the team as a walk-on during last year’s training camp. And Brett isn’t the only Hester boy attending an elite level hockey training camp this month ¬– Brett’s younger brother, 16-year-old Alexander, is in camp with the AAA Midget Forestiers d’Amos.
Making it to the Major Junior level is a significant accomplishment, even for the most privileged players who play in major cities like Montreal and Ottawa. It is particularly impressive for young players like Brett and Alexander to reach this level while living in the relative isolation of Waskaganish.
So what sets these young men apart from the hundreds of Cree teens who play hockey every winter? As both boys will readily admit, it is all about three things: love of the game, having a commitment to excellence and, perhaps most importantly, the support of their family.
“You need a good truck,” says Brett and Alexander’s father, Charles J. Hester, who this season expects to put in excess of 60,000 kilometres on his new vehicle, travelling to distant arenas to support his boys and watch them play.
In addition to being Hockey Dad Extraordinaire, Charles is Waskaganish’s Director of Youth & Recreation and runs the town’s Minor Hockey Association. Speaking with Charles, it takes little time to discover that he has a simple philosophy towards hockey and its value for his sons.
“Coaches want players who are serious, players who come to practice and work hard and those are habits that players need to learn from the beginning,” explains Charles. “Kids down south are in a structured program right from the beginning. But here (in the North) we don’t have organized hockey until peewee or bantam. They have to learn very quickly what it takes to make the team.”
This philosophy seems to have rubbed off on Brett, who follows a daily schedule that would challenge most adults. This includes starting his day at 5AM, having breakfast and getting on the ice by 8AM. At 10AM, he goes to school, after which he heads directly to the gym before spending his evenings either back on the ice or taking care of homework.
“It is like having a full-time job,” says Charles. “You have to be willing to work hard, get up every morning and go to practice and work hard at practice. It is a full day’s work – an adult situation.”
The commitment doesn’t seem to faze Brett, who models his game after another hard-working hockey player, NHL veteran Manny Malhotra. And it has also impressed Val-d’Or Foreurs coach Marc-André Dumont.
“As a 17-year-old rookie, Brett had some good times and bad times,” Dumont explains. “He showed a lot of resiliency and the quality required to make it in Major Junior. For example, after being scratched for a number of games, he got into playoff games on the 3rd / 4th line and ended up finishing the playoffs on the 1st and 2nd line.”
But last year’s success does not guarantee Brett a spot on this year’s Val-d’Or squad.
“We made a lot of trades in June and added five established forwards,” says Dumont. “Brett knows what the situation is. It will be tough for him. We expect more consistency and leadership and for him to be the speedster he was in the last year’s playoffs every single game this year.”
Brett understands what he is up against. For him, the hardest thing about making the jump to Major Junior Hockey has been “the competition”.
“It is real fast and players are stronger than I thought,” says Brett. “The competition and staying away from my family are the hardest parts.”
The move from small communities to larger cities is often the biggest hurdle for young Cree players. For many, it may represent the first and longest time they have spent away from their homes. Culture shock, homesickness and general shyness can be great obstacles for young players living and playing away from home. And according to Charles Hester, this can have a huge impact on whether or not a team will stick with a young Native player.
According to Charles, “If there are two players who are about the same level, the team will select the player who is not Native because he has less stuff to deal with. That is not to say that coaches won’t give a chance to a Native kid. If there is a kid out there who is serious, is willing to work hard, do all the things that are necessary, they will get a chance. But it is tougher for kids coming from the North.”
Dumont feels that young Native players share the same challenges as players coming from remote communities across Quebec.
“It is always a shock when (young players) go to a big town far away from home. It brings a lot of new sources of anxiety. What I find with kids who come from remote towns or First Nations communities is that those who go to hockey schools outside their village, who play in the Hockey Quebec system, they learn at a young age to adjust to that environment. Same as any Quebec player going to Hockey Canada – the program will not adjust to the player, the player must adjust to the program,” explains Dumont.
“Players like Brett – he played in the Hockey Quebec system. It has allowed him to see the culture, and see how the system works.”
So, how can young players living in remote communities get better prepared to compete at a high level?
“No doubt having coaches in remote places is definitely an answer,” says Dumont. “In small remote villages you need good coaching that will help kids develop and achieve goals. It is an issue in all small communities across Quebec, whether they are Cree territory or small towns.”
Charles Hester agrees with his son’s coach. “The thing is that we have to get these kids into a system when they are young. They have to learn how to play within systems. Having individual skills alone is not enough to be successful. The next step is to develop coaches.”
Given the success that his boys are enjoying in Midget AAA and the QMJHL, does Charles have any advice for hockey parents who want to give their children a chance to excel on the ice?
“There are a lot of sacrifices, time wise, travelling and financially. Sometimes we have to drive 12 hours just for a hockey practice. Then the following weekend we drive hours to a tournament,” said Charles after a long pause.
“As long as the kids enjoy it, we don’t really push them. They have to want it. That is my advice I give to parents. If their kids love the game enough and they want it enough, than be willing to make some sacrifices. But it is never a good idea to push them.”
Like father, like son, Brett has advice for his brother Alexander, and other players trying to reach the next level.
“Believe in yourself. Give it all you’ve got. Ignore everything else and just play hockey, and it will make a big difference”