Last week, the familiar camp director duo of Walter O’Brien and Joe Eppolito was working the Girls’ Select U18 Camp in St. Cloud, Minn., with a high-performance scene unfolding on ice, turf and concrete outside their second-floor nerve center. Both are well into their second decade of USA Hockey Player Development Camps and both have been part of a dramatic evolution.
“I look back on some of my earlier camps, and I remember when the Lamoureux twins were campers,” said O’Brien. “And they were just two of a handful of kids doing a pre-practice warm-up, doing it completely on their own, with just five or six other kids. Now, of course, everybody’s doing it. The competitive landscape, the knowledge of training on and off the ice, the nutrition – the change over the past 10 years has been incredible.”
No one has seen more of that change than Andrea Kilbourne-Hill. A girls’ hockey coach at the Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y., Kilbourne-Hill was part of the first wave of players to compete in a USA Hockey Girls’ Player Development Camp, hitting the ice in 1993 as a 13-year-old. At the time, with a shallower talent pool, the camps weren’t birth year-separated, so she found herself playing with and against 18-year-olds. She attended several subsequent camps as a player, and for the last six years, has served as one of the camp coaches.
“It’s a testament to how far girls’ and women’s hockey has come in the United States, that we can have a birth-year separated camp and we have enough talent to do that now,” said Kilbourne-Hill, who parlayed her youth hockey experiences into a brilliant college career at Princeton University and a silver medal with Team USA in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“For me, the Player Development Camp was my first chance to play on an all-girls team,” she said. “And I had never seen girls from Minnesota play before, so I was pretty impressed at my first camp, because I was always the best girl in my area and I didn’t know there were others like me. When you grow up being the only girl in your area that plays or takes it seriously, it can be pretty isolating. I mean, Cammi Granato was my role model, but I had only seen her playing from afar. I didn’t have a 17- or 16-year-old girl who took hockey as seriously as me, so when I met those girls at my first Player Development Camp, I realized that those girls were out there and I liked it.”
Despite inspired younger generations, Eppolito has heard the suggestion that there aren’t any more Cammi Granatos. But after coordinating so many of these camps through the years, he thinks the reality might be more a matter of better competition than an absence of high-end talent.
“The parity in the players has increased tremendously from where the camps first started,” he said. “Now, good players come from every part of the country. Before, there were noticeable gaps out there, but when you watch these camps today, the bottom level has been raised so much higher. It’s hard to separate yourself.”
Kilbourne-Hill agrees. She says it’s hard to find the super-elite player, but those players have always been rare, and they face a stiffer test of talent today.
“The pool is bigger and stronger now,” she said. “I don’t think the top has risen too much, but I definitely think the middle has risen.”
O’Brien, who coached boys hockey for 15 years before shifting to the girls’ game, sees it as a positive, progressive change. He also likes the approach to the game that he sees from female players.
“In the girls’ game, they are so committed to skill development,” said O’Brien. “The girls are passionate about skill development. They just want to get better. They want to improve themselves. I think boys are passionate about just playing the game. Girls want to be good at it. And their passion for becoming better hockey players is what makes it fun to coach girls.”
The girls’ passion spills over into their pre-camp fitness testing, which is a tense but terrific aspect of the camp’s development ethos. On arrival day, campers receive testing cards on which their results are recorded in various fitness challenges. They can then compare their results not only to other campers, but also to previous years’ campers and the United States Women’s National Team. Several returning campers eagerly pulled out their old testing cards to compare them against this year’s results.
“That component is so huge,” said Eppolito. “These athletes just want to be better, and they’re willing to do what it takes to get better.”
That laser-like focus and commitment is a large part of what makes the camp great. It also benefits from being part of the more linear path of achievement in women’s hockey.
“That’s a big difference from the boys game to the girls game,” said O’Brien, whose son and daughter played college hockey. “There’s one route to the top in women’s hockey, and that pinnacle is the Olympic team or the national team, depending on the year. So what we get at this camp is the best of the best. They’re all here. And that gives us an opportunity to evaluate talent in a setting where the best is up against the best, rather than maybe some weaker competition.”
The camp also provides a valuable source of professional development for coaches, who spend a week collaborating with great minds from around the nation.
“It’s fun because people love to talk hockey here, so you can get a million ideas in five minutes,” said Kilbourne-Hill.
And now, as the camps march through their third decade, it’s easy to see that they are moving in step with the game itself, an evolution of rapid progress. More players, better competition, more qualified coaching, more opportunity – it’s all here now, and the future looks bright indeed.