Dennis Bonvie holds annual battle hockey camp at the Toyota Sportsplex
Dennis Bonvie played for 13 AHL and NHL teams combined during his 15-year pro career, and he could’ve run his summer hockey camp at any of them.
But there’s a reason why the Dennis Bonvie Battle Camp has called Wilkes-Barre home for the last 16 years.
“When I came here this place was such a positive influence on myself and my family. The people have been so good to us that it’s a second home,” Bonvie said during Monday’s first day of his youth camp. “I spend most of my time here and it’s a no-brainer to give back to this community.”
More than 70 kids, ages 6 to 14, pre-registered for the four-day camp, which cost $99 and was held at the Toyota Sportsplex. The camp focuses on the basics of hockey taught by some pretty special teachers.
In addition to Bonvie, current players Tom Kostopoulos and Patrick McGrath were on the ice, along with former Penguin Chris Kelleher, McGrath’s younger brother, Chris and longtime local hockey coach/instructor Don Tweedy.
The camp has become a mini-reunion of sorts of the inaugural 1999-2000 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team as Bonvie, Kelleher and Kostopoulos were all teammates on the squad.
And it’s also become a tradition.
“If you asked us in 1999 if we’d be doing something like this today, it was probably the furthest thing from our minds,” Kelleher said. “But now we have kids in the program and you see it continuing to grow every year.”
For Patrick McGrath, the camp has come full circle. He participated in the camp as a 7-year-old, back when it was held at the Ice Box in Pittston, taking instruction from Bonvie, Kostopoulos and Kelleher.
Now, the former student has become a teacher.
As McGrath helped the young kids on Monday – often times picking them up off the ice, he could relate to what it’s like to learn the ropes.
“This definitely brings back memories,” McGrath said. “When I was younger it was a thrill to be out there with Bonvie, Kelleher and Kostopoulos. Those are the guys that, as a kid, you look up to. Now, maybe there a kid who is thinking he wants to be like me one day. It’s just an awesome feeling.”
Not only to the kids at the camp get to share the ice with their idols, they also learn some lessons from the firsthand experience that the pros went through during their careers.
And a lot of it centers around skating.
Kostopoulos said the Pittsburgh Penguins are an example of how important skating is in today’s game, and that’s why the camp focuses on that aspect first.
Bonvie and Kostopoulos both said they weren’t the best skaters when they began their pro careers and had to improve that skill in order to keep playing. Now, at the camp, they hope to pass on what they’ve learned.
“Things like puck skills will come later. If they get the good habits with their skating while they’re young, they won’t be like I was at 30 years old trying to break my bad skating habits,” Kostopoulos said. “If you develop your skating when you’re young, it will make everything a lot easier then you’re older.”
Bonvie said he took skating lessons all the time during his pro career and was even taught by a figure skater while he was in juniors.
“I had to get better because if I couldn’t skate, I couldn’t play,” he said. “If you can skate, you can play until you’re 40.”
While skating and skills are a big part of the camp, Bonvie approaches it like a coach and hopes to make the kids better people as well. While hockey is the focal point, he said, making them a better player is secondary.
“We’re just trying to make them better young kids, and young adults for the older group,” he said. “The better they are as people, the better players they will become.”
And then there’s the fun. That’s the aspect that rules the camp, Kelleher said, and it’s the key to keeping the kids involved.
“Once they get on the ice and start skating around, they kind of forget who they’re out there with,” Kelleher said. “And that’s the way it should be. With younger kids, you need to make sure they’re having fun and they’ll pay attention.”
But at Bonvie’s camp, fun is something shared by the coaches as well.
“When you see the kids at the start of the week, they’re a little bit timid,” Bonvie said. “By the end of the week they’re giving you hugs. That’s the best feeling for us as coaches.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TLTomVenesky