Dax MacLean and Stacy Smallman have a lot in common.
They both helped the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds men’s hockey team win national titles – sniper MacLean with a nose for the net for Mike Kelly’s 1998 squad, scrappy Smallman with a nose for the corners for Gardiner MacDougall’s 2007 team.
Their wives, Alison MacLean and Sarah Smallman, both work for Dr. Doug Demmings at the Centre for Dental Health and Wellness.
Their sons, Brett MacLean and Spencer Smallman, were teammates for the Fredericton High School Black Kats hockey team.
Dax and Stacy work together on the UNB campus – Dax as executive director of U First student recruitment, Stacy as recruitment manager – and the New Maryland residents are business partners in their spare time.
Their Champions Hockey Academy skills development program, which originally also included another ex-Red, Ryan Bourgoyne, has expanded from one program the first year to six programs and more than 200 players in 2014 – year seven.
“We’ve had kids who’ve actually been with our program for the past seven years,” MacLean said. “It’s nice to see their growth over the years.”
MacLean, 38, is from the Miramichi, while Smallman, 37, hails from O’Leary, P.E.I.
“People don’t realize we didn’t know each other until 2007,” Smallman said.
When Smallman and his UNB teammates arrived home with the University Cup, MacLean was there to greet them.
“Stacy stepped off the bus, I shook his hand and said, ‘Welcome to the club,’” MacLean said.
“That stuck with me,” Smallman said, “that Dax would congratulate me and take time to talk.”
That was in March. They talked further over lunch in June, with MacLean mentioning there was a recruiting position coming up at UNB.
“He said, ‘You should put your name in,’ and here we are,” said Smallman, whose outgoing personality mirrors MacLean’s.
The first year with Champions Hockey, the two were mainly concerned with getting some ice time for their sons.
Smallman said, “After that, we’d get calls from people saying, ‘Are you guys doing those ice times again?’ I said, ‘I guess we can.’
Champions Hockey broke even the first year and made a small profit the second year.
“We went from one group the first year to one big group the second year to three groups the third year,” Smallman said. “That’s when we decided to try to make it a business. Now we’ve got six groups going this summer, along with university, pro and major junior players who just come out and skate with us, and high school and midget prep camps.”
The players aren’t all local either.
“We’ve got kids coming from Maine, Woodstock, Florenceville, Saint John, Miramichi …” Smallman said. “It’s not important to us that they make the NHL, but it is important they realize if they work hard, are dedicated, eat right … they’re going to see benefits. They’re going to get better.”
With a website (championshipshockey.ca) and a Twitter handle (@CHCanada), the co-founders are no longer just relying on word of mouth and mass emails to promote their product.
The 2014 programs run from July 2 to mid-September at the Grant-Harvey Centre and Aitken University Centre, with the groups ranging from players born in 2007, ’08 or ’09 (the MacKinnon Group) to players born in 1997, ’98 or ’99 in the Stamkos Group.
The other groups are Crosby (2006, 2007), Eberle (2004, 2005), Toews (2002, 2003) and Tavares (2000, 2001).
Local players in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League such as Matt Murphy, Oliver Cooper, Spencer Smallman and Will Thompson have improved their skills through Champions Hockey, but MacLean says all players can benefit from their program.
The line “You can never skate too well” applies.
“You can practise shooting and stickhandling at home,” MacLean said, “but it’s very difficult to practise skating at home.”
“We get emails from kids and parents, and you can just feel the emotions running through them,” Smallman said. “They never thought they could make a AAA team, and now they have.”
“Or maybe they made a competitive team after playing rec,” MacLean chimed in. “It’s very rewarding to see.”
“I think what people like is they know we started this for our kids, but we’re not doing anything different now than we would if it was our own kid on the ice,” Smallman said.
Among the instructors will be UNB winger Mike Thomas, the former captain of the Saint John Sea Dogs, and goaltender Dan LaCosta.
“We learn new techniques people are teaching – stickhandling, skating, passing, whatever they may be – and we apply them to what we do,” Smallman said.
“One thing the kids and parents really seem to enjoy is the structure of our camps,” MacLean said. “A lot of times parents are going to pay a certain amount of money for a one-week camp throughout the summer. But then the kid doesn’t touch the ice again for another month and a half.
“We do two nights a week and no weekends, which still allows kids to play baseball, soccer, softball, lacrosse – all their other summer activities – but they’re still building muscle memory for skating.”
Smallman says the size of the camps allows for an upbeat tempo.
“Parents will see 30 kids on the ice and say, ‘Ooh, that’s a lot of kids.’ But we design our drills so they’re only waiting in the line, maybe, 10 seconds. If we had smaller numbers, they wouldn’t be able to make it through the hour. They’d be gassed, and we’d have to slow down.”
If the kids aren’t doing a drill or technique properly, they’ll know right away.
“Five seconds in, we’ll blow the whistle and point out what they’re doing wrong,” Smallman said, “because we’re big believers – and research shows – that muscle memory is key. If they’re practising to do something wrong, they’re going to skate wrong forever.
“We’re there to help them do it right.”
The various camps are about 70 per cent full overall, but there are still openings for all groups.
You can register on the website. There’s also a sign-up session June 6 from noon to 1 p.m. in the Grant-Harvey Centre lobby.