Eleven-year-old Austin Mereski waited five months to lace up his skates again and after all that time away from the game he loves he finally got to wear his hockey gear Friday at the Prince George Cougars Pro-D Day Camp.
Like the other 89 kids under the age of 13 who showed up at Kin 2 arena already dressed in their equipment, he was there to learn what he could from the Cougars' coaching staff in what was the WHL team's first official on-ice function of the season in these strange pandemic times.
"That was fun, I hadn't gotten to play since last March - I was playing for Pomeroy, a house team in Fort St. John," said Mereski, who just moved with his family to the city from Fort St. John.
"It was the playoffs and we were placed fourth."
Mereski, a centre, was living in a hotel for about a month until his parents took possession of their house and he was glad the move happened in time for the Cougars' camp, one of several the team is planning this fall on days when public schools are closed and teachers are out of the classroom for professional development sessions.
"It's fun just getting back on the ice, they're really nice coaches and they teach really well," Mereski said. "I'm happy to be coached by some former NHL players. They taught me that when you're skating you don't want to pump your arms, you want to take long strides because your feet replicate what you're hands are doing when you skate."
Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb shared Mereski's excitement about getting back on blades. Lamb hadn't done that since the Cougars practiced at Kin 2 while they awaited the decision that finally led to the rest of the WHL season and playoffs being canceled. He was joined on the ice Friday by his Cougar coaching assistants - Jason Smith, Taylor Dakers and Steve O'Rourke - and some of the Cougar players
"Hockey is starting all over the place and people need icetime, so when the ice was starting to open up we put some thought into it and we wanted to give back," said Lamb.
"We aren't really doing anything hockey-wise right now so we wanted to come out and do some coaching. We get out there and just have some fun with them. There's a lot of people who want to do it and we'll be available and maybe we'll expand it a little bit."
The camp replaces the annual week-long summer hockey school the club usually puts on just before training camp begins in August. The biggest difference was instead of 30 kids at a time in the hockey school the under-13 camp session had just 16 players, so each kid was able to repeat the drills twice as often.
Aaliyah Thomas has already been skating for about a month while she gets ready to play rep hockey for the Northern Capitals peewee team. The 12-year-old forward figures her time with the Cougars was an hour well spent.
"It's pretty cool and pretty exciting to get on the ice with them," she said. "They taught me how to bend my knees better, how to hold my stick and how to be stronger on my stick."
Carter Hauk, 12, certainly wasn't the biggest kid on the ice but he showed why he's a good bet to make the Tier 1 peewee rep team when he used his quick skating stride and puck control abilities to ace the stickhandling drill.
"That was pretty fun because they know a lot about hockey," said Hauk, a right winger. "Steve O'Rourke taught me how to get longer strides and Mark (Lamb) taught me how to be aggressive in the face-offs and try to get back to the D, and he helped us on the wall too."
While they put their skates on and off, the kids sat on chairs set up two metres apart in a spacious area at the end of the rink. Parents were not allowed to watch the one-hour sessions and were asked to leave the rink to try to mitigate the COVID-19 threat.
Seven-year-old Mayson Patenaude has already been doing power skating lessons for two weeks but Friday's camp session was his first time working with the pros on the Cougars' staff. The timing was perfect, the day before he had his novice team tryouts.
"He didn't get to do the Cougars' (hockey school) last year with his brothers because he was too young, so he's very excited about this," said Mayson's mom Crystal. "It's sad we're not allowed to watch. Usually with the little guy I have him ready (already dressed in his gear before he gets to the rink) anyway but when I have all three of my kids in the car getting them down here in their gear it's smelly and really tight.
"This is awesome, especially because the kids watch them and they look up to be them and want to be them, so skating with them is huge for them."