Josh Hussey runs a drill with a group of children during the Galt Hockey School at Dickson Centre Arena. “Make Believe Gardens” in Dickson Arena is celebrating 50 years of kids hockey. - Mathew McCarthy,Record staff
CAMBRIDGE — We're sitting in what's affectionately called Make Believe Gardens in Dickson Arena last Saturday morning.
Volunteer instructors suiting up for their sessions at the Galt Minor Hockey School stroll in and out of the room, whose nickname stems from bantering sessions between followers of the rival Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens over the years. It's a room that features, among other instructional aids, a mini-hockey rink as part of its floor.
And because an anniversary is being celebrated, tales are being told. Many of them are about the late Roy Johnston, founder of the school and a local visionary whose sometimes crusty exterior masked his huge heart and passion for teaching the youth of what is now Cambridge, the fundamentals of hockey.
"I still remember sitting and learning in this room," said Larry Kitzman, a graduate of the school and its current director.
Johnston, a member of the Cambridge sports Hall of Fame, died four days before Christmas at age 61 in 1989. But his legacy endures as the school he created celebrates its 50th anniversary.
"When it started there was nothing like it for kids this age," said Al Findlay, another Cambridge Hall of Famer who Johnston was grooming as his successor as director and who took over after Johnston's passing and served for 23 years. Findlay then passed the baton to longtime school volunteer Sam Currie, who in turn handed off to Kitzman.
The premise, instituted by Johnston in 1967, sounds obvious now. But this was a time before the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union taught arguably arrogant Canadians that they didn't know all there was to know about what they considered 'their' game.
Johnston, concerned about a lack of fundamentals, implemented a step-by-step system and strategies that have endured. Johnston even built a platform from which he could videotape youth games in order to provide more in-depth instruction. He sought out figure skating instructors like Lynn Gare, who has been involved in the school for nearly 30 years, to teach hockey players, something largely unheard of at the time.
Boys and girls are first enrolled in the school's learn to skate program for ages 3-5. Hockey basics are introduced to the age 4-6 curriculum. And curriculum is the right word, as off-ice classroom sessions are held in Make Believe Gardens. In the ages 6-7 tyke years, games are played, now in a cross-ice format that predates Hockey Canada's mandate, effective this season, of cross-ice for players age 6 and under.
"It's definitely progressive learning," said Kitzman, who also teaches in the school's power skating program, offered on Wednesday evenings.
Run under the umbrella of the Cambridge Minor Hockey Association, the school, which started with 40 children in Johnston's first year, has seen enrolment grow to more than 300 per season. About 14,000 youth have gone through the school since launch, under the direction of volunteer staff like Mathew Frias, himself a graduate and a former house league player in Cambridge.
"My parents signed me up for it when I was four or five," said Frias, 20. "I liked it, and it got me interested in hockey. I was one of the timid ones, but the school built my confidence."
The structure of the school helps in that regard, particularly in the hockey basics program. Each Saturday, the sessions are broken down in consecutive one-hour blocks with participants placed in one of three levels, depending on their skating ability which is assessed upon graduation from the learn to skate program.
"I like the staggered hours and the fact there are so many volunteers," said Jennifer Watkins, whose son Liam is in hockey basics and whose other son, Levi, graduated from the tyke program last year. "It gives them that extra one-on-one time. The boys love it."
So much so that Watkins' daughter Chloe, who just turned 3, may turn it into a family affair next year.
Karlo Berkovich’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected] . Twitter: @KarloBerkovich