Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Plymouth rookie orientation camp a success

Although Bruce Holtom looked a little tired, he smiled as he waited for an exit interview with his wife, Kim, and son, Ben, at the end of the Plymouth Whalers annual rookie orientation, held May 17-18 at Compuware Arena.

“Living in Barrie, you hear things about different teams around the Ontario Hockey League,” Holtom said. “Everything we heard about the Plymouth Whalers was that it is a first-class organization, run by good people.

“Now that we’ve seen it for ourselves, we’re impressed with the facility and the people.”

Whalers prospects participated in scrimmages and Plymouth’s first round selections over the last two seasons – defenseman Beau Schmitz and center Tyler Seguin – played as advertised.

Beau (Schmitz) knows skating and is an offensive-minded defenseman. Seguin – pronounced SAY-gann – scored a goal during the first scrimmage, but his four assists over the two days were just as impressive. Can you say offense?

The two-day orientation was far more than a couple of scrimmages for Holtom (a 2008 draft choice, also pictured) and the other Plymouth prospects. It was a chance for Whalers draft choices and their parents to meet the Plymouth staff, see the Compuware Arena first hand, explore the town of Plymouth and the surrounding community and become acquainted with the Plymouth-Canton school system.

The camp was also an opportunity for some parents to reflect on the fact that their sons were moving up the hockey ladder.

“It was surreal seeing my kid wearing an OHL jersey for the first time,” said Ron Levi, the father of Detroit Compuware midget Austin Levi, in his blog. “And it was fun seeing all the Whalers fans who turned out to watch the scrimmages.”

The end of the first day was spent in an education seminar, hosted by Plymouth president and general manager Mike Vellucci, but featuring Plymouth educational consultant John Siedelman.

“We’re trying to give you as much information as we can so that you can make an intelligent decision in terms of where your son will play,” Vellucci said in his opening remarks at the seminar. “We believe if you play in Plymouth, you’ll get the best of both worlds – a chance to get a quality education, while playing in the number one developmental league in the world.

“Something I believe in, and I know (Plymouth head coach) Greg Stefan feels the same way, is we’re here to teach life skills – how to become a better person. I get excited when I see one of our players in the National Hockey League, but my wife will tell you I get just as excited when a player calls me and tells me he just got accepted into medical school or is working towards becoming a lawyer.

“It’s great that whenever we go to Oshawa, we always see a couple of our ex-players (Randy Fitzgerald and Jamie Lalonde), who work in the area as policeman. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve been able to maintain relationships with some of our players after they are finished in hockey.”

Vellucci instituted a team rule when he became general manager that players who fail their classes sit out, no matter if it’s a top prospect headed to the National Hockey League or the last man on the roster. The rule is enforced.

Typically the Whalers’ high-school age students attend classes from 7:10am until 1:08pm, report to practice by 2pm and are usually headed home by 4:45pm.

The Whalers have a mandatory two-hour study hall every Tuesday night for high school age students at Compuware Arena. Siedelman – who spent 38 years in the Plymouth-Canton educational community and is now retired – oversees the study hall.

Siedelman is as passionate about his job as any coach or player. He keeps the Plymouth coaching staff, host families and parents up-to-speed about the players’ academic progress and works tirelessly as a liason among all parties involved.

The first hurdle for a lot of new Whalers players and their parents to overcome is the culture shock. The Plymouth-Canton campus is 5,700 students strong and is one of the biggest campuses in Michigan.

Even so, the Whalers have had a lot of success stories in the classroom. John Terry, the father of Whalers veteran Chris Terry, talked about Chris’s development as a student when moving from Brampton, Ontario to Plymouth.

“My son was drafted by Plymouth three years ago,” John Terry said. “At the time, we didn’t know a whole lot about Plymouth. But I have to say the Whalers have been a terrific organization for Chris, both from a hockey perspective and a school perspective. He’s made his life here."

Making the transition from Canadian school to school based in the United States can be a challenge, but Seidelman eased the transition.

“It was really challenging for my son to come from the Canadian educational system to the US system,” John Terry said. “I worked aggressively with John for my son, because when Chris got here, he had gone through Grade 10 in Canada. When Chris came to Plymouth, he was placed in Grade 11 and we were concerned, because you need certain prerequisites to graduate in the United States.

“But John Seidelman was terrific. I could call him anytime and talk about Chris’s grades and classes. John talked to Chris’s teachers on my behalf. As a parent, you care passionately about your son or daughter and their education. Now Chris is attending college classes and Adam Mattson (Plymouth director of hockey operations) has been terrific with getting Chris set up.”

“When Chris came to Plymouth, he was a 16-year-old boy. Overall, his mother (Dianne) and I are impressed with the progress Chris has made, both on the ice and as a person. The Ontario Hockey League has been a successful league for my son.”

Terry’s progress as a student and player is the Whalers – and Canadian Hockey League’s – template for success. Not every player will make it to the National Hockey League, but all players have an opportunity to succeed off the ice and in the classroom.

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