Kroc Center youth hockey camp sets stage for pro season face-off

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The youth hockey season faced off locally in late August; now it’s time for the pros to take the ice.

Kroc Center Ice, which is part of the overall San Diego Salvation Army Kroc Center complex in the Rolando area bordering La Mesa, offers a wide variety of programs, including a popular day camp, wellness center, recreation pool, education center, gymnasium, ice arena and on-site church.

The youth hockey season faced off locally in late August; now it’s time for the pros to take the ice.

Kroc Center Ice, which is part of the overall San Diego Salvation Army Kroc Center complex in the Rolando area bordering La Mesa, offers a wide variety of programs, including a popular day camp, wellness center, recreation pool, education center, gymnasium, ice arena and on-site church.

The sprawling complex, located at 6737 University Ave., San Diego, is conveniently situated for East County, South County and San Diego metropolitan city residents alike. 

The ice arena might be a surprise to most area residents who are not accustomed to winter sports occurring year-round in Southern California. However, Kroc Center Ice offers many programs geared toward ice-skating and ice hockey aficionados.

Kroc Center Ice offers learn to skate and learn to play hockey programs as well as actual youth hockey leagues. There is also an in-house ice skating program.

Besides the hockey leagues, the non-profit community center also offers hockey camps.

The Kroc Center Day Camp program partnered with Hockey Ministries International to host a weeklong camp in early August. The camp, open to ages 8 to 17, served as a tune-up for league play for many of the participants.

According to Marketing and Communications Manager Glynis Eckert, the camp attracted more than 50 participants from throughout San Diego County, including East County.

The weeklong skills clinic allowed the participants a chance to get on the ice with professional hockey players.

“The kids got to practice and hone their skills before they started up their own youth leagues,” Eckert explained.

The lineup of instructors for the hockey camp was as impressive as it was extensive. Offering their services were Joe Muth, assistant director of mission integration at the Kroc Center, retired Boston Bruins goaltender John Blue, right wing Andy Miller of the Rapid City Rush, retired Red Army player Grecia Bocharov and four-time Stanley Cup champion Claude Lemieux.

Blue, a native of Huntington Beach, currently serves as a pastor after becoming deeply involved in religious studies during his playing days. 

Bocharov, a native of Moscow, received his education at the Russian National Academy of Sports and Physical Education.

Lemieux won Stanley Cups in 1986 with the Montreal Canadiens, in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils, in 1996 with the Colorado Avalanche and in 2000 again with the Devils.

A pair of San Diego Gulls also participated: left wing Jordan Samuels-Thomas and defenseman Stu Bickel.

Both players signed contracts with the American Hockey League club during the summer. Bickel will be playing in his third season with the Gulls while Samuels-Thomas will be playing in his second season with the team.

The Gulls serves as the minor league affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks of the National Hockey League.

The AHL is the developmental league for the NHL. It is estimated that more than 84 percent of players who go on to play in the NHL spent time playing in the AHL.

Getting on the ice to help offer guidance to children is old hat for Bickel, a Minnesota native, and Samuels-Thomas, who hails from Connecticut.

But both have learned that palms, sand and ocean waves mix well with ice hockey in San Diego.

“Right when I got here, my first year, I was super surprised at how many fans we got and everything,” explained Bickel, 31, a nine-year pro who has 76 games in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild to his credit. “Then you come out to see the youth groups and the kids take it seriously. It’s really cool to see it gaining traction in Southern California.”

This is the second consecutive year that Bickel, a Gulls fan favorite, has been involved with the Hockey Ministries International hockey day camp at the Kroc Center. He said it rekindles memories of his own youth.

“It’s fun to get involved with the kids, everyone was working hard and having fun,” Bickel said. “It’s been a lot of fun to get involved.” 

Community involvement is right down Samuels-Thomas’ alley as well. He earned distinction as the Gulls’ winner of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his outstanding contributions to the San Diego community during the 2016-17 season.

Each team in the league selects a nominee for the annual league-wide award. 

Samuels-Thomas, 27, a fourth-round pick by the then Atlanta Thrashers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, volunteered and participated in many charitable endeavors, including serving

food to the homeless at the San Diego Salvation Army, visiting Rady Children’s Hospital to help improve the health of young patients and visiting the Wounded Warrior Project during the holiday season. 

He also volunteered his time to participate in grassroots efforts to promote health and wellness in the community and teach the sport of hockey during street hockey gym classes at local elementary schools affiliated with the YMCA. He also helped coach youth hockey at the Kroc Center as part of a skills clinic for children 6 to 14 to help develop young hockey players in the region.

Samuels-Thomas is entering his fourth season in the AHL. Prior to joining the Gulls, he played in Rochester, N.Y., Manchester, N.H., and up Interstate-15 in Ontario as a member of the Reign, the Gulls’ archrival.

Samuels-Thomas, however, quickly endeared himself to local fans. He said getting out in the community is important to him.

“I love going out, getting in the community,” he said. “Hockey’s a great game, it allows me to go out help the community and kids and stuff, people who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise. It’s something I’m passionate about. 

“The kids are having a great time, that’s what these things are about, having fun. They love being out on the ice.”

Besides learning new skills, playing hockey also offers life lessons, Samuels-Thomas said. 

“Hockey is good for character (development),” he explained. “There have been times where I’ve been told I’m not good enough, whether I was 8 years old or even now. Hockey is like life. Things don’t always come easy in life. It’s good life lessons.

The Gulls, having received players on assignment from the Ducks for this season, are set to face off the 2017-18 AHL campaign on Saturday, Oct. 7, in Tucson, Ariz., against the Tucson Roadrunners. The Gulls will host the Texas Stars in their home opening weekend Oct. 13-14 at the Valley View Casino Center.

For more information on youth and adult hockey programs, ice skating programs and public skating sessions at the Kroc Center, call (619) 269-1498 or visit the website at www.sd.kroccenter.org.

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