Each year, there’s a puzzle. It’s built, piece-by-piece, in the coaches’ locker room at USA Hockey’s Player Development Camp.
Primarily, it’s a diversion, a change of pace during an intense week. But it’s also a reminder. From this scatter of unique pieces, the coaches, instructors and camp leaders must build something cohesive, something singular.
Their mission is the same with 180 development camp invitees. Each is unique and each has a place somewhere. Twenty-two of them will fit into a red, white and blue tapestry bound for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. There they must play as one, as Americans, rather than individual pieces.
That unified spirit is on full display among the camp staff members, who volunteer from all over the country with an impressive single-mindedness.
“Our total focus is on player development here,” said Flint Doungchak, the head team leader at this year’s Select 17s. “And that’s one of the amazing things about this camp and why players can learn so much here. Everybody understands the task at hand and everybody translates that to the players.”
Doungchak arrived in Buffalo, N.Y., from Eugene, Ore., where he operates a rink and a junior hockey team. He’s also a USA Hockey Coaching Education Program coordinator. An engineer by trade, Doungchak has volunteered as a team leader at these camps since 2009.
“The general form has stayed exactly the same, and it’s always a lot of fun,” he said. “The part that amazes me, is that you can assemble such an amazing group of volunteers, who are so focused and so dedicated to the task, and they return year after year. It’s like having a family while you’re here.”
For Doungchak, being a part of Player Development Camp is the ideal way to cap a hockey season.
“It’s recharging. When you’re here, nobody cuts at you, nobody says bad things about hockey,” he said. “Here everybody is positive and focused, so it’s a lot of fun to be with people who remind you why you coach and why you volunteer. It’s totally enriching.”
The same could be said about the game itself for Doungchak, whose first experience with hockey came as an introverted 12-year-old in California three decades ago.
“My parents were immigrants; English was my second language,” he said. “So I was trying to figure out where I fit into society, trying to gain some confidence. I didn’t know what to do. Hockey totally changed that for me. If it wasn’t for playing the game, finding out that I could be an athlete, gaining confidence, learning how to speak in public, my life is totally different. Looking back, what did hockey give me? Practically everything.”
So now he’s a piece in the USA Hockey puzzle, trying to share those same experiences and joys of the game with others.
As a team leader, his primary role is to ensure logistical smoothness for his players, so they can focus on learning and improving. He also leads team-building activities and handles any unexpected changes, like last-second roster changes due to illness, etc. He explains it as “being a mini-GM for the week.”
“They’re away from home, so you’re first job is to make sure they are safe, that they have shelter, that they have food, and to make sure that they’re ready to go for the task at hand,” he said. “We want to eliminate any uncertainty. And all the team leaders are fantastic.”
They work in tandem with the instructors, many of which have extensive NHL playing experience to complement their coaching background.
“You can’t assemble a better group of people who can do a better job with player development in a short amount of time that what you have here,” said Doungchak.
And while they’re helping developing players, they’re also developing relationships, which is something the team leaders cherish.
“One of the best parts is getting to know the kids,” said Doungchak. “For instance, Dylan Larkin, who was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings this week, was a kid I had on one of my Player Development Camp teams. You get to know those kids pretty well, then they go where they go. It’s fun to watch their careers progress.”
And when the camps are done, the team leaders finally get to go back home for a little well-earned summer vacation. But they do so with another year’s worth of great memories from helping piece together the next wave of American champions.