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Ice, Sweat and Peer Leadership: 16 Long Island Youths Experience Boot Camp Hockey

By Cpl. Beth Zimmerman | | September 10, 2004

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In the cool, early-morning moments before the small town of Lake Placid, N.Y., awakened, U. S. Marine Corps cadence rippled across Mirror Lake and into the Adirondack Mountains. In unison, one platoon slapped their feet to the pavement in the rhythm known to so many Marines as a formation run. However, the young men running weren't Marines out for an early physical training session -they were teenagers from Long Island, N.Y., running three miles as part of their week-long training regime, "Boot Camp Hockey.""It's pretty much hockey and Marine Corps training, put together," said 15-year-old Sal Praino of the training program. He and 15 other teammates from the Nassau County Lions Hockey Team spent seven days in Lake Placid for Boot Camp Hockey, an intense hockey camp infused with Marine Corps values and training techniques."If one person does something, we all do it," said Praino of the Corps' tried-and-true technique for building unity. So, the Lions did everything as a team. They woke up for 0630 reveille together. They ran up and down hills throughout Lake Placid together. They ate "chow" together. They ran to and from the Olympic Training Center together. They skated together. And that was just on the first day...According to the program's director, unit cohesion and intense training days were not the only things that set Boot Camp Hockey apart from any other training camp."We don't just teach hockey," said Dave Andersen, who is the Boot Camp Hockey Founder and an active-duty Marine Officer. "We teach values, ethics, and morals," he said. "Leadership is a big thing."Between on-ice sessions to develop their ice hockey skills, the Lions learned about the Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment. The team moved as a platoon, with members of the team serving in rotating leadership billets such as Platoon Sergeant, Squad Leaders and Fire Team Leaders.The midget-minor classified ice hockey team is made up of boys aged 14 to 16 years. For many of them, Boot Camp Hockey gave them the first chance they've ever had to lead their peers. They found it was a learning process."The hardest thing about leading my peers was being responsible for everyone else," said 16-year-old Chris McCutchan, who served as a Fire Team Leader. "Just keeping track of people -making sure everyone is where they're supposed to be -can be a challenge.""I learned really fast you have to respect others," said 15-year-old Rich Comforto, who also served as a Fire Team Leader. "You have to give respect to get it."The billet holders weren't the only ones to benefit. The program tried to instill the basics of Marine Corps leadership in every kid. "I'm concentrating on the Marine Corps leadership principles and leadership traits," said Andersen. "We handle that up front and take everything from there."He explained each of the 14 leadership traits to the boys so that they could relate each of them to hockey and "real life." Each of the kids chose one trait that was most important to them. "No matter what anyone says, you have to do the right thing and set the example as a leader," said Platoon Sergeant Nick Puzzi, who said courage is the most important trait any leader should have. Bearing is important to McCutchin, who said, "to be a leader, you have to keep your cool, because other people will look to your example.""To be a successful team, you have to be able to depend on your teammates," said 15-year-old Mike Hatton of dependability. "If you don't have knowledge," said Praino, "you won't know what you're doing out there. That goes for life and on the ice."Though Lake Placid is not Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Boot Camp Hockey took place in a setting worthy of its own prestige. The Lions spent the week living in dorms at the Olympic Training Center; they refined their hockey skills in the 1980 rink at the Olympic Center, which was the site of the historic United States' Gold Medal victory over the Russian hockey team during the 1980 Olympic Games. According to their on-ice coach, the prominent setting only added to the team's intensity. "They're definitely focused," said Rob Miller, Boot Camp Hockey's Skating Coach and a professional hockey player with the Knoxville Ice Bears. "Each day they build on everything we worked on the day before," he said. "If they keep it up, their potential as a hockey team is incredible."The players have noticed the difference in each other as well. "Before we came up here we were all separate people," said McCutchan. "When we go home we'll be a team."The ultimate goal of Boot Camp Hockey is to give the teenagers something to carry into adulthood. "My main goal is to make them better people when they leave here," said Andersen. "It's only seven days, but it's seven intense days based on Marine Corps training."
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