State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Back on the Ice, the Right Way

by on August 04, 2020 5:00 AM


We pulled it off. We completed two weeks of summer hockey camp in Sun Valley, Idaho in spite of the coronavirus. That may not seem like a big deal, but given the psyche of the nation right now, we count this as an example of how a great team effort can get things done in the face of adversity. Dream big, Keep it real. Get it done.

How did this happen? Great leadership, research, planning, compliance, collaboration, and a dose of courage.

Overspeed Hockey co-owner and Sun Valley Hockey Experience Camp Director Toby O’Brien led a staff that went the extra mile to ensure everyone was safe and comfortable in executing the plan to make the camp successful. Toby is the former general manager and head coach of the Johnstown Chiefs, an NHL scout for three different teams, and a long-time Penn State summer hockey camp instructor. 

Co-owner Kate Booth (administration), former Penn State Icers and New York Islanders assistant coach Matt Bertani (on-ice Instruction), and Campion Ice Rink hockey director and long-time PSU hockey camp participant Chad O’Brien (power skating and off-ice instruction) led an outstanding staff of instructors and counselors to help make Sun Valley Hockey Experience III a huge success.

The head instructors included former Penn State women’s hockey assistant coach and Montana native Celeste Brown. She was recently named head coach at R.I.T., making her the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I hockey. Janine Weber (player development coordinator) is the all-time European-born leading scorer in the National Women’s Hockey League, and she has represented Austria in 10 World Championships. Another head instructor was former Mercyhurst Division I player and current Shadyside Academy (Pittsburgh) head coach Jon Johnson. J.J. also spent a number of years on the Penn State Summer Hockey Camp staff.  Finally, there was this former Penn State hockey player, head coach and administrator who recently turned 60, making me the “senior instructor” on the staff.

Needless to say, there was a distinct Penn State flavor to this camp held in the sun-drenched mountains of central Idaho.

I could argue that Campion Ice Rink Director Sarah Benson and her staff were the real MVPs of the camp for their diligence and commitment to safety in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had temperature checks every time we entered the rink, and everyone had to sanitize their hands. Every public area including locker rooms and bathrooms were sprayed and wiped down after each group used the facility. Additional time was included between age groups to minimize unnecessary interaction in the parking lot.

Masks were worn in and out of the rink and hand sanitizer stations were available for everyone. The campers had to come to the rink partially dressed in their hockey gear. Many of the kids had skate guards that had wheels on them so they could literally skate into the rink fully dressed. Showers and water fountains were off limits to everyone. Each camper was required to bring two of their own water bottles for use in the rink and outside for dryland training. Only six campers were allowed in each locker room while others chose to physically distance in the lobby to finish dressing and to put on their skates.

Coaches wore masks on the ice, even while instructing. We actually had “electronic whistles” controlled by touch so we didn’t have to lower our masks. Coaches could not leave anything at the rink, not even our sticks. We kept the groups small and worked in small areas. We did not allow body checking as we concentrated on skill development and small area games. Players did not use the benches.

Campion Ice Rink Director Sarah Benson doing temperature checks as campers rollerblade into the rink.

It was the strict commitment to COVID-19 protocols that allowed us to successfully operate the camp allowing over 150 young players ages 8-17 to participate in the camps. We even had a waiting list. Kudos also to the townspeople of “The Valley” who have welcomed us for the past three years and have helped make the camp so enjoyable and successful.

Despite all these challenges, we pulled it off. It took everyone working together. It took leadership and commitment by everyone involved. Was it perfect? No.  Were there challenges? Affirmative. Did we have a blast being back in the ice? Absolutely!

It was worth it to see the smiles on the faces of Sammy and Davey, Annie and Jessie, Blake, Connor, Super Cooper, Grendel, Tommy, Seamus, Hadley, Devon, Chase, Maeve, Dawson, Isabelle and all of the other young hockey enthusiasts. We had fun and we connected even while following COVID-19 protocols. We are all looking forward to next year when we can hopefully get back to an even more robust experience.

After the camps ended, I had the opportunity to have a mini reunion with former Penn State Icers John Ioia (class of ‘91) and Curtiss Patrick (class of ‘04) at the home of Dave and Lydia Grimm in Eagle, Idaho. Lydia was my staff assistant and the “Hockey Mom” for most of my first decade coaching the Penn State Icers. Dave and I played adult hockey together and he was a former coach of the Penn State Ice Lions (ACHA Division 2) and for the State College Youth Hockey Association. Lydia did everything for the Icers during my early coaching years from administration to ticket sales to sewing jerseys and fixing equipment. We really were a Mom and Pop operation back in those days. 

Nowadays, State College is recognized in the top five of American’s Best Hockey Towns by SmartAsset. The rest of the country now knows what we hockey enthusiasts always believed: that Penn State is a hockey school and State College has become a hockey town.

Will there be hockey this fall in Hockey Valley or Sun Valley? No one knows for certain. The safety of the student-athletes and the youth players is the priority. With the right plan in place and everyone cooperating, I am optimistic that we can have a college season as well as a youth hockey season.

The Overspeed Hockey staff, with a distinct Penn State and Central Pennsylvania flavor, proved that it can happen when done the right way. It was fun and exhilarating being back on the ice!

Coach Joe Battista with camper Nolan Bolt, whose family is originally from Pennsylvania

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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