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Hockey a privilege; school a priority

Life Lessons
Posted on 10/21/2019
john nelson

John Nelson can vividly recall a Grade 7 student who joined the WECDSB Hockey Academy several years ago who had never been on skates before.


“He was literally falling 50 or 60 times an hour,” says the academy’s skills expert. “Now you’d never be able to pick him out. He fits right in with all the higher skilled students.”


And while he may be happy with the on-ice skills the boy learned, Nelson is more gratified by the life lessons he gained.


“He’s built a foundation for himself for the rest of his life that we never give up, we always keep going, we always push forward, and today he’s just having a blast out here,” he said. “He’s flying around the ice, and we hope he keeps playing into adulthood, that he can network with other people and become a successful citizen of Windsor-Essex.”


It’s that kind of philosophy that has defined Nelson’s attitude about that game that he’s been around for 35 years.


Originally from Toronto, Nelson was drafted in 1986 by the Toronto Marlies, and he played four years in the OHL. He was drafted in 1989 by the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, but ended up going to university instead, playing for the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers while earning a degree in sociology. He played semi-pro Port Huron and Saginaw for four years before retiring and going in to teaching the game in 2002.


He still co-owns Proven Performance Hockey with Jimmy Sonmez, but was approached by the WECDSB in 2014 to be the skills expert for the Hockey Canada Skills Academy, the first of many sports academies launched by the board since then.


One of his favourite aspects of the academy is that it is open to all students, regardless of skill level.


“You’re going to come out here and you’re going to get better,” he says. “You’re going to improve and you’re going to learn a lot of the life skills that are important to us.”


Through an approach of differentiated instruction, and working with the academy’s teachers, Nelson and his team are able to ensure that all students improve, regardless of where they began.


“My whole philosophy is that the academy keeps moving forward,” he said. “I don’t slow the camp down, but we do pay attention to the kids who are a little less skilled. We also have to help out the kids who do have a lot of skill and to keep advancing their skills and keep them moving forward too. But we’re making sure that the higher skilled players are helping to develop the skills of the lesser skilled players.”


He loves that the emphasis at the academy is on academics.


“Hockey is the privilege,” he said. “School is the priority. It’s not just about on-ice, you have to be good in class, you have to be good citizens, you need to treat each other with respect, you need to treat the teachers with respect, and come out on the ice and perform the same way. Our standards are very high, our expectations are very high, but we’re very reasonable and understanding too.”


Ultimately, it’s about developing leadership skills, he added.


“We’re here to create leaders and we’re here to develop life skills. When I look back, I value what I learned from hockey. You get older and you start realizing what hockey really did for you. It taught you to be on time, to pay attention, you fight through adversity and you work with others to achieve a common goal.”


One of Nelson’s favourite things is to attend graduation ceremonies to see how far his students have come.


“I love the energy of the academy,” he said. “It really does excite me to come here every day.”

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