WILKES-BARRE — When 6-year old Rocco Yazwinsky skated onto the ice at the Toyota Sportsplex on Tuesday, it was pretty clear who his hero was.
Taped on top of Yazwinsky’s helmet was the first name of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins winger and Shavertown native Patrick McGrath, who is an instructor at the Dennis Bonvie Battle Camp all this week.
Bonvie started the camp more than 15 years ago and it has grown into a tradition among youth hockey players ages 4 to 14. In addition to Bonvie and McGrath, former Penguin Chris Kelleher also served as an instructor, and the kids were excited for a chance to learn from the pros.
“I think the best part is doing drills with the pros,” said Yazwinsky, who is participating in his third camp. “I hope to be as good as them one day.”
For Bonvie, whose pro hockey career spanned 15 years, such aspirations mean everything.
“You hope for that,” he said. “When I started this, hockey was still new to the area. The camp has grown through the kids and you try to have a positive influence.
“It’s pretty rewarding.”
The camp focuses on hockey basics, skating and shooting, and the lessons stick with the kids for as long as they play.
McGrath participated in the first camp when he was 7, and things have come full circle from student to teacher.
“(The camp) was a little different back then,” McGrath said. “We had hitting drills which were fun. Everyone just skating into the boards. But he showed me some really skating tips that stuck.”
Anthony Carlo, 4, is participating in his first camp with Bonvie and said his favorite drill is shooting pucks at the net. Carlo’s mother, Kelsey Owen, said the interaction with Bonvie, McGrath and Kelleher keep the kids interested.
“It’s special for him to learn from them,” Owen said. “This will definitely be a memory.”
Approximately 50 kids are enrolled in the camp, which runs Monday through Thursday and costs $99. Bonvie, who is originally from Nova Scotia, has considered starting a second camp as he continues to call Wilkes-Barre home since he joined the Penguins in 1999.
“I came to such a great spot. Right now it’s my home and it’s a pleasure to say that,” Bonvie said.
Kelleher, who was teammates with Bonvie on the inaugural Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team in 1999, said he looks forward to the camp every summer and seeing kids returning every year.
After serving as an instructor for several years, Kelleher has learned the key to keeping kids interested on the ice.
“They don’t always listen, but they always have a big smile on their face and when you give them a puck and skate with them it’s the best thing in the world,” Kelleher said.
And it also means the world to Bonvie, McGrath and Kelleher to serve as role models for the kids.
McGrath took notice of his first name on Yazwinsky’s helmet and smiled.
“It’s special,” he said. “Rocco’s out there always buzzing around on the ice. I was that same kid at his age.”