Mite hockey camp features Avs’ John-Michael Liles |

Mite hockey camp features Avs’ John-Michael Liles

Learning from a pro

They are mighty Mites. Youngsters take a quick pause from the recent Mile High Mites Learn to Play hockey camp at Dobson Arena. The tyke received instruction from former Colorado Avalanche defender John-Michael Liles.

John-Michael Liles spent 14 years in the NHL, including a 7-year stint with the Colorado Avalanche, and has a very simple philosophy for youth hockey: Work hard and have fun.

“It’s hard work to get the most out of your skills,” said the blueliner who also played four years at Michigan State. “You have to keep working hard, and if you’re not having fun, it’s hard to work hard.”

Liles finished up the Mile High Mites Learn to Play hockey camp for Vail-Eagle Junior Hockey at Dobson Arena recently. The camp was open to Mites, ages 4-9, with 25 youngsters ranging in experience from never-ever to regular attendees of the annual camp.

Over six sessions, the kids got to work with Liles and others on everything from learning how to skate to basic skills of passing, shooting and even skating backward, along with the ever critical skill of being able to stop on skates. (Very important, that stopping thing.)

Not only did they have a lot of fun, but these 25 kids — this annual camp usually accommodates 50, but was reduced for COVID-19 — also showed that hockey is still alive and well in Eagle County, despite the pandemic.

And all of the participants got to keep the gear they received to continue playing on properly-frozen bodies of water, flooded backyards and games on formal ice sheets like Dobson and the Eagle Pool & Ice Rink as the season progresses.

This is where Liles and “Learn to Play” program enter. “Learn to Play” is an official program of the NHL and its 31 teams. Liles and Milan Hejduk — remember him? — are the player ambassadors for the program in the Rocky Mountain region.

Having the NHL and the Avs sponsor the camp helps keep costs down — the program cost $195 — and making hockey more affordable to youngsters is vital to organization and critical to Liles.

“It would have been amazing to have a camp like this when I was growing up,” said Liles, who grew up in suburb of Indianapolis. “For the NHL and the NHLPA (National Hockey League Players Association) to have this fantastic entry point to the game is wonderful. Youth hockey is exploding all over the country.”

Liles grew up going to games of the Indianapolis Checkers and Ice, former franchises in the now defunct International Hockey League. Though hockey was clearly his sport, Liles still competed in multiple sports until he was 17.

His love of the game has carried over into becoming a teacher after an accomplished career with the Avs, Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes and the Boston Bruins.

“I have a 5- and a 2-year-old, both girls, and all the 5-year-old wants to do is play hockey on ponds,” Liles said. “It makes me happy to pass along the love of the game of hockey. To see that joy multiplied all over Vail, Eagle, Aspen, Grand Junction, Glenwood and around Denver is special.”

Just for fun

It’s not every day one speaks to an NHL veteran, so here’s a quick lightning round for Liles.

Best player you’ve played with? “Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg. I can’t pick between the two.”

Best player you’ve played against?: “Niklas Lidstrom. You have to respect him.”

Who’s an all-time NHL player you’d like to play with?: “Bobby Orr, (who essentially invented two-way defense in the NHL). I grew up watching Brian Leetch (a stellar two-way defenseman best known for helping the New York Rangers end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought) and I wanted to be like him. I got to play with him during the World Cup of Hockey in 2004. Playing with your idol is an experience.”

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