Progress: Deerwood ice hockey camp is fun for all - Olympian's dream keeps growing
DEERWOOD—What started out as nothing but a failed figure skating camp and a dream has become a hockey camp and summertime fun destination that attracts children far and wide.
Olympian Steve Jensen and his wife Sandy are the driving forces behind Heartland Hockey Camp in Deerwood, and they have grand plans for expanding to offer lacrosse.
"We started about two years ago and cleared about 9 acres of land in the northwest corner of our 45-acre parcel to build a lacrosse field, and I'd say we're about halfway through it," he said.
The 80-acre campus "in the heart of Minnesota's vacation land ... is the only self-contained, privately owned hockey camp in the world," according to Heartland Hockey Camp's owners.
"We're excited because we figure that by about 2021, we're going to start lacrosse camps here, and it's a really convenient situation for the kids because a lot of the kids that play hockey love lacrosse, so this will be a nice crossover for kids who want to do two weeks in our program."
Sandy Jensen, 64, and her husband Steve, 63, met when they were 15 years old and have been a couple for almost half a century.
"She loved to skate. She was actually captain of the hockey cheerleading team in high school, and I was captain of the hockey team," he recalled with an affectionate smile.
"When we got married and I played pro hockey, she followed me all over the country and all over the world."
The former professional offensive ice hockey player appeared in 438 games in the National Hockey League from 1976-82. For more than three decades, he has served as camp director and served USA Hockey for almost two decades as a certified hockey official.
"And when I retired from pro hockey, I told her it was my passion and dream to own a summer hockey camp. Well she, of course, backed me and supported me in the idea," he said.
When they bought the foreclosed site of the future camp from Deerwood Bank in 1987 after leasing it for two years, the ice rink on the property was only three-quarters completed.
"Our biggest challenge was we were going to come in and just rent the facility for two weeks because someone else owned it and try a hockey camp ... but by the time we were close to opening up ... they decided they couldn't do it, that they weren't going to make it," she said.
From that rocky start, they could have easily given up on his dream of opening a hockey camp. But as a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team who led the team in goal scoring with 52 goals, he was not deterred so easily.
"We were kind of in a bind. We took in money and we had to run a camp ... but meanwhile a lot of local people got burned because they had done work, and they weren't getting paid, so it took quite a while for local people to believe that we were here to stay," she said.
He said, "A lot of my hockey friends that I had played NHL and Olympic hockey, none of them had faith in us that we were going to make it because back in those days we'd have been the first private-owned hockey rink in Minnesota. ... It was a struggle for us for the first 10 years."
All campers receive up to six hours of ice time each day. The two-hour morning session is dedicated to individual skill development and the two-hour afternoon is focused on team play and group tactics, and, all campers can participate in the open hockey session in the evenings.
"We also just finished a beautiful 4,500-square-foot weight room. It's got to be one of the biggest weight rooms in Minnesota. I don't know of any in the Brainerd lakes area that's as big as this one, and I'm really proud of it. My wife came up with the idea ... and we built a beauty," he said.
The tranquility surrounding the camp "enhances each camper's concentration level and also intensifies the level of everyone's awareness and appreciation for the wonderful wide variety of fun-filled recreational activities and world-class hockey instruction," according to the Jensens.
"Nobody else uses our rink but our campers. Most rinks you go to, whether it be in Breezy Point or Brainerd, they're renting the rink to other people and other entities and other groups. Here, we reserve the rink exclusively for our clientele. That's a really cool feature," he said.
"Everybody and everything here is self-contained and hired by Sandy and I, and we really take pride in running it well, and then the fact that we got a beautiful lakefront. We got 64 acres on the lake. ... The water is clean and almost every day we're about the only boat on the lake."
The Jensens said they take great pride in developing "a wide variety of training programs that emphasize fun and inspire enthusiasm, along with focusing on building a positive self-esteem."
"We get kids from all over the world actually, and some kids come from a big city, maybe New York City, and they've never even been to a lake like ours, so the lake activities become more important sometimes for kids than even the hockey training," she said.
He said, "We have bonfires every night. If you are on a college campus that's running a hockey camp, you can't have a bonfire in the middle of a college campus. We can take the kids fishing, and they can catch a big, 4-foot northern pike. We've got a miniature golf course here, too."
Other camp amenities include: a dry-land training center, a soccer field, rink-side condos, cabins, tree houses, apartments, classroom, shooting range, tennis court, dining hall
pro shop, private beach, dormitory and more that campers' families can enjoy.
Two of Eric Kueker's youngest children—6-year-old Jase and 8-year-old Sarah—went earlier this year to the Heartland Hockey Camp. It was their first time, according to Kueker of Verndale, and they belong to the Northern Lakes Youth Hockey Association.
"We wanted to send them both to camp because we noticed the kids that go to any hockey camp seem to be a lot better than the kids that don't go to camp during the summer. They seem to have more skill and are quicker on the ice or what not," Kueker said.
The association supports and serves youths in the communities of Aitkin, Backus, Breezy Point, Crosby, Crosslake, Deerwood, Ironton, Jenkins, Pequot Lakes and Pine River.
"We asked around or different people who they'd recommend because there are a lot of different camps in Minnesota, and what I got from most of the people I asked was Heartland was one of the best camps in the state," Kueker said.
"Most people said how pleased they were with the staff and the coaches at Heartland, and the fact that it wasn't just high school hockey players helping one adult coach the kids. It was actually people who played on a more professional level."
Kueker said he found the camp to be laid out well, the supervision was good, and the ice hockey rink was beautiful with a lot of extracurricular activities, so those were among some of the reasons he chose Heartland and entrusted the Deerwood camp with his children.
And there are plans to build new dormitories, administrative offices, a dining room and possibly another ice rink, according to the Jensens, which will only serve to attract more children and their families.
"My kids loved the camp. In fact, my little boy cried when it was over. He didn't want to go home," Kueker said.
"He got to fish in between all the hockey sessions, and that made him happy as a clam. And my daughter loves to swim, so they got to go down to the lake a couple of times a day in between their skate sessions and so they had a blast. We're going to go back next year."
Business: Heartland Hockey Camp
Number of employees: About 50
Trivia: In 2013, television star David Boreanaz, with a host of successful series—"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"- "Angel" -"Bones" and currently "SEAL Team"—talked about his experience at Heartland Hockey Camp in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. A longtime hockey enthusiast, Boreanaz said: "One of the best experiences I've had in my life was taking my son Jaden to the Heartland Hockey Camp [in Minnesota] last summer," he says. "It's a boy's dream - all mud and smells and mosquitoes. But they have a great rink. For nine days, fathers skate with their sons. You live in a dorm with them.
"We're going back, only this year we're getting a treehouse cabin."