Juan Munoz vividly remembers his first day on the ice last September with the Hockey Canada Skills Academy at St. Bonaventure School in Calgary, Alta.
“It was absolutely horrible,” Munoz, 12, recalls with a big laugh. “Everybody was doing better than me the first day. I was struggling with the stickhandling, the shooting and defending – basically everything.”
He expected difficulties. After all, he had never played the game.
Munoz, who studies in the International Spanish Academy Program at St. Bonaventure, became inspired to start playing hockey after falling in love with the Calgary Flames in the seven years after his family moved to Alberta from Caracas, Venezuela.
His parents, Juan Sr. and Jennifer, were keen on providing their son with an opportunity to participate in Canada’s game.
“We said, ‘Let’s give it a try,’” says Juan Sr. “I thought the possibility for him to share [an] experience with other kids and to have that feeling of belonging to a team would help him a lot – and it is helping him a lot.”
Registration in the St. Bonaventure HCSA was an ideal pathway into the game, because a hallmark value for this program is affording excellent hockey development for kids of all skill levels.
The family's decision was validated – Munoz's on-ice prowess improved mightily during his first year as an HCSA student.
Munoz credits supportive coaching and helpful equipment tips from Norm Nicolet, the physical education teacher and Grade 7 hockey instructor for St. Bonaventure, for helping become more comfortable on the ice.
"He was cheering on me every day to get better, and he helped me get all my gear. He, right now, might be the best hockey coach [I've had]. He took the time to teach me the game."
Nicolet enjoyed the on-ice collaboration with the newcomer. He credits Munoz's natural athleticism and sharp visual learning skills as two reasons why his game transformed.
"Juan improved from barely being able to skate and balance to being strong with the puck and taking shots. It is quite amazing how his game progressed in five or six months."
Nicolet catalogued Munoz's improvement throughout the school year by capturing cellphone videos that he would send along to Juan Sr. and Jennifer.
The Day 1 video shows the preteen gingerly moving up the ice and struggling to handle the puck. Fast forward to a video captured of him after about 30 on-ice sessions: he's accelerating towards the net with total control to deliver a shot on goal.
Determination to surmount adversity also factors heavily into Munoz's progress. He contemplated quitting a few weeks into the program because he was struggling to move his game forward, but wisdom from his parents compelled him to persevere.
"My husband and I decided this was a life experience that he needed to work hard at to achieve his goals," says Jennifer. "Things may be difficult at first, but if you work hard, you will get where you need to be."
Munoz responded to the adversity by investing extra time into his development. He took power skating classes to complement his HCSA training.
The first half-year playing the game has been so fruitful for Munoz that he is considering playing minor hockey once the registration window opens for the 2020-21 season.