JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Jason Woolley played 14 seasons in the NHL and remembers what it’s like to be a kid dreaming of playing professional hockey.
“Any time you get a chance to go out with the little guys… I was once a little kid who looked up to NHL players and now it’s nice to be on the other side,” Woolley said at Cambria County War Memorial Arena, where he coached kids in a youth hockey clinic as part of Kraft Hockeyville USA. “They’re all out there, working hard having fun and smiling, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Johnstown, named the winner of Kraft Hockeyville USA, will host a preseason game Tuesday between the Pittsburgh Penguins andTampa Bay Lightning (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN). The arena was also awarded $150,000 in upgrades, which were used on new lights, new glass and boards as well as on the sound system, locker rooms and scoreboard fixes.
Woolley, a retired defenseman who had 68 goals and 314 points with five teams in his NHL career, won a silver medal with Canada at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. He said for all he knows, future NHL players could be at the clinic.
“It was an amazing experience,” Woolley said. “At the time, you’re a young guy. My dream was always to play for my country, and to play for Canada and win a silver medal was amazing; had a big shootout goal, which was a lot of fun.
“Dreams are coming true and these kids out here…I was there one day. At one point I was them, looking up, working hard, smiling, loving the game. You have to be passionate about it. You have to keep it light and you have to make sure these kids are enjoying themselves.”
Woolley played for the Penguins in 1996-97. His co-coach, Ryan Vandenbussche, also played in Pittsburgh.
“It’s an honor to be out here, to be in Johnstown, Pa.,” Vandenbussche said. “USA Hockey is doing a great thing by reaching out to the youth and promoting the game of hockey, which I think is the best game in the world. Starting at the grassroots level, which is where you have to begin. Just getting the kids out and doing exercising and having fun on the ice. You’re being taught so many other things other than hockey: how to be a good teammate, your social skills. Hockey brings a lot to kids.”
Vandenbussche, who played for the Penguins during the 2005-06 season, had 10 goals, 20 points and 702 penalty minutes in 310 NHL games with three teams.
“I was an aggressive player growing up,” he said. “I loved to skate and finish my checks. That was the role I had in the NHL. The NHL treated me great. I had a lot of great experiences. It’s nothing to give back. Hockey’s been great to me and I want to be able to provide some great experiences for younger kids as well.”
Vandenbussche’s last season in the League in 2006 was also teammate Sidney Crosby‘s first.
“What I do remember is doing my pregame warmup with him and [Crosby’s] pregame warmup was tougher than my postgame workout, and he played 27 minutes a game and I was probably averaging seven minutes a game,” he said.
Woolley admitted he didn’t know much about Johnstown before coming for the clinic.
“I didn’t know about the fan base. I automatically think about the Johnstown Chiefs and the movie ‘Slap Shot,’ so that’s kind of what I relate Johnstown to,” Woolley said. “But it’s so great to do these reach out programs where you are hitting arenas and giving these fans that are a little ways away from the big club the chance [to see an NHL game].
“They are embracing it. They are loving it. You can see it’s electric. There’s a buzz around here and it’s nice to be a part of it. I think it’s important for the fans. It’s about the fans at the end of the day and the kids, and that’s not a bad combination.”