Puck deities hope to make happy campers

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There he was, standing in his own field of dreams a year and a half ago when an idea struck him just like a bat belting a hung curve ball out of the park.

Cameron Phillips, a Vancouverite growing up with big-league aspirations but not possessing big-league talent, got to live his dream by spending a week at the Seattle Mariners Fantasy Camp in Peori, Arizona. And it was while there, shagging fly balls and taking batting practice, that the now-37-year-old figured he had to find a way to make the same kind of thing happen here, only with hockey, not baseball.

“Halfway through the [Mariners] camp, I scratched my head and thought, 'My goodness gracious, there is such a rabid fan base in the city of Vancouver, people who would give an eyetooth to get on the ice with Kirk McLean or Richard Brodeur. Why isn't there such a thing?'”  he recalls. “I don't have a business bone in my body, but I thought, 'This is such a can't-miss idea.' So I talked to a few people, and before you knew it we had a camp going.” 

In late August and early September, Phillips and two partners in a company called Hat Trick Sports Marketing will conduct the first-ever Vancouver Canucks Fantasy Camp in Whistler, with a grand finale at General Motors Place. For one week, beer-leaguers can make their dreams come true and live the life they only get to see on television.

Campers will be put through their morning paces with Canucks alumni like McLean, Brodeur, Greg Adams, Garry Valk, Moe Lemay, and other local former NHLers, including Bill Ranford and Gary Nylund serving as coaches. The erstwhile pros will draft teams, and participants will play games in a mini-tournament at night. The Whistler portion of camp will conclude and the fantasy will end with a game against the Canucks alumni team at GM Place.

“I was so excited to hang out with [ex- Mariners] Dave Henderson or Tom Lampkin,”  Phillips says of his chance to rub shoulders with baseball players he had grown up watching. “Part of it is the playing the game and part of it is just being there with a group of people who share the same obsession for something that you do too. For me it was baseball, but for Canuck fans, hopefully, it's hockey.” 

Phillips is hoping to find 80 campers to fill out the roster, and there are really only two requirements: that participants can skate, and that they're over the age of 35.

“Look, this isn't Making the Cut””the TV series where guys are going to come in and think, 'If I elbow that 68-year-old really hard, I'm going to impress the coaches and I'll break camp with the Canucks.' This isn't about that,”  Phillips says with a laugh, explaining the minimum-age requirement. “Hopefully, the hormones have settled down a little bit. We just thought that was a good place to draw the line.” 

In addition to the memories, Canuck fantasy campers will walk off with authentic home and away jerseys with their names and numbers on the back. They'll also receive authentic Canucks pants, gloves, and a helmet and equipment bag, plus they'll have the services of the Canucks' locker-room staff to lend the camp the true big-league feel. Everything about the Canucks Fantasy Camp””from team meals to bus trips to chalk talks””is to give those attending the impression that they're in the majors for one week of their lives.

“When I walked into the Mariners clubhouse and saw my name and my favourite number on the back of a Seattle Mariners jersey””not some made-up jersey but the jersey my idols had worn””and there it was hung clean with my name on the back, I had to choke back the tears,”  Phillips remembers of his baseball experience. “That's part of the dream. It's not just stepping out on the ice but hanging out with the guys and coming into that locker room every day and seeing that uniform hanging there and pulling it over your head. And after the game, pulling it off and chatting with the guy beside you, and in this case, that guy just happens to be Greg Adams.” 

Now, all of this””the experience, the equipment, the ice time””comes with a cost, and it's a number sure to make some cringe. But Phillips and his partners make no apology for the $6,000 price tag attached to making dreams come true.

“We thought, 'We could do this in between peewee practices at [Burnaby's] 8 Rinks and give people a cold panini and a Coke,' but that's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to go first-class,”  he says. “It's interesting; when I was at the Mariners camp, there were people there for whom writing the cheque was no big deal. And then there were those people who had been wanting to do this for several years and it was their 50th-birthday present from their entire family or they'd just retired and everyone had chipped in to make it happen. That's part of the dream, and the love of the game drives people to do some pretty amazing things.” 

Phillips is anxious to see who's willing and able to part with the money necessary to live the life of a Vancouver Canuck for one week. His company is hoping to fill all 80 spots by the middle of July, leaving six weeks to put the finishing touches on the Vancouver Canucks Fantasy Camp (www.vancouver canucksfantasycamp.com/) and perhaps giving him a little time to rustle up a few last-minute guest coaches.

“It wouldn't be any fun for the campers if we told them every guy that was going to be involved, would it?”  he says. “For $6,000, you want a few surprises, right?” 

Phillips seems determined to make some of those surprises happen, so that people taking part in the camp walk away feeling that it was, indeed, a dream come true. He knows that baseball camp exceeded his expectations, and he wants Canucks fans to feel the same way about their experience living the life of a pro””even if it is just for one week.