Kehlin Garinger is not your ordinary teenager. 

The 17-year-old high school student is at the rink at 7:30 every morning ready to practice. He watches his diet carefully, and follows his weight training regimen closely. At 165 pounds, one would be hard-pressed to find an ounce of fat on him.

Garinger plays minor hockey in Coaldale, Alta., but every morning is at the rink for a high school hockey program called "sports performance." The program is part of the Palliser school district's efforts to keep their students fit.

"The board has moved and is moving toward having a nutrition focus in the schools. So I think this just kind of enhances that," says Garinger's father, Palliser school district associate superintendent Kevin Garinger.  

Kate Andrews High School in Coaldale introduced the program this year, and the reception has been better than expected.

"I do know that when I talk to the parents involved, one of the things I do get is that they inevitably tell me that [their child's] level of fitness has improved dramatically," says school principal Danny Roberts.

Parents seeing improvement

Garinger is an example of the kind of improvement parents are already noticing in their young players. "He's just really focused on his health and on his body, I think definitely the program has had an impact on him," says Garinger.

"[There's been] huge improvements, to the point where he's looking at extending his hockey career a little bit, and that's kind of neat."

Each morning, Garinger and his 25 fellow classmates spend an hour on the ice with former NHLer Bruce Bell. A 15-year veteran of the NHL, Bell played for the New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues and the Quebec Nordiques.

"Having someone of Bruce's calibre working with our children is just awesome. So they can't do anything but improve when they're working with someone like him and they're on the ice for a number of hours," says the senior Garinger.

Teacher Lawrence Thiessen looks on, handles evaluations and off-ice sessions on Fridays.

Over the year, the students get 100 hours on the ice. In order to keep things fresh, Bell breaks up the weeks and months into themes. One month was spent on power skating, another on stick agility.

"You do have to keep it interesting for these guys. We implement two new drills every week," says Bell.

Enthusiasm high

But enthusiasm for the program has not been a problem. "[The students are] at the rink by 7:30 in the morning, and they're excited to be there," says Thiessen.

When the ice comes out in March, the students will move into the classroom for a more intense focus on fitness and nutrition.

The program is made up of students from grades 9 to 12, and anyone can join, although all of the players in the program play in the local minor leagues.

But the school board is hoping to expand the program next year to Baker Junior High School, to allow students in Grades 5, 6, 7 and 8 the opportunity to play.

"That's really where it should be, because that's where you've got a lot of skill development happening," says Thiessen. 

Bell hopes that it will get more students interested in hockey. "Getting as many kids involved as possible is the goal," he says.  

The program has faced its share of problems. Since most of the players involved are too young to drive, the students have to be bused to and from the arena by volunteers.

But they still end up with their hockey bags at school, and the school has struggled to find storage space. As it stands, many students are left taking their bags home on the bus at the end of the day. 

Interest is growing

But interest is growing, and one big reason is the price. As a high school course, the program is subsidized by the school board, meaning the students get ice time at rock-bottom prices.

At 400 dollars per year, each session costs the students and their families less than four dollars. They also get jerseys and socks.

Fitness and skill improvement is tracked on an individual basis.

"What we did was we started everybody at … a base line. Bruce has said after 100 hours on the ice, we should be looking at at least a 25 per cent improvement on skills, skating, shooting, everything," says Thiessen.

"It's not necessarily the best player [who] has the best mark."

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