By the simple fact that I am not out on the ice this year, the second annual Missouri Mavericks Fantasy Camp features some pretty darn good skaters.

By the simple fact that I am not out on the ice this year, the second annual Missouri Mavericks Fantasy Camp features some pretty darn good skaters.

“A marked improvement over last year,” joked Mavericks coach Scott Hillman, who is running the nightly camp at the Independence Events Center with director of hockey operations and recently retired forward Simon Watson.

“No, really – the campers this year are having just as much fun as your group had last year. And we do have some pretty good skaters.”

They certainly have some dedicated skaters among the 20 sold-out slots, including one who gets the prize for traveling the farthest to join the fantasy crew.

Silicon Valley whiz Michael Rivers, a longtime hockey fan who lives in the Bay Area, Googled tryouts, hockey and camps a while back and discovered the Mavericks Fantasy Camp.

He was intrigued.

Rivers then found himself on a plane and Thursday night he said, “It’s one of the greatest decisions I ever made. I’ve never had more fun in my life.”

I know what he’s talking about.

Last year, while learning how to play goalie, I experienced a couple of highs that kept me going through a year’s worth of lows.

“I follow the East Coast Hockey League, but know about the Central Hockey League, and I was really intrigued by the camp,” said Rivers, who was a star Thursday night.

Hillman placed a water bottle in the middle of the net and said that camp would not end until a camper knocked it over with a slap shot from the middle of the ice.

After several campers came close but failed, Rivers knocked the bottle into the back of the net.

That was followed by stick taps and wild applause.

“I’ll tell you what – and please put this in your story because I think people who are thinking about coming to this camp should know it – Coach Hillman and Simon Watson don’t just go through the motions.

“This camp is well thought out, informative and fun. They make you feel like a part of the team.”

Rivers and the other campers have their own nameplates above their lockers and authentic camp jerseys.

“These guys put their egos aside and allow us to become members of the team for a week, and it’s just amazing,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why more professional franchises don’t follow this franchise and see what they are doing.

“They treat their fans with respect, and they are first class all the way.”

Steve Winship, a 1982 Truman High School grad, didn’t come quite as far as Rivers, but the director of tennis at Lakewood Oaks Country Club, agreed with his fantasy camp teammate.

“I feel like I just played a five-set match,” Winship said as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “These guys work so hard and you don’t know it until you get out on the ice.”

Winship is eager to get Watson on the tennis court, for a little payback this weekend.

“Wattie is working me awfully hard, but I’m loving it. They call this a fantasy camp, and it really is a fantasy to get out and see what it’s like to play professional hockey – even at our level – and I’m awful.”

After a spirited game and set of drills, the campers return to the locker room. Hillman and Watson spent hours going over tapes and different videos to give a behind-the-scene look at a strategy session.

But they never got around to it as a good old-fashioned bull session wrapped up the night, with equipment manager Andrew Dvorak providing many of the classic tales.

They talked about player pranks, the fine art of rookie hazing and camaraderie among teammates.

As the session wound down, one camper said, “Could I bring up a topic of discussion for tomorrow night?”

Hillman nodded in his direction.

“Groupies,” the camper said, straight-faced as everyone else broke out into laughter. “After all, you’re calling this a fantasy camp, and that’s my fantasy. Believe me, I’m getting this jersey framed and telling everyone I played for the Mavericks.”

Blushing, and wiping the tears from his eyes, Hillman bid the campers goodnight.

And as he walked into the parking lot, Hillman was still chuckling.

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