Former Capital a fixture at Gardens Ice House
Jan. 29, 2004
Ted Black
Staff Writer

Lawrence Jackson Jr./The Gazette

Former National Hockey League player Nelson Burton gives instructions to Gracie Shewell, 8, of Laurel, during one of his hockey clinics at Gardens Ice House.

After playing hockey professionally for seven seasons followed by two years as an assistant coach with the Chesapeake Icebreakers of the Eastern Hockey League, Nelson Burton realized that his greatest enjoyment derived from watching youngsters learn how to play the sport.

Burton, 46, has operated Nelson Hockey out of the Gardens' Ice House in Laurel since it opened in 1996 and he has enjoyed the experience so much that he admits he finds it difficult to take a two-week vacation each summer. During the peak season from September through March, Burton spends six days a week at the rink, with several days comprised of 15 hours.

"During my days on the bench with the Chesapeake Icebreakers, I learned a lot about how kids think today," Burton said. "The head coach was Chris Nilan, who was a late draft choice who worked his way to the NHL and played on two Stanley Cup teams. Most of the guys didn't take advantage of learning from him. So I knew right then that I wanted to work with younger kids, teaching them the game, because at that age they'll listen."

When Nancy Slavinsky first enrolled her son Lucas in one of Burton's camps four years ago, she admitted her son was "slightly cocky" and she wanted Burton to help diminish his overconfidence. But along the way Lucas Slavinsky, 12, has actually gained cockiness, according to his mom, and he spends much of the year at the rink.

"When we first enrolled Lucas in the hockey camp, he was so cocky that I told Nelson he had to help him become less cocky," Slavinsky said. "Nelson said he would, but now he's even cockier than ever. But he really enjoys going to the hockey camps and working with Nelson. Nelson knows every kid by name and that's impressive to Lucas, especially when you're talking about 300 kids in the program."

Slavinsky noted that her son spends parts of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the arena and on those days when he isn't practicing with the Pee-Wee Metro Maple Leafs, he's assisting some of the younger kids.

"Lucas eats, sleeps and drinks hockey," Slavinsky said. "He's really learned a lot about the game from Nelson. He loves being at the rink with the other kids. They've developed this great camaraderie. Nelson takes the time to teach a lot of different aspects of the game to the kids. He's a coach, a teacher and in some cases he's like a father to a lot of the boys in his camps."

Clay Carr has owned and operated the Gardens' Ice House since it was first opened on Sept. 13, 1996. Initially the arena had two skating rinks, but a third one was added and opened on New Year's Day, 1999. Carr admits that Burton's camps have contributed greatly to the success of the arena, which remains open year-round although the summer months are taxing.

"Nelson is a great coach and a very important part of our success," Carr said. "He's one of the few coaches in the area that everybody knows. If you want to get your kid started in hockey, you look for Nelson. He brings such a vast knowledge of the game and he really enjoys working with the kids. I think he enjoys teaching the game as much as he ever did playing the game."

Burton admits there are few days when he does not look forward to heading to his office on the second floor of the Gardens' Ice House, even on days when he arrives by 5:30 in the morning and won't return home until 11 that night.

"When you're a kid growing up in Nova Scotia, all you think about is playing hockey. That's like your ticket out," said Burton, who spent two seasons with the Washington Capitals before being traded to Quebec and later to Minnesota. "I left home when I was 15 and basically my whole life has evolved around hockey. I have to admit I love my job. I love working with the kids. I have fun just seeing them learn and have fun."

Burton noted that two of the misconceptions around hockey involved the sport's expense and violence. Burton was quick to point out that his camps, which typically average $10-12 per session, are affordable by most standards and often the equipment is loaned to the newest enrollees. He insists the sport is physical and occasionally violent, but those aspects do not override the skills required.

"When you look at the costs of the camps," Burton said. "I think they're very reasonable, especially for what the kids learn. We'll loan the kids the equipment for the first session and there are plenty of second-hand sports stores where the kids can get skates, gloves, pads and a stick all for under $100. Sure, hockey is a physical sport. But your kid is less likely to get seriously hurt playing hockey than playing soccer. Sure, there's a lot of contact but name a sport where you can play without colliding with an opponent."

Slavinsky noted that the lessons her son Lucas has learned over the years more than outweigh the costs of participating.

"The way I've always looked at it is that this gives Lucas some structure and it helps him develop physical skills and the ability to interact with other kids and adults," she said. "It beats having him spend time on the street. As far as the costs, they're modest. For anyone looking to get their kids involved, other parents and I have equipment that our kids outgrew and we give away a lot of equipment to new kids to the program."

E-mail Ted Black at