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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Hockey instructor offers personalized service

Tags: Business
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Daniel Bochner, centre, with a couple of his students

There are hands-on entrepreneurs and then there’s Daniel Bochner, a business owner who’s the manager, employee, strategic analyst and marketing maven for his own company.

Whether he prepares his own taxes is unclear, but when it comes to Universal Hockey, he is pretty much the company.

Only 27, Bochner has parlayed his skills on the ice, along with the experience he’s accumulated playing in Canada and Europe, into a successful elite player development academy.

It’s the go-to location for young players already competing in AAA, the highest level of hockey available in Canada. The instructor who joins them on the ice, prepares the drills and demonstrates the techniques is Bochner himself.

“I teach it, all the sessions,” said Bochner. “Our skills are very difficult. It’s a European training style.”

“The way I set up my business is to offer a very elite product that people can’t find elsewhere… People come because I’m the one teaching their kid. If I put X, Y, or Z on the ice, the people will feel cheated and won’t come.”

Bochner does have three people working for him, although not on the ice. One is Adam Reynolds, who runs a dry-land training program for the players. Another is Brenley Shapiro, a sports performance consultant who deals with the psychological issues faced by elite athletes. He’s also hired a full-time administrator to handle the logistics and paperwork associated with the business.

“It’s an all-encompassing development camp we run for kids,” Bochner said.

Two years ago, when he started the business, he had one client who booked him to provide private lessons for his son. “Now I have students from more than seven countries,” Bochner said.

The academy offers private and semi-private lessons, weekly camps and summer camps. The client list and the business have grown so quickly that Bochner has become a major customer for ice time at a couple of Toronto-area rinks. Most of his sessions are at the Pavilion and Chesswood Arena.

He admits he’s spent almost nothing on advertising. News of the academy gets around by “word of mouth” and through Internet videos.

The business grew quickly. His first client, impressed with the results, offered to back him financially. He loaned Bochner enough money to book ice time in advance and purchase warm-up jackets and other accessories to make the company look more professional. Bochner proudly said he repaid the loan in only three months.

Today, the firm “is in the six figures in profit,” Bochner said.

As an elite academy, Universal charges a premium for its services, about $100 to $150 more than at most other week-long camps. The hourly rate, which includes ice rental, is $220. Bochner is confident that despite the multitude of hockey camps and instructional assistance services that are out there, Universal is well worth the price.

Bochner employs some of the best techniques that he picked up in a lifetime of hockey. A product of the Toronto-area hockey organizations, he played for teams in Ajax and Thornhill, as well as the Mississauga Senators and the Lindsay Muskies.

Until fairly recently, he also played professionally in Finland, France and Serbia. In between, Bochner, whose father is from Haifa, joined the Israeli junior and senior national teams to play in IIHF Division II and III tournaments, winning two gold, two silver and two bronze medals.

When his competitive hockey career ended, “I still wanted to stay involved in hockey. I wanted to give back to the kids. A lot of people did a lot for me when I was a kid,” he said.

Living in Europe, Bochner took note of the different techniques employed to teach youngsters individual skills. He believes Europeans are better at it than Canadians, who focus more on team-oriented concepts.

Europeans use a club system in which youngsters play as they grow up. That creates familiarity with players’ skills and allows instructors more time to work with them. Canadian kids switch teams and coaches much more frequently. They simply don’t work on individual skills as much as Europeans do, Bochner said.

Canada produces lots of talented hockey players, Bochner conceded, but consider that there are 550,000 people playing here, 40,000 in the GTA alone. In all of Sweden there are 65,000 players and in Russia, a country of 130 million, there are only 63,000 players. On a per capita basis, they do better at developing elite players, he said.

Bochner’s on-ice sessions are based on “things I picked up along the way,” in Europe and Canada.

Videos on his website show youngsters demonstrating skating agility and puck control that might intimidate lesser players. “Coaches here feel kids can’t do these things,” Bochner said, “so they don’t teach it. I have a competitive advantage in that I can demonstrate the drills.”

Videos of the drills carried on the Internet have attracted the attention of skaters around the world. Four kids from Austria enrolled in his camp after viewing the videos on YouTube.

The Internet has proven to be his main marketing tool, along with word of mouth.

Things are looking up for Universal. Bochner plans to expand by opening his own gym for off-ice training. And he expects to grow outside of Canada.

“I want us to become an international brand,” he said. Next year he plans to open an academy in Sweden that will operate when Swedish kids are on holiday and Canadian kids are in school.

He plans to do the training himself. “I’m not concerned about the money. It’s something I’m passionate about and giving people a fair product,” he said.

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