Heartland Hockey Camp

Former high-scoring NHL player Steve Jensen has scored on his new venture—a summer hockey camp that caters to the entire family.
Heartland Hockey Camp

After an 11-year professional hockey career, former Minnesota North Star Steve Jensen, who also played on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, decided it was time to pursue his dream of coaching. “I thought I could be a better coach than I was a player, and I was a pretty decent player,” he says.

Jensen’s dream turned into Heartland Hockey Camp, the only self-contained privately owned hockey camp in the world. Located on 80 acres in Deerwood, 120 miles north of the Twin Cities, Heartland is now in its 25th summer. Campers hone basic and advanced hockey skills through five training sessions every day as well as daily lectures and video review classes.

But unlike a typical hockey camp, Heartland has a family vacation feel to it. Yes, there’s the requisite ice arena with Jumbotron, dormitories, and weight rooms, but the 1,800 feet of lakeshore property on Portage Lake is also home to tall pine trees, rolling hills, and a freshwater stream. “It’s an unmatched parcel of real estate,” Jensen says.

Something else that makes Heartland distinctive: “Eighteen years ago, I pioneered an idea that nobody had heard of in the hockey camp industry,” Jensen says. “I started father-son and mom-and-daughter camps, where young kids who weren’t emotionally or socially prepared to go away to camp on their own come to camp with their parents and enjoy the experience together. That really sent our business into orbit.”

Parents and kids share ice time together if their skill levels sync up, but it’s not unusual to see Mom or Dad playing 18 holes while the kids are skating. Kids and adults at Heartland can also enjoy mini golf, tennis, guided fishing excursions, and a host of supervised water activities including swimming, boating, water skiing, tubing, canoeing, kayaking, and hurtling down a 100-foot water slide. “We’ve gradually upgraded the property every year,” Jensen notes. “We always try to add something new, make something better or improve our operations.”

A commitment to quality helps Heartland generate annual revenues of $1.2 million even though it’s open only 10 weeks a year. “Still, we’re able to generate revenue in excess of what a lot of rinks do in an entire year,” Jensen says. “We’re probably the only hockey rink in the world that shuts down in the winter and only opens in the summer.”

Jensen’s National Hockey League pedigree is another big differentiator. “Not many former NHL players have the passion for being hands on every day at a summer camp,” Jensen says. “Many of the retired players have no financial motivation or ambition to get in the trenches and work that hard. I came from a different era. The average salary when I played was about $150,000. I didn’t have a million dollars banked away.”

Several former NHL players have made guest appearances at Heartland Hockey Camp to serve as instructors. They’ve included Tom Younghans, another former North Star, and Joel Otto, who played for Bemidji State University and the NHL’s Calgary Flames.

Jensen credits much of Heartland’s success to his wife, Sandy. “We as a pair are probably the best camp-owners-slash-hands-on-directors you’ll find in the hockey camp industry,” he says. “I don’t know of another husband-and-wife team that has worked 12 to 14 hours every day of the summer for 25 years. Sandy has done more behind the scenes than I have up front for the success of our company.”

Running the camp is rewarding financially, he adds, “but the rewards are much greater spiritually and emotionally because of the long-term relationships we’ve built over the years. I get e-mail updates all the time from former campers on what they’re doing and about how they learned to persevere and work through adversity. The life lessons they learned at the camp were a lot more valuable than the hockey skills.”