Former pros Mitchell and Lenes helping propel hockey's skill revolution

Montreal Canadiens centre Torrey Mitchell (17) celebrates his goal past Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller (30) during first period NHL action in Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

A Bauer Nexus Geo with a 65 flex and an extreme toe-curve — a stick that towers well above his forehead — is Pete Lenes’s weapon of choice. He wields it so precisely you’d let him cut your hair with it.

If you zoomed in to see Lenes weave it through obstacles and manipulate it for aerial passes and effortless bar-clanking snapshots, you’d think you were watching Pavel Datsyuk or Patrick Kane.

If he was coming up in the hockey world now, Lenes's name might be synonymous with those two. But at five-foot-four and 161 pounds, the 1986-born Vermont native’s path to yesterday’s NHL seemed as arduous as an Everest climb without supplemental oxygen. As a result, the furthest Lenes ended up making it was Austria, where he spent six years as a relatively anonymous professional hockey player.

Times have changed.

There are many more NHL jobs now reserved for undersized players who possess eye-popping skill, and Pete Lenes’s name is going to grow because of that — even if his playing days are through.

Technically, it’s Lenes’s pseudonym — SwaggyP on Instagram and TikTok — currently getting all the attention. And it’s not just coming from your average hockey voyeur who can barely contemplate how he does what he does, but particularly from developing players in leagues around the world. Players who want to refine their skills and are willing to do anything to get to Vermont and do it with Lenes and his partner, recently-retired NHLer Torrey Mitchell.

The former teammates at the University of Vermont, who kept in touch and continued training together as their professional hockey paths diverged, opened Elev802 in Essex Junction, VT., in November of 2019, and the inquiries have been steadily pouring into their inboxes ever since (802, by the way, is the area code for Vermont).

It started with some local buzz, but the excitement swelled fast and furiously with Lenes and Mitchell’s short-form videos spreading on social media.

Monkey see, monkey want to do.

“We give 12 semi-private and private skills lessons a day, seven days a week, and we’re booked through this coming spring,” Mitchell, a veteran of over 650 games split between the San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings, told Sportsnet this week. “We’ve got 50 kids on a wait list — and that’s just within Vermont. We can’t even take kids from out of state right now, or from Montreal.

"We’ve had a tonne of kids reach out from Montreal who want to come do some training with us, but we can’t. We could’ve filled our entire summer schedule — 84 lessons a week — with non-Vermonters. We’re getting messages just through social media, and they’re coming from literally everywhere. Europeans are reaching out. We had three people fly in on private jets just to get around the border to train with us.”

Bauer has signed on as a sponsor, and cross-promotions have been developed with HockeyShot.ca and Biosteel Sports.

The sheer momentum they’ve gained — even with COVID-19 standing in the way of the larger vision to expand the brand and tour cross-country to work with more premium players — has only reinforced to Mitchell and Lenes that they’ve popped up with the right idea at the right time.

“I think now, with the access people have through social media and skill coaches, there’s so much more opportunity for kids to improve at developmental ages,” Lenes said. “Torrey’s and my skills have gotten so much better just by having those continuous touches on the ice, and that’s what we’re selling to the kids. Kids need to touch the puck in ways they can’t during a standard practice.

“I think if we had this, and we had more of an understanding for the technical side of hockey when I was coming up, I think I would’ve had a better chance of making it.”

Mitchell said the technical skills he and Lenes are focused on, sharpened in the confined space of a 40-by-60-foot ice surface they’ve built, would’ve made him a different player than the one who spent most of his career as a checking centre and penalty killer.

“I’ve done so much more stickhandling now than I did when I played, which is so ridiculous to say,” said Mitchell, a 35-year-old Montreal native. “But all of this small skill stuff is transforming the game. Everyone wants to be Connor McDavid going through the obstacles, and the game is accepting that now. That type of training is what’s popular. And you see now that every kid going through the draft now is so stinkin' skilled.

“The game is now tailored perfectly toward players like Pete. And I think for me, personally, it would’ve changed a lot. Now, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks (Mitchell was drafted by the Sharks in the fourth round of the 2004 Draft) are no longer grinders; a lot of them are studs who can stickhandle better than first-liners from 10 years ago.”

It’s a revolution that started with Hall of Famer Adam Oates, one that’s gained steam with renowned skills coach Darryl Belfry and his star-studded roster of NHL clients, and Lenes and Mitchell are hoping to carry the niche forward — not just for NHL hopefuls, but for players at every competitive level.

“And for girls, too,” Mitchell, a father of three girls, emphasized.

The players training at Elev802 are as young as seven and as old as 23. Some are attending U.S. prep schools, some are playing college hockey, some are in the ECHL — a league Lenes played in for two seasons before leaving for Europe — and some are in the AHL.

“And we’ve had some NHLers reach out, and a bunch of former NHLers are expressing interest in what we’re doing,” Mitchell said.

Down the line, the pair hopes to open up shop in different states and potentially get some of the NHL alumni involved in running training sessions, which is something they’ve discussed with NHL Alumni Association president Glenn Healy.

But for now, Lenes and Mitchell will do what COVID restrictions allow: train one-to-three people per session with highly-customized technical programming and grow their brand with more of their viral social media content.

“We wanted people to understand what we were doing and I said I’m going to shoot a video until we hit 10,000 followers, and that started in March,” Lenes said of the Instagram feed that now has over 22,000 followers. “It hasn’t stopped since. We’ve put at least one video, sometimes two in a day since March, and now we’re getting paid advertisements.”

“These are 15-second videos,” Mitchell said. “We’re very aware this catches on more with players than an actual tutorial. The tutorial is for when you come in the building.”

And if you come out of it handling the puck more like Lenes does, or skating and shooting like Mitchell does, mission accomplished.

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