Nestled on a lake in the heart of Minnesota vacationland, Minnesota Hockey Camps welcomes home hundreds of campers every summer.
From young, eager skaters learning the basics of passing the puck, to established NHL all-stars training in the off-season—the camp swells with passion.
Just ask Chuck ‘Gringo’ Grillo. He and Herb Brooks had the idea to start the camp back in 1976 with a simple purpose in mind: kids have to prepare themselves for the future. Whether or not that’s a future in hockey, Minnesota Hockey Camps has a way of helping kids discover a newfound level of boldness and courage.
“There’s a culture there as soon as you walk on the grounds,” Gringo said. “You almost get the feeling you owe it to yourself to work hard.”
Nearly 40 years later, Gringo has witnessed more than 500 players move on to the NHL. The walls at the camp are filled with photographs of success stories in hockey and in life. From TJ Oshie to Scott Harnell, to an Air Force One pilot to doctors and lawyers—the Nisswa, Minn., camp has been an important step for many during their lifetime.
Gringo knows there’s life after hockey. But for him, hockey has been a constant in his life since he was 3 years old. At 78, he’s just as involved in hockey as he ever was.
For Dean ‘Dino’ Grillo, summertime was always family time. His father, Gringo, was active as a scout in the NHL for many years, so the offseason meant they had more time to spend together.
Dino remembers seeing professional players come through Minnesota Hockey Camps—the New York Rangers in particular—which sparked his interest in someday being in that same spot.
He went on to play in the San Jose Sharks system, European leagues and with other teams before serving as a player agent at O2K Worldwide Management.
But had it not been for Minnesota Hockey Camps, Dino knows things may have been very different.
“The big thing for me was growing up there my whole life,” Dino said. “I was very fortunate to have the camp because it was my parents. You get a little independent. I think I lived in every building in that place. I think it’s just that part of being in a dorm and knowing your parents are right there.”
Gringo and his wife, Clairene Grillo, poured their hearts into the camp and their family. They knew there was nothing that could prepare them for the 100-hour weeks and 200 kids coming in to the camp, but they welcomed the situation. They knew their obligation to those kids was greater than the kids’ obligation to them.
Chuck 'Gingo' Grillo addresses campers at Minnesota Hockey Camps.
Clairene, the driving force behind the camp, passed away in February 2017. Her legacy lives on through her lasting impact, and through new ownership in her son Dino and his wife, Carrie Grillo.
The duo assumed ownership of Minnesota Hockey Camp in recent months, and plan on carrying on just the same as its previous owners. Gringo will still be around as a volunteer and mentor, and he couldn’t be more proud to pass on the family tradition.
“I think the biggest thing for us is just continuing the legacy we’re so proud of,” Dino said. “That’s my parents. If that’s the least we can do for them, it’s going to be great. I think the camp is special in so many ways. It’s a hockey camp, but there’s so many things involved with kids growing up.”
Dino knows full well that his parents created a special place. First and foremost, he knows it takes hard work and passion to run this camp.
“My mom spent endless hours at this place,” Dino said. “Never once would you hear her complain. She would spend all summer every hour of the day there when needed. My dad has been a very passionate guy about hockey and about life. I think just with him, it’s very similar to me in that we have to really rely on a special woman to run the camp.
“Carrie is learning that, because she knows what I do for a living. I’ve got to get out and watch hockey just like my dad. We’re very lucky we have someone that shares that passion and love for not only hockey, but loves kids.”
Chuck (left) and Clairene (center) Grillo.
Dean 'Dino' Grillo (left) and Chuck Grillo (right) address campers at Minnesota Hockey Camps.
At Minnesota Hockey Camps, it’s hockey from sun up until sun down. Campers skate twice a day, go to dryland training and push themselves beyond their limitations.
“I think it’s a culture that can’t be met,” Dino said. “I’ve been everywhere, and I know there’s lots of good ones. Our culture and what it brings out in every kid—it’s incredible. It’s just a culture that has been set there with Herbie and my dad. It hasn’t strayed too far.”
Gringo is a firm believer that in order to be bigger, quicker, faster and stronger, you’ve got to jump, lift, sprint and skate all in the same day. The dryland training facility cultivates that premise.
The camp’s dryland training facility has gotten taller and been renovated through the years the years, but Dino said he’s never seen it duplicated or matched. And it works.
So well, in fact, that the camp hired someone full time to manage the program. It’s the camp’s bread and butter, and repeatedly brings out synergy in each and every camper.
“There’s no way of knowing what size you’re going to be or how fast you’re going to be or how talented you’re going to be,” Gringo said. “But there is a way of knowing how hard you can work. When you work hard, good things happen.”
“There’s no way of knowing what size you’re going to be or how fast you’re going to be or how talented you’re going to be. But there is a way of knowing how hard you can work. When you work hard, good things happen.”
Oftentimes, a seemingly never-ending line will wrap around the dryland facility. Kids have their eyes glued to the NHL players working out, hoping for a glance their way, or maybe even an autograph.
They’re watching their idols train as if they’re watching a hockey game.
The campers won’t bother them, but there are days where they’re able to get a few things signed. For the NHL players, they know their time at Minnesota Hockey Camps is necessary.
“They all know when they come in, they come for a reason,” Dino said. “They come to get ready in what they feel is very important time of the year. They’ll spend 10 to 14 days, but they know what they’re doing is really double what they’d do anywhere else. They’re putting themselves ahead 2 weeks when they leave. That’s what they firmly believe.”
With more than a dozen years of NHL experience under his belt, Scott Hartnell still finds time to put Minnesota Hockey Camps on his schedule. At 34 years old, he still signs up and goes through the registration process like any other camper.
Minnesota Hockey Camps doesn’t change anything for the NHL players. The hurdles get a little higher, but schedules stay the same. NHL all-stars train just like the 8-year-olds.
Chris Chelios and Wayne Gretzy both sent their kids to the camp, knowing just how well the camp prepares its skaters.
“It’s neat,” Dino said. “We’ve had the Japanese nation team here. We’ve had the Czech Republic National Junior team training. I just think it’s great, and, quite frankly, if I was a Minnesota person, it’s pretty special to send my kid an hour or two away and skate with Germans, Russians, Czechs, Swedes and Finns. Do I know why they come? I have no idea; but I do know European countries are heavy into training, and they’ll do their research.”
At the end of the day, Dino and Carrie can’t help but pour everything they have into the camp, just as Gringo and Clairene did.
They’ve watched young skaters develop into top talent on the ice and off the ice. They’ve celebrated ups and downs with their campers and workers, and even birthdays. Brittany, now one of the camp counselors, has been celebrated every birthday of her life at the camp. From one to 21, the Grillo family has watched her grow up.
“As much as I love the campers, I love the workers, too,” Carrie said. “I work with all the interns and counselors, and I love those kind of bonds. You just take them on as your own child. You spend nine weeks with a kid and you kind of get invested in them a little bit.”
Not many couples get the chance to work together, but Dino and Carrie couldn’t be more grateful. The downside? There’s no turning it off. They share a passion for the camp and the kids, and those things are also on their minds at home.
When summertime rolls around, Carrie and Dino keep busy, and know the importance of preserving the legacy of Minnesota Hockey Camps set by its founders.
“If you find something you’re passionate about and care about, you just carry on the legacy,” Dino said. “We’ve been doing it together for 10 years now. There is a takeover of ownership, but it’s kind of the same.”
At Minnesota Hockey Camps, the feeling of family extends beyond bloodlines. When campers and counselors arrive on the grounds, whether it’s for a week or an entire summer, they’re welcomed with open arms.
“It’s a home,” Carrie said. “So every summer, people come home.”
Chuck Grillo plays the accordion for his granddaughter, Piper Grillo.
Gringo and Dino attend a Minnesota Wild game against the San Jose Sharks in March 2017.