Before Sidney Crosby was made the first overall selection of the 2005 NHL entry draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, he played in the QMJHL with the Rimouski Oceanic.
Prior to hearing his name called first overall at the 2015 NHL entry draft, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers skated for the OHL’s Erie Otters.
However, it’s where both Crosby and McDavid played in the formative years leading up to entering major junior that perhaps many hockey fans don’t realize but they most certainly should. As should parents of budding hockey proteges.
Hockey academies are the hottest trend in the sport, and with good reason. The track record of these institutions at producing NHL stars is both extensive and impressive.
At the age of 15, Crosby left his family home in Cole Harbour, N.S. to suit up for and study at Shattuck St. Mary’s, a Fairbault, Minn. prep school.
“In Canada I wasn’t able to be on the ice as much,” Crosby said in a 2002 article in Minnesota Hockey Journal. “I knew coming to Shattuck would mean that I could work hard on my skills every day in practices.”
Fellow Nova Scotian Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche followed Crosby’s path to Shattuck and to being selected first overall in the NHL entry draft. Undoubtedly, seeing Canada’s top hockey prospects leaving the country to hone their skill development not only set off alarm bells amongst the country’s hockey hierarchy, it made light bulbs go off over the heads of some of Canada’s top hockey minds.
In the past decade, there’s been an explosion of hockey academies opening across the country.
“There were about six teams when I first got in,” said former NHLer Garry Unger, who’s been head coach at Alberta’s Banff Academy for over a decade. “Now there’s four teams all over Vancouver. There’s two on the island in Victoria, one in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg and one all the way down to Mount Pilot, right on the border of Manitoba and North Dakota.”
It should be noted that hockey academies aren’t entirely new to the Canadian landscape. Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask. has been running a hockey program since the 1920s. Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour played at Notre Dame. So did 1998 NHL first overall draft choice Vincent Lecavalier, former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark, the first player chosen in the 1985 NHL entry draft, and current Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly.
In the days prior to the NHL draft, the Leafs would funnel teenaged prospects who sought to continue their schooling through St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Hall of Famers including Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Tim Horton, Ted Lindsay and Red Kelly played at St. Mike’s.
In Ontario, private prep schools such as St. Andrew’s, Ridley College and Upper Canada College have iced hockey teams since the late 1800s.
The difference today isn’t merely the growth in the number of schools. It’s also about the quality of the product. These prep schools are attracting the cream of the hockey crop to their campuses.
“There’s really good schools,” said Robb Serviss, head coach at the A21 Academy in Windsor, Ont. “A lot of people don’t know that because they’re so fixated – especially here in Ontario – with the OHL and AAA hockey.
“There’s a reason why Crosby went to Shattuck. There’s a reason why MacKinnon went to Shattuck. There’s a reason McDavid went to Peak Academy, and there’s a reason why (Leafs forward Mitch) Marner went to the Hill Academy (in Caledon, Ont.).
“All these players, it’s about the ice time. I think, really, when you look at those guys, they chose to get more out of those important development years before the CHL then a normal AAA hockey player would get.”
Serviss played pro hockey and later coached in the Netherlands. He was head coach of Holland’s national junior team. When he first returned to Canada, he started as a AAA midget coach.
“It’s twice a week at 9 o’clock at night and that’s it,” Serviss said of available practice ice time in AAA hockey. “Our kids (at A21) are every day on the ice from 9am until 10:30. And then they’ve got school and at 4, they’re in the weight room.
“The development hours are so much more than what you’re ever going to get in AAA hockey.”
The programs vary from academy to academy. There are those that offer boarding right on campus. Others billet students with families similar to the way junior teams house their players. Some work with area schools, while others provide schooling right on campus.
Some like St. Andrew’s in Aurora, Ont. are all-boys’ schools, while others such as Ridley offer both boys’ and girls’ prep hockey programs.
It certainly isn’t cheap. A one-year tuition fee at these academies generally falls into the $30,000-$50,000 price range.
With each passing year, though, more hockey parents believe it’s worth the sacrifice to provide their children with this opportunity.
“It’s a great experience for the kids,” Unger said. “They live together, they spend all their travel time together.
“Their winter time is basically school, hockey and there’s not much down time.”