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Rise of the Academies

By Patrick Johnston on March 15, 2014

Are they the future to striking the right balance between athletic performance and academic achievement?


The young man wasn’t happy.

He’d been hoping to make a major midget team.

He hadn’t. A battle against injuries had slowed him during tryouts. His dream seemed in tatters.

But he’d also done a tryout at a hockey academy earlier in the summer. There was the possibility of going away to play. But that didn’t seem like it would be much fun.

He and his dad felt unsure. They didn’t know what the academy would be like; it was going to be the first year, after all. But it’s turned out to be everything they wanted it to be.

“It’s the best decision we’ve ever made,” says dad John Colebourn.

His son Clint, a Kamloops Blazers draft pick, is thriving in the Burnaby Winter Club’s new hockey academy. He’s playing for the Elite 15 team for first-year midget players. With a balanced emphasis on practice time and school work, his dad can’t believe how far his son has come and how much Clint is enjoying himself.

“He’s getting hockey during the day time and he doesn’t have to scramble after school,” dad explains. “And the showcase weekends work so much better.”

The Academy team plays four games a weekend, once a month, in the Canada Sports School Hockey League, while maintaining a four-to-one practice-to-game ratio.

It’s all about skill development at BWC.

And it’s drawing rave reviews from people outside the program.

“Even the scouts are telling me that this is where it’s going,” John said. “‘I see so many terrible major midget games,’ [one scout] told me.”

One of the arguments put forward about the hockey academy concept is that it gives players another year or two of development alongside their peers.

“Clint’s playing against kids his own age, he’s not getting beaten up,” he said. “All the games are really close. There’s no stacked teams.

“Major midget’s all special teams, all your top guys are going, but your first year guys are sitting there. This way you get ice time.”

To make it all work, BWC partnered with the Burnaby School District and the players take classes at nearby Burnaby Central Secondary. The coaches, teachers and administrators work together to ensure players are on task, not just on the ice, but in the classroom too.

“The really nice thing is because the school is involved, they’re watching the kids’ grades. They’re making sure the kids are getting their work done,” John said. “It gets right back to the coaches. You haven’t been doing your homework—you’re off the powerplay. As a parent, it’s great!”

“I don’t have to go to the coach and tell him about school,” he said. “They’re not going to sanction the hockey end of it if they’re meeting their expectations in class.”

The cost to play in the BWC/Burnaby Central academy program is $13,000 per season, which is on the lower end of the hockey academy scale. It may be a bit of sticker shock, but Colebourn thinks it’s worth it. There are also private academies, which charge anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 per year for their program.

“We’re really happy with the program,” said BWC general manager Len McNeely. “We had all this ice in the daytime going unused, we’d been looking to get something like this going for some time. We really like the sports school concept that Hockey Canada has been pushing.”

“We finally did it because we could put our teams in a competitive league. Okanagan Hockey Academy and Pursuit of Excellence (two private programs in the B.C. interior) were always looking for games, now they and we have them,” he said.

On top of the almost daily practice time, BWC players get dry land time two or three times a week. It’s a player-centred skill development program.

That’s why Hockey Canada established its sports school accreditation system, explains Pier-Alexandre Poulin, manager of school programs for the national hockey association.

“We created the sport school model to give a second option,” Poulin said. “In Quebec, they’ve used the model for something like 40 years. The schools there have a really good midget program; we based our program a little bit on that model.”

Hockey Canada has long pushed for more skills programs inside schools, and many schools offer courses as part of their physical education curriculum. But the sports school model offers a better package.

There are now 18 sports schools accredited across the country by Hockey Canada.

“Coming from Quebec, I had a chance to play in one of those programs. To me, it was the best year of high school I ever had,” Poulin said.

Most programs offer two teams—an under-18 midget “prep” team, where players are aiming to head to Junior A and then, eventually, a collegiate team, on top of the Elite 15 team, like the one Colebourn is playing for.

“Some kids take longer to develop,” Poulin pointed out. “Not making major midget or midget AAA shouldn’t mean your playing days are over.”

The hockey is fun and competitive. The players become better players because of the heavy skill development emphasis. And parents are happy because their kids are getting the time to focus on their school work.

“In our situation, kids can get the best of both—high-level academics, with hockey too,” said Cam Hodgson, CEO of the Edge School in Calgary, another member of the CSSHL. “It’s a fresh start for kids, maybe they’re getting a new set of eyes on them.”

“We were founded by a group of parents who wanted to find a new way,” Hodgson explained. “Our kids are in class all day; the coaches work hand-in-hand with the teachers of the school.
“Our teachers know what it’s like to deal with a team that’s had a tough weekend. Or an athlete who’s injured. It’s a great environment.”

Edge, founded in 1999, saw the best academic results in its history last year. Graduates have landed at Harvard or at universities throughout Canada.

“I think the parents that are here, they obviously value the education and the sport development piece, we’re dealing with parents who get that,” said Hodgson. “In today’s age, you’re pretty short-sighted if you’re not looking at some sort of post-secondary.”

“It’s all around how to develop the total student athlete. We work very hard to develop everything together, and not one thing at the exclusion of the other. Our big three areas are academics, athletics and character,” he said.

It all reinforces what Stephen Pollack, of Toronto’s Everest Academy, calls “a better balance of life.”

“To get ahead, coaches want players who have good character,” he said. “We really push the leadership aspect. We have smaller classrooms and we look for younger teachers, who bring more enthusiasm.”

Building your school day to incorporate regular and intensive sports time offers young athletes the best route to get their 10,000 hours, Pollack feels.

(The concept of one needing 10,000 hours of practice in a particular area before becoming an “expert” was popularized by Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell, building off of work by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Gladwell points to the likes of the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples of highly skilled people who still had to spend a great amount of time building their expertise before finding enduring success.)
“We start from a skills-first approach,” he said.

Everest and Edge are examples of a common trend in sports schools: they aren’t just hockey focused. Both offer other specializations, meaning class time features a mix of experience and talents. It’s not just hockey 24/7.

At Everest, they take the mix to a new level, Pollack said. There are 20 international students enrolled, mostly as hockey players, but they’ve also got a strong music program.

“We’re on the theme of highly active kids,” he explained.

Being highly active also means playing more than one sport: Everest students have their primary sport, but are encouraged to try other sports in their off-season.

“It’s not uncommon to get a second sport in the spring,” he said. “The younger kids get an all-sports program, which builds overall athletic skill.

“Almost any successful athlete you hear interviewed, they talk about how they played other sports. Rafa Nadal talks about playing soccer—it improved his footwork.”

“A break (from hockey) doesn’t necessarily mean no sport, it means doing something different,” he said.

Ex-NHLer Dixon Ward agrees. His own experience lends itself to the sports academy, prep-school model. After graduating from the University of North Dakota, Ward played a decade in the NHL, most notably with the Buffalo Sabres (he broke in with the Vancouver Canucks in 1992-93, recording a career-high 52 points as a rookie).

He is now running the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C.

“We’ve seen a comprehensive shift in youth hockey in the last decade or so,” he said. “The emphasis on winning, the major junior draft—the environment has become very precarious in their overall development.

“The academy interested me because it centred on hockey but it also builds their overall development to cope with life as an adult.”

Despite being the son of school teacher parents, Ward admits “I never thought I’d be a ‘hockey school guy.’”

He had helped out during his summers at the long-standing Okanagan Hockey School, where he enjoyed helping young players develop. But he didn’t have any ambition to go the coaching route for its own sake.

But as his son entered school, he became more interested in what might be possible for young athletes.

Maybe it’s a teacher’s instinct, gained from his parents. Whatever it is, he’s loving it.

“It’s a lot different when you are able to design programs and the environment. I get a lot of enjoyment watching these kids develop,” he said.

“Education is very important for us, it’s a major focus. It’s important, whether you’re going to play in the NHL or not.

“We do have kids who are definitely going to the Western Hockey League, but here it’s still about learning to be a good citizen and a good teammate,” he said.

To get there, Ward explains that kids learn how to be a good person and be accountable, with a strong focus on making sure the game is fun.

“This industry, I guess you can call it an industry, ‘the private program industry’—the people involved in it don’t understand it as much as we’d like them to,” he shared.

“It’s not about producing an NHL player, or charging them 30 grand to do so, it’s about child development. [At OHA] we spend more time on character and educational development, hockey’s just the common focus and passion. That’s the thread.”

“Our success is judged by where our kids are at, where they’ve ended up five years from now,” he said. “We’re going to enjoy the day-to-day process, it’s the same process, it’s fun, it’s hard work.”

In the end, it’s all about patience and learning to recognize the long-term value of structuring a child’s athletic life, with an emphasis on both fun and challenge. Where they end up as a hockey player is mostly out of a player’s control, but what kind of person they’ll be along the way is something that can be worked on.

“That’s the message we send real early to our families,” he said. “They figure it out and see how their kid is maturing over time—the light bulb goes on.”

“Focus on one day at a time, let’s excel that way and then add it all up at the end,” he said. “We don’t want to tell anyone to give up their dream but we want them to understand the process.”

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By Patrick Johnston| March 15, 2014
Categories:  Minor Hockey

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