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The changing landscape of prep school hockey

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It seems like yesterday that the New England Prep School Hockey circuit was the place to play for aspiring young American hockey players ages 14-18. The likes of Brian Leetch (Avon Old Farms), Craig Janney (Deerfield), Mike Richter & Tony Granato (Northwood), Jeremy Roenick & Tony Amonte (Thayer), Scott Young (St. Mark’s) and many others paved the way. Numerous top USA-born players used prep school as an avenue to develop their game and studies before blossoming upon tremendous NCAA and NHL careers as well as achieving numerous individual accolades. No longer were these quietly tucked away boarding schools over the hills and through the woods unfound. Originally established and still today on the premise of preparing adolescents for prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and other higher leaning institutions, the rinks suddenly on campus became more commonly filled with college and NHL scouts. But that was a trend that began in the mid-‘80s.

Today the prep school leagues of the Founders, ISL (Independent School League), and Lakes Region still attract high-end caliber players but the landscape has certainly gone through some reform in recent years.
“The American kids don’t necessarily want to go to prep school anymore”, quipped The Hotchkiss School’s Head Coach, Mike Traggio. A former Bearcat himself in the early ‘90s, who went onto a 4-year Ivy League career at Brown University.

Former Kent School bench boss, Matt Herr, now part of USA Hockey as an ADM Regional Manager following eight seasons of coaching added, “Prep school hockey is not the only place to be anymore.”, referring to the plethora of options for the American teenage hockey player.

“Years ago there were probably 30 teams in the mix for the higher end player to now those players being spread across 50 schools. Now throw in junior hockey and U18, it has really changed the landscape. Certainly the depth of prep school hockey has changed,” Governor’s Academy Head Coach, Leon Hayward quoted.

The glory days of prep school hockey of New England in the ‘90s where all the top players flocked has changed just like all levels of hockey. The domino effect unfortunately has not done the boarding schools any favors.

The Taft School head coach, Dan Murphy, who was an assistant captain on the 42-1-2 Maine Black Bears who captured the 1992-93 NCAA Championship, had this reply on the subject, “It has changed a ton. What are out there are more options. Hockey in general has been watered down.”

Many parents and players at the bantam and midget levels feel the need to play game after game. It is a trend that starts when kids are mites as the thinking process is believed that it is necessary to play full-ice then continues on through the ages on the high number of games. Somewhere along the way it was instilled in many people’s heads that you need to play an NHL schedule with pro-like travel demands from squirts on up the ranks.

Hayward quipped, “I kind of joke with parents when they say you only play so-n-so many games. So if you were at BC right now you wouldn’t ask Jerry York to play 70 games.”

These misconceptions of more games makes better players is something USA Hockey is trying to reform and the New England preps always have and still today are doing a great job in truly developing a player for hockey and person for life. Sure the tuition costs are similar to that of college, yet when compared to some U18, U16, and U14 teams that travel across North America the expenses are in the same ball park. That’s why many coaches in the prep school leagues are baffled because not only do you receive 1st class education with tremendous facilities, but distinguished coaching as well.

Hayward articulated on this subject. “What I think is interesting and different is that I think the coaching at prep school hockey is actually better than what it was before. I mean you look at the ISL and you have Amonte (Thayer Academy), McEachern (Rivers School), and Young (St. Mark’s School). The coaching is outstanding. I don’t think enough of the parents and families look at that.” Gone is the coach that really had no high-level playing experience and accepted the position along with his main position of instructing history, French, or being part of the admissions office.

Herr also chipped in by saying that kids really get the best of both worlds in prep hockey and parents should be cognizant. “The season is so short but it’s probably the best model going. When I was at Kent we drove 20 minutes to Trinity-Pawling, 30 minutes to Canterbury, and the most was hour and a half to Deerfield. If you tell a parent that they will be home for study hall every night, that’s unbelievable.”

While most coaches agree some minor tweaking could be done to improve upon the league, the architecture and development for players is second to none. Taft’s Murphy exclaimed, “Prep hockey is slowly, slowly taking the ADM type of model. They show up on Labor Day and can skate on the weekends in an unstructured environment. That’s where they learn to become better hockey players. The structure is in place whereby it’s starting to swing back for player development.”

“If you are a motivated kid prep school hockey is a home run. Play less games with all the facilities to develop as a player and person”, Heyward added as well.

All coaches are aware the prep hockey geography is evolving as many players either stay within their Tier 1 AAA program or are taken on the junior routes of the USHL, BCHL, or USPHL.

“Now the typical kid that wants to play college hockey is no longer 18, he is probably 20 or 21. The kid that walks into D1 at 18 is an anomaly. It’s really not happening anymore”, added Murphy, a previous 5th round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 1988.

Traggio offered his parallel, “Like many things, it market driven from the top down. I think we see it when NHL teams pull guys out of college early. Then the college teams feel more pressure to bring a more stringent product in. Instead of a kid going to play 30 games here they are telling him to go play 65 because that will prepare you to play 35 in college -- which is odd.”

The player of decades ago who played a couple of years prep or even took a post-graduate (PG) year and stepped right into the NCAA ranks is really no longer. With the growth and concentrated marketing of juniors, players now use prep as a stepping stone. In fact the PG year is disappearing. The prep leagues in the past would have a few good post-grads that colleges needed to hide a kid for a year or couldn’t come in right away and wanted to take another year. Now those older skilled kids are going to play juniors.

The many options also creates challenges in getting high-end players and keeping the caliber of play proficient.

We have kids from all over the place because it’s hard to get kids. There are certain niches of areas to work in order to bring kids in”, Hayward spoke and Taft’s Murphy muttered the same. “I kind of dumped it off to word of mouth. It helps to find kids in non-traditional markets that no one else knows of.”

While decades ago the majority of prep players came from the New England and Atlantic states, today is a different story. A quick gander down the rosters and you will see student-athletes hailing from the non-traditional markets of California, Washington, Texas, Idaho, Florida, and even the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

“I had to literally go to Canada to fill roster spots. It’s sad that American hockey players don’t realize that what they can get from prep school hockey,” remarked Herr, a former 4th round selection of the Washington Capitals in 1994, in regards to his player recruiting during his Lions coaching days.

Traggio also mentioned on players crossing the border and coming south to play hockey. “It’s easier for a Canadian kid because they make the designation of where do I want to play -- major junior or college. So for the kids that want to play college we are certainly an attractive option for them.”

“If a player is really good and their track is to go onto the USHL or BCHL, the really good 10th or 9th grader who normally would consider going to boarding school stay now with their U14 team and then their U16 team. That’s where it really hits you. Normally a kid who came in as a 9th grader would play JV. Kids don’t want that so they stay and play with their U14 or U15 team.”, stated Heyward a past Tabor Academy and Northeastern University (Hockey East) player.

Though just because the scenery of prep hockey has altered over the years, does not mean it is not a destination for the rising young star. Many current NHLers have flourished their game while strutting their stuff on campus. Just look at the likes of: Jonathan Quick, Cam Atkinson (Avon Old Farms), Max Pacioretty (Taft), Brooks Orpik, Charlie Coyle (Thayer), Alex Killorn (Deerfield), Mark Fayne (Nobles), Torrey Mitchell (Hotchkiss), and Zach Bogosian, Keith Yandle (Cushing) to name a handful.

Sure the quality of play might not be what it was 20 years ago, but it is still attracting the scouts from both the college and NHL standpoint.

Herr a former standout at Hotchkiss and winner of two NCAA titles at Michigan (Big 10) stated, “In my past years (at Kent) I have had teams with ten D1 players and draft picks too, scouts from the NHL have told me the caliber of play is as good as any USHL game.” During his tenure Herr managed to transform a mediocre prep program into one of the top schools of the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC).

He also went onto comment about the dilution by saying, “You know, is it what it used to be -- probably not. What’s happening in prep hockey is you have the people that push and work that will have good teams. Will they be as good as the old days of Thayer, Deerfield, and the Cushings, no because there are a million different routes for players.

Herr’s former teammate at the Lakeville, CT boarding school during the 1990-91 season Traggio agreed, “No, you just don’t see the high end. Before it used to be everybody had two lines and three plus players going D1, then stepping in immediately and contributing. Now you don’t see it across the board like you used too.”

Yet in the end with schools battling the spilt bantam and midget seasons, league restrictions, and thoughts of a longer season all coaches concurred that prep hockey and the boarding school experience is an opportunity of a lifetime.

“What I love about prep hockey is the kids get the full experience. It’s a great option. Look at the players still coming out of there. Yeah like everywhere else it’s watered down, but if they are good enough someone is going to find them.”, Herr proclaimed. He then went onto exemplify Florida Panthers Director of Scouting, Scott Luce, who decided to send his son Griffin a 1998 birthdate to the Salisbury School this season for the whole prep experience – good coaching, training, and education.

When Traggio was asked about what he loves about prep hockey he quickly declared, “You know it’s just hockey in general. It’s teaching and being around kids. Seeing them getting excited about something and excited when something works that you taught them. You share a common passion and love for the game.”

With a positive tone Coach Heyward stated, “I love playing for your school and the tradition of it.”, while fellow coach Murphy asserted, “I love the rivalries of prep school hockey, regardless of the records. You can’t replace that. I feel that every time I walk into the rink in the Founders League it’s a big game.”

Finally Governor’s coach and Associate Director of Admissions, Heyward, summed it up quite well on the beauty of prep school. “The connectedness the kids have because they are living away from home and the bonds that they form. Playing hockey with your best friends is great, but also living and going to school with your best friends is the ultimate.”

You can follow Russ Bitely for more hockey news, articles, and comments on Twitter: @russbites

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