August 15, 2011

From NEHJ: Prep route offers the complete package

By Mike Zhe

If you’re using the NHL Entry Draft as your scorecard, it was not a banner year for prospects coming out of the region’s prep school ranks. Brandon McNally (Saugus, Mass.) is headed to Dartmouth this fall after a standout career at Belmont Hill School. (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

It wasn’t until the fifth round, when forward Philippe Hudon of Choate and defenseman Rob O’Gara of Milton Academy were selected by the Red Wings and Bruins, respectively, that prep school players from the Northeast heard their names called.

It’s a far cry from 2010, when the Blackhawks snapped up forward Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass./Noble and Greenough) with the 24th overall pick; or 2009, when Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass./Phillips Andover) was chosen 19th by the New York Rangers.

But anyone solely using the NHL draft to evaluate the benefit of the prep school route for hockey players is missing so much more.

In addition to the handful of players on track for the NHL, there are hundreds of other boys and girls each year who earn scholarships or spots in the lineup at Division 1 and 3 schools. And there are thousands each year whose prep school experiences — both in and away from the rink — set themselves up for future success in other arenas.

“It’s a benefit to anyone who’s going to play college athletics,” said Pat Norton (Concord, N.H.), the boys’ hockey coach at the Tilton School in New Hampshire. “You’ve got to balance the academics, athletics and social life. And you have to do the exact same thing in prep school. You have to find that balance.”

Div. 1 and 3 college rosters are filled with players who opted to follow the prep school route. Some entered as ninth-graders and spent four full years there; others arrived as sophomores and juniors and spent a couple years at their school; still others opted just for a post-graduate year.

But all took something valuable away from their stays, through a unique combination of academics, athletics and living away from home for the first time that’s not offered anywhere else.

“That’s one of the biggest things that prep schools offer, that time management and structure,” said Derek Cunha (New Bedford, Mass.), the boys’ hockey coach and assistant director of admissions at Williston-Northampton School in Easthampton, Mass. “When players go on to college they know to get up on their own, go to practice, go to classes, lift (weights) in the evening, get their work done, and then repeat the whole cycle the next day.”

Norton, who is entering his eighth year at Tilton, guided the team to a 22-10-3 record last winter and a spot in the semifinals of the New England small school tournament. Each year, there are a handful of players from his school playing at Hockey East programs, a group that this coming year will include senior forward and captain Brett Leonard (South Burlington, Vt.) at Vermont, junior forward Adam Shemansky at Maine and junior goalie Nick Drew (Andover, Mass.) at Merrimack.

“We don’t advertise it like the junior programs do, but if you look at the kids that are committing to Division 1 programs, there’s a lot,” Norton said. “We send our kids to a lot of different places.”

As girls’ and women’s hockey has exploded in the past decade, many prep schools are regularly sending players onto top women’s programs. The highest-profile example is Kendall Coyne, a post-grad at the Berkshire School, who in April was the youngest player on the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the World Women’s Championship.

That time again

As summer winds down, it’s an ideal time for prospective student-athletes to begin the prep school evaluation process, said Tim Weaver, director of admissions at the Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“The fall is a great time to collect info, compare one school to the other and match it to what you’re looking for,” he said.

There is no shortage of prep school options in the Northeast for hockey players. Sixty-two schools play hockey in the New England Preparatory School Ice Hockey Association and are located in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and eastern New York.

In New York and New Jersey, there also are schools such as (but not limited to) Northwood; Nichols School in Buffalo, N.Y.; and Delbarton (N.J.) School that attract some of the best teen talent, and play aggressive schedules that match them up against teams from across the country and Canada.

Choosing the right school is a process that requires both research and firsthand observation. Basic information — such as location, enrollment, class sizes and extracurricular options — can be found through schools’ websites. Other factors — financial aid, campus lifestyle and percentage of graduates going on to a certain level of education — require a little more digging.

“Visiting the school is very important,” said Beth Skoglund, director of admissions at the Tilton School. “A lot of us are similar as far as coursework and things like that. But the look and feel of the campus, how students are dressed, how they address their teachers — those things can be different. Students have to be comfortable.”

Northwood School is comparatively small — just 180 students were enrolled last year in grades 9 to post-graduate. Many, said Weaver, will arrive as sophomores or juniors and stay two or three years.

Because of its location and tradition, the school attracts students who are serious about their winter sports — especially hockey, where the small school fields three boys teams and a girls team.

“I’d want people to think of us as a winter sports-dominated boarding school,” Weaver said. “The location on Lake Placid is a gigantic asset. The kids have plenty to do between sports and school, but when they do have free time on the weekends, they have a great place to go.”

At Williston-Northampton, one of the unique benefits is the proximity to the “Five Colleges” in the area, and a collaboration with those schools that makes their resources available to students. Every school offers something a little different.

“In August, it’s still OK to be at the research stage, looking at schools’ websites and talking to families that have students in prep school, and then putting together a list of schools you’d like to visit in September, October and November,” Cunha said.

By virtue of producing NHL players and high draft picks, prep schools such as Cushing, Nobles, Avon Old Farms and Phillips Andover are often at the top of the list these days for top young players looking down the road to college and pro hockey. But they are by no means the only viable options.

Defenseman Craig Wyszomirski, who wrapped up his career at The Gunnery in Washington, Conn., this year and is headed to Providence College in the fall, said he wasn’t planning to go the prep school route before taking a campus visit.

“I was going to go the junior route,” Wyszomirski said, “but (an assistant coach) asked me to come up for a visit. My mom said we should just see what it’s about. As soon as I stepped on the campus, I loved every second of it.”

Costs and benefits

According to Forbes, one year’s tuition at the nation’s elite schools — some of which are found in New England — now tops $30,000. For many families who send children onto prep schools it’s an enormous investment, and for many others it’s not a feasible option.

Weaver said about 50 percent of the students at Northwood School receive financial aid of some sort. It’s an aspect of the admissions process that requires attention to detail and having paperwork up to date.

“Sometimes it’s the first words out of a family’s mouth, and sometimes it comes up later,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process throughout.”

“Initially,” Cunha said, “it’s a hurdle that a lot of families look at.” He noted that a little more than 40 percent of students at his school receive some sort of need-based aid.

Larry Cockrell, the boys’ hockey coach and associate director of development at Kents Hill School in central Maine, said 38 percent of students at Kents Hill receive some sort of financial aid as the school tries to “bridge the gap” to make an education affordable. But Cockrell stresses that the higher pricetag — as is the case with most investments — equates to a higher value.

“The family is coming for a private-school education that is going to outrank anything they’re going to get back home,” he said. “We’re talking about a life-changing experience — academically, socially and in hockey.”

Many prep schools boast athletic facilities as modern as those found on some college campuses. This includes weight-training facilities and even rinks, where daily practices are not subject to the ice-available 5 a.m. or 8 p.m. time slots that plague many public schools, or the commutes that eat into practice time.

Brandon McNally, a forward from Saugus, Mass., who is headed to Dartmouth this fall after a standout career at Belmont Hill School, said the way his team prepared daily under veteran coach Ken Martin (Framingham, Mass.) was comparable to the way college teams are run.

“He always says we’re getting ready for the next level,” McNally said. “Most of the drills we do are college drills. It’s something I’m going to be thankful for this year.”

Academically, students can benefit from smaller class sizes, extra individual attention and a larger array of extracurricular options.

“We ask our students to be more than one-trick ponies,” said Chris Gaudo, boys’ coach at The Gunnery. “Here, (students) are forced to be more than just an artist, just a scholar, just an athlete, just a musician or just a poet.”

Attending prep school is not an automatic ticket to academic or athletic success. In the rink or away from it, like most things in life, student-athletes can count on getting out of it just what they put into it.

“The individual attention leads to a great experience,” Skoglund said, “especially if they’re living on campus. School doesn’t end when the bell rings at the end of the school day.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com.