August 8, 2012

From NEHJ: The road well traveled

By Mike Zhe

For the region’s prep school hockey teams, the competition begins long before the first game of the season is played. 

Prep schools such as Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., offer student-athletes a unique environment to prepare for college. (Photo: Canterbury School)

Attracting prospective student-athletes can be a battle on several fronts. From a hockey standpoint, many higher-end players are lured toward junior hockey, which they believe may set them up better for college and professional success.

From a financial standpoint, high tuition and unfamiliarity with the financial-aid process could keep many potential applicants staying with public schools. And, once a player decides the prep route is the way to go, there are dozens of options to consider, nearly 60 schools in New England alone.

But those who choose the prep school route will discover that the combination of athletics and academics is unmatched by what they could find anywhere else.

“The reason people choose the prep school route is that their exposure is so much more significant,” said Sean Brennan, the head of school at Vermont Academy. “You’re drawing kids from around the country and outside the country.”

As summer winds down, it’s an ideal time for student-athletes looking at a fall 2013 matriculation to begin the prep school evaluation process, if they haven’t already. That should begin with research but also include visits to prospective schools and contacting coaches.

There is no shortage of regional 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. The Northeast has the heaviest concentration of prep schools in the country.

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.

Once a list of prospective schools has been narrowed down — between four and six is ideal, say many school admissions officials — visits should be scheduled to give student-athletes, and their families, a look at exactly what each school has to offer.

“You want to see all the facilities — athletics, academics and fine arts,” said Keith Holton, director of admissions at the Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn. “You want to see all the things that you’d have that you don’t have now.”

Like colleges, different prep schools offer different environments and different amenities. Some have smaller enrollments. Some have a religious slant. Prospective students should decide what’s important to them and then go about researching the options. August is the perfect time to start planning fall visits.

“They really need to be getting their information at that time, looking at schools and then focusing on five or six that they want to visit in the fall,” Brennan said. “You really want to see a school when it’s in session.”

The cost issue 

Prep schools across New England, such as Vermont Academy, give hockey players big-time exposure. (Photo: Vermont Academy)

Sending a child to prep school is a big investment for families — emotionally if they’re leaving home for the first time, but especially financially.

One year’s tuition at several New England schools has now eclipsed the $40,000 mark for boarding students, making them more expensive than many respected colleges. Most others are above $30,000.

Timothy Weaver, director of admissions at the Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y., said about 50 percent of the students at his 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, and is treated with different degrees of emphasis, depending on the family.

“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.”

“The biggest advice I have to families is to pay attention to the financial aid and administrative deadlines,” said Molly Gabarro, the girls hockey coach and associate director of admissions and financial aid at Vermont Academy. “The earlier you can get these in, the better.”

So, what are student-athletes getting with these hefty price-tags?

For one, visibility. The presence of college scouts is much greater at prep school games, where often a majority of the players on the ice are bound for college hockey, than at high school games, where maybe just one or two players are good enough.

Many prep schools boast athletic facilities as modern as those found on 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.

They’re also living in an environment similar to what they’ll see at college, where they’ll be the ones responsible for managing their time. That’s something colleges recognize.

“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.”

The hockey factor

Every March, college and pro scouts pack the Icenter in Salem, N.H., to watch players on the region’s top teams play for New England championships. 

Prep schools such as the Tilton School provide college-like experiences -- on and off the ice -- for its players. (Photo: Tilton School)

The best players — recent second-round NHL draft picks such as Cristoval “Boo” Nieves of the Kent School and Brian Hart (Cumberland, Maine) of Phillips Exeter Academy — find themselves on a pro track, but the great majority will peak with college hockey, where they can continue competing but also lay the groundwork for a successful career outside of hockey.

“We certainly have our standouts who are NHL draft picks every year,” said Cunha, who saw a former Williston player, left winger Brendan Woods, get selected in the fifth round by the Carolina Hurricanes in June, and could see Ross Olsson (Billerica, Mass.) get drafted in a high round next year. “But a good percentage of our kids are going onto programs at lower-level Division 1 schools or good Division 3 schools.”

What prep schools also offer is a chance to branch out and explore other interests, a way to get student-athletes out of their comfort zones and try things they may have never considered trying.

Brennan tells the story of two girls hockey players at his school who had the time of their lives taking the stage for a school production of “Crazy For You.” Every player on the team plays other sports, too, which is something many college coaches endorse.

“At the end of the day, I want an athlete,” Gabarro said. “I hear from a lot of college coaches, and they don’t want specialization. (Playing multiple sports) shows that they’re competitive and athletic.”

At Canterbury School, like many other prep schools, academics are geared toward preparing students for college. Even a stellar hockey player won’t be accepted by the admissions department if his academic background doesn’t meet standards.

“It doesn’t allow us to take risks with kids,” Holton said. “We want to make sure the kids have a chance at success. (Coaches) are trying to get the best student-athletes they can get in the door, but they don’t want students who can’t do the work.”

That’s not to say hockey is secondary. Student-athletes can research different schools and see where their graduates are going on to play. Coaches should be contacted before a campus visit is made.

“So they’re not just showing up at the door,” Cunha said.

Like in most aspects of life, student-athletes will get out of a school, and a hockey program, what they put into it. They will be tested, athletically and academically, and colleges understand that.

“We think we should set the bar high,” Brennan said, “but we also know not everyone’s going to get it on the first try. If you don’t make the hockey team, or don’t make the first line, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s what you do afterward to get to that goal.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.