Prep schools are as synonymous with New England as clam chowder, Cape Cod and nor’easters.
And in New England, some of the best hockey occurs at the prep school level.
The competition among schools is fierce — both on the ice and off — to attract the right student-athletes who might excel at both athletics and academics. As top-end hockey players look for opportunities that can advance their athletic careers and help them get into the college of their choice, prep schools become more attractive options.
In our 15th annual Prep School Guide, New England Hockey Journal takes a closer look at the world of prep hockey, then offers a comprehensive list of prep schools in and near
New England (including basic information such as location and gender, grade and day/boarding options), and we highlight a handful of top prep schools.
The developmental ladder for American amateur hockey might have changed slightly in the past few decades, but preparatory school remains a viable option for those players looking to ascend to the higher ranks of the sport.
Thirty years ago, especially in the Northeast, many players vaulted directly from prep school to the NCAA. Although that largely has been superseded by players skating one or two years of junior hockey before going on to university or major junior, many aspiring puck-handlers still use prep school as part of their development, even if it’s no longer their last stop before stepping onto a college campus.
John Gardner has headed the boys varsity hockey program at Avon Old Farms in Avon, Conn., since 1975-76. The dean of New England prep hockey coaches, he has amassed more than 760 career wins at the helm of the Winged Beavers, in more than 40 years of coaching prep players.
“If you want a kid to get a good education and play in a good atmosphere, then prep school is a good option,” Gardner stated.
Unlike their college counterparts, most prep school coaches don’t just coach hockey. Dale Reinhardt, the boys varsity head coach at Kent School in Kent, Conn., also serves an adviser, history teacher and the boys varsity golf coach.
“It’s definitely a mix,” said Reinhardt. “Most of us coaches wear different hats, and it’s part of why I love coaching prep. You work with the kids from many different angles.”
Reinhardt himself knows the prep pathway. He skated for Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., where he registered 247 career points in four seasons at forward, then went on to a solid four-year career at Holy Cross, where he was a key member of the 2005-06 team that upset powerhouse Minnesota in the NCAA tournament.
After playing professionally in the ECHL, Reinhardt began work in the prep school coaching ranks with three seasons as an assistant at Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., before taking the head job at Kent in 2013-14.
Gardner’s teams have won eight New England Prep Division 1 championships. A former Wesleyan University goaltender, he also is Avon’s associate headmaster.
Another Northeast institution that regularly cranks out college hockey talent is Winchendon School, which is located in Winchendon, Mass., just outside Boston. Head coach Brian Troy (Ashburnham, Mass.), who played collegiately at Southern New Hampshire University after prepping at Cushing Academy, is entering his second season at the helm of the Wapitis, which is another term for elks.
The recruiting trail
Summers at prep schools are largely spent recruiting new blood, something Reinhardt has now done himself for a decade. Prep schools often have limited time and resources, so coaches have to figure out which events are worth spending time at to find future players. Conversely, many times players also reach out to prep schools first.
“They definitely find us as well,” said Reinhardt. “We do our homework on them, and it’s a combination of the two. We try to get and see as many of them as we can, and we encourage them to look at the school and apply.”
He also explained that coaches build their own contact networks of people they can trust in evaluating players, to see if particular skaters would be a proper fit for their schools and hockey programs.
Gardner has seen the prep recruiting process explode outside New England’s borders over the past 40 years.
“We’re recruiting all over the place now, and we get inquiries from Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland, and kids all over the country,” said Gardner. “Next year we’ll have kids from California, Texas, Washington, D.C., New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Russia. It mimics college hockey now — that’s become international, and it’s the same deal here.”
Troy said he prefers to work with players before he recruits them, if at all possible. He annually attends a pre-prep showcase in Marlboro, Mass., and he and his assistant also scour showcases in spots like Chicago, Toronto and California, along with the annual Liberty Bell Games in Red Bank, N.J. He also hears from players all the time who are interested in skating for Winchendon.
“It’s a different ballgame,” Troy said of recruits finding the school instead. “It depends on when they’re ready to leave (home), and they come from all walks of life — Kansas City, Florida, Texas, Toronto, and all over New England.”
It also comes down to the aforementioned networking in learning about potential players.
“Parents and alumni are huge for that,” admitted Troy. “The kids reach out to us when they’re ready, and it’s wonderful.”
Once on campus, prep school players must embody the total role of student-athlete, and have to pay as much, if not more, attention to passing their classes as they do to passing pucks.
“Our kids take five major courses every trimester, or four majors and one minor,” said Reinhardt. “It’s definitely challenging.”
Gardner said that Avon students have a regular load of five to six classes, with many taking five classes and perhaps a half-credit class, while also still playing high-level hockey.
“It’s why they’re here, to get an education,” said Gardner.
Troy remarked that Winchendon students, from freshmen to postgraduates, take five or six classes apiece through what is called a rotating block schedule. as they split their days between academics and athletics. Classes usually run from the mornings up to 2 or 3 p.m., then athletics follow until it’s time for study hall.
Reinhardt added that it doesn’t get any easier as players mature and eventually start applying to colleges. They especially must learn early on to balance their time between schoolwork and sports, which is what playing prep provides in spades.
“You don’t have to sacrifice academics for hockey,” said Reinhardt. “You can do both at a very high level.”
When it comes to prep school athletics, it’s also not about hockey players just playing hockey, and nothing else. At Kent, freshman and sophomore students must try out for a sport in all three seasons, while upperclassmen must also play a club or intramural sport, or take some sort of fitness class. Hockey players thus might take up strength and conditioning in autumn, skate in the winter, then play baseball, golf or lacrosse in the spring.
“Some of our best golfers are hockey players,” said Reinhardt.
Troy, who is entering his fifth year overall at Winchendon, also has served as head baseball coach, assistant soccer coach and assistant hockey coach, and often sees his hockey players on different athletic fields at other times of the school year.
“Some of our guys just follow me around,” he laughed.
If motivated to do so — although it can be difficult — players can participate in a varsity or club sport in each of the three seasons of the school year. Troy said that when he attended Cushing, he played three sports for the Penguins and played split-season hockey that was sandwiched around his prep schedule.
“It’s doable, if a student-athlete wants to do it,” he said.
Gardner revealed that although many parents and players want guarantees about playing time, that’s not the way it works at Avon.
“If they’re good enough, they’ll play,” said Gardner, who doesn’t make promises about power-play time or other auspices of the game. “That’s the way it is.”
He also felt that some changes were coming to the prep school model, which he felt needed to evolve more. Gardner has advocated for an extended season.
“It’s something that’s been around a long time,” he said of the prep model. “It’s hard (to change).”
Climbing school ladder
There’s also room for movement up a school’s internal hockey rungs, with some players starting off by playing on the freshman or junior varsity teams, then working their way up to the varsity.
“I think we do that the best, and we have an emphasis on continuity,” said Reinhardt. “Some kids have gone on from JV to play NCAA hockey.
“It can be a process,” he continued. “A lot of kids tend to come in and play right away, as well, on the varsity.”
Gardner said that he used to take great pride in players coming up through Avon’s system, but that nowadays players have other outside options.
“You don’t see it as much (anymore),” he said of that internal promotion, with many players opting to skate 60-70 games a year at the U-15 and U-16 levels instead of going prep.
He does get a couple of day students per season on his squad, although Avon is not admittedly a hockey hotbed.
“We have some good players in the neighboring towns,” said Gardner. “We get one or two of them a year.”
Reinhardt added that Kent is almost entirely a boarding school, owing to its geography, with most players leaving their hometowns behind to live on campus. Not a lot of local players have skated for the Lions in recent years, although it does occur. He also said that his roster composition is consistent with the makeup of the school’s general student body.
Winchendon has seen fewer locals on its hockey rosters in recent years, but they still pop up from time to time.
“I love locals, because it makes split season (hockey) easier,” said Troy.
A number of prep students play split-season hockey for outside clubs like the Boston Junior Bruins or Eastern Mass. Senators, beginning play with those teams in the fall before returning to them in the spring, after the prep season ends.
“They come in, in early November, and play for us,” said Troy, who added that upward internal mobility also is possible on the rosters at Winchendon.
“Selfishly, I like to work with everyone as long as I can,” said Troy, who has seen about three or four players move up to varsity annually. “Some schools, they recruit year to year.”
Chasing the competition
Kent plays solely against other prep schools during its annual campaigns but also makes in-season sojourns to tournaments at schools like Phillips Exeter and Avon.
“We’re still playing other boarding schools,” said Reinhardt.
Winchendon also plays a traditional prep schedule, while attending tournaments hosted by fellow Massachusetts schools such as Belmont Hill, St. Sebastian’s and Tabor Academy. The Wapitis also play one or two preseason games every year against the likes of junior opponents, like the Springfield Olympics or the South Shore Kings.
“For the most part, we play traditional prep schools,” said Troy.
Avon plays all its games against other prep schools, although Gardner said he would like to do more regarding the schedule. He admitted that there are inherent limits at the prep level, but hopes that changes could be made in the future. “You have to play by the rules,” he said.
Avon Old Farms has sent scores of players on to the collegiate and professional levels in Gardner’s storied tenure. Two of his former pupils, defenseman Brian Leetch (Cheshire, Conn.) and goaltender Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.), won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL playoffs while leading the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, respectively, to Stanley Cup titles.
Tyler Madden, son of former NHL forward and three-time Stanley Cup champion John Madden, prepped two years at Avon and is now headed back to Northeastern University for his sophomore season. Gardner said that the younger Madden wasn’t physically ready for the varsity his first year at Avon and played on the freshman squad instead. He captained the Winged Beavers his second season, then parlayed a year in the USHL into helping the Huskies to last season’s Hockey East championship.
Avon also celebrated a couple of alumni as first-round NHL draft choices in June, with forward Trevor Zegras of Bedford, N.Y., going ninth overall to Anaheim, and goaltender Spencer Knight (Darien, Conn.) picked 13th overall by Florida. They will skate for Boston University and Boston College, respectively, starting this fall.
“Holy moly,” chuckled Gardner of his former charges, who both went on to the U.S. National Team Development Program before being drafted. “A lot of kids really develop, every one in a different manner.”
Kent also has had a rich history of sending players off to the collegiate and professional ranks. New York Rangers head coach David Quinn (Cranston, R.I.) played for the Lions before moving on to Boston University. Former Boston Bruins forward Noel Acciari (Johnston, R.I.), now with the Florida Panthers, also prepped at Kent, as did Harvard University’s Lewis Zerter-Gossage and Union College’s Anthony Rinaldi.
There also have been some surprise stories such as Brendan Soucie (South Dennis, Mass.), who captained Kent in 2013-14 after previously not making the freshman squad and is now a senior at Army West Point. Ture Linden, a Virginia native who didn’t play his first two years at Kent, ultimately made his way from the JV team to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he is headed into his sophomore season.
“They made their own way,” said Reinhardt. “They had to earn it, and they got an opportunity to play Division 1 hockey.”
Mike Hardman, who graduated from Winchendon in 2017 and spent last season in the British Columba Junior Hockey League after a year in the USHL, is off to Boston College this fall. He also spent time earlier this summer at the Boston Bruins development camp, where he was joined by goaltender and fellow Winchendon alumnus James Corcoran, a former Massachusetts public school star who will backstop Merrimack starting this season.
“Those two came in and exceeded expectations,” said Troy.
One surprise story at Winchendon in recent years has been Jonny Mulera, an undersized forward who came in with Hardman and showed “flashes of greatness” in his two years with the Wapitis, according to Troy. Mulera went on to tally 54 points for the Boston Junior Bruins last season, placing him sixth overall in the USPHL’s National Collegiate Development Conference, and will play for Providence College beginning this fall
Adding up the costs
Prep school certainly isn’t an inexpensive endeavor for today’s aspiring student-athletes. According to Kent’s website, the total cost to attend school there is more than $80,000 per student annually, with tuition alone for boarding students calculated at $62,550, although financial aid is available.
At Avon Old Farms, tuition for boarding students is listed at $63,600. According to the school’s site, 39 percent of Avon students combined received more than $5.1 million in financial aid grants last year alone.
“Prep schools cost a lot of money,” said Gardner matter-of-factly.
At Winchendon, tuition for day students is $22,700. For five-day boarding students, that number increases to $52,000, and for seven-day boarding pupils that figure goes up to $63,650. Need-based financial aid is available for students.
“We try to do our best to make the numbers work for the families,” said Troy. “We do our best to help everyone out.”
Though many players now gravitate toward spending a year or two of postgraduate hockey playing in juniors, Reinhardt believes that prep hockey still has its place in modern player development.
“I’m a firm believer in the model of prep hockey, and it’s a good option for kids,” he said.
It’s ultimately up to the student-athletes, but prep schools and their staffs are there to help them fully develop on their hockey journeys.
“It’s how they’re motivated to get better, and how hard they want to work, is what we’re all about,” said Gardner. “We try to facilitate their development. You get good coaching, and the sky’s the limit.”