There’s nothing quite so inviting as a fresh sheet of ice.
Like a blank canvas, the untouched surface seems to offer youthful promise and endless possibilities.
The newest chapter in Shawnigan Lake School’s great story began on Friday in a brand new arena still wearing the marks of construction. The mezzanine remained roped-off and the parking lot was still crowded with trucks and cranes. Outside, it was a drizzly Vancouver Island winter evening. Inside, a squad still in its infancy took its first strides towards a new hockey paradigm.
There were a lot of firsts that evening: The first face-off, the first hits and first goals. Before Shawnigan’s varsity team even took to the ice, a cast of locals christened the building with a scrimmage featuring a handful of Vancouver Canucks alumni, including Garry Monahan, Darcy Rota, Jyrki Lumme, Garth Butcher, and Doug Bodger. Several hundred fans seemed just as eager as the players to savour the moment and also look forward to many more special moments to come.
“You don’t see this anywhere else” says Doug Bodger. “This is just a fantastic facility and I think everyone is pretty proud today.” A veteran of 1071 NHL games, Bodger knows that the route to the big leagues is much different than it used to be. A native of nearby Chemainus, Bodger played minor hockey at the Fuller Lake Arena before leaving home at 16 to play junior hockey in Kamloops. “College hockey really wasn’t a thought.”
Nowadays, the road to the NHL often leads through college, giving young players a competitive route as well as an education to fall back on. “Even if you get there, the average is three or four years” Bodger flags. “There is life after hockey.”
Shawnigan's hockey team has entered the Canadian Sport School Hockey League in the 'varsity' division, though a move to the league's top tier (Prep) may be in the cards for next year. The other five programs in the division are all hockey academies, based in Penticton, Kelowna, Banff, Calgary, and Couer d'Alene, Idaho.
The school's biggest rival, Idaho's Compete Hockey Academy, puts players through a 60+ game schedule, while still trying to put the same emphasis on classroom performance. “You have to be a good student to make it anywhere in hockey” stresses Cam Severson, CHA’s President and varsity Head Coach. “We’re teaching kids life skills.”
Severson refers to Shawnigan’s stately campus as “amazing” but suggests even bigger things are on the horizon for the hockey team. “It’ll be a program that’ll compete with the biggest,” pointing to Minnesota’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s (Sidney Crosby’s Alma mater) and Saskatchewan’s Athol Murray College of Notre Dame as two of the current gold-standards.
Of course, hockey is just one aspect of life at Shawnigan. Hockey academies place hockey and academics on an equal footing. At Shawnigan, there’s also other elite sports, fine arts, boarding life, and so on. And though one might expect him to be focused on putting a winning product on the ice, the value of a well-rounded education isn't lost on Kevin Cooper, the school's Director of Hockey and Head Coach. Cooper attended a private school himself and says "the two years I did in New Hampshire at private school changed my life." Naturally, Shawnigan's reputation as one of Canada’s top boarding schools only makes his recruiting task easier because Cooper knows that the first-rate education is what pushes families his way.
Adding hockey to an already complete package is what has donors like Mark Brown so eager to play a role. Brown is the parent of a Shawnigan graduate and says he’s been impressed with the community involvement and the dedication shown “not only by the staff, but also by the students back to the staff” since his first contact with the institution. “It’s not just a school” he says, “It’s the way things are done.” Still, Brown doesn’t believe that hockey will become bigger than any other discipline at Shawnigan. “Sport by itself is a great thing to be involved in” he says. “With hockey here now, you’re just going to draw even more people to a program that will be second to none. I’m looking forward to the competition of rugby and hockey and rowing and all the various things – all competing together to be the top in their various levels of achievement."
For the players themselves, it's an exciting time to attend the school. “It’s the start of a legacy here at Shawnigan” captain Noah Crumb grinned after beating Compete in the featured matchup. Though it isn’t totally finished yet, Crumb says the new building is beautiful – “I think all the guys are still in shock.“ He also acknowledges the benefits that will come from having a rink on campus. “You get to practice whenever you want … easier practice times. We get to grow way more as players having a place right here on campus.”
The Stags won all four games in their first tournament on home ice, including a dramatic 5-4 overtime victory over CHA in Sunday’s finale. The team wrapped up its inaugural season of CSSHL 'Varsity' play undefeated, and a move to the league's highest tier (Prep) may be in the cards for next year. For now, however, the future is as exciting as freshly flooded ice.
“I don’t think they even realize what they’re going to do here” Bodger nods. “This is the way hockey is going.”View the Photos