When most people think about military school, they think uniforms, leadership and discipline. But when people think about Culver Military Academy, another thing comes to mind – hockey.
Situated in northern Indiana just an hour south of the Michigan border lays the 1,850-acre campus of Culver Academies. The school is comprised of two elements; Culver Military Academy and the Culver Girls Academy. Culver has established itself as not only one of the best college preparatory schools in the nation but for also producing high-caliber hockey players.
Allan Clark, who serves as the Academy’s athletic director and boy’s prep hockey coach, first established the hockey program at Culver in 1976 and has since molded it into a powerhouse on the ice.
“We think that we provide the best combination of hockey, academics and leadership development that you will find anywhere,” Clark said. “We play a very competitive schedule. It is a little bit longer than the eastern prep schools play but less than the travel programs play.”
Under his guidance, the Culver Eagles have amassed 20 Indiana State High School championships and produced more than 140 college players – including 70 at the NCAA Division I level. Clark’s teams have put together a .700 winning percentage in nearly four decades of play and, he has also joined the elite company of coaches with over 900 career wins.
Twenty-two former players have been National Hockey League draft picks, including Ryan Suter
and Blake Geoffrion of the Nashville Predators and John-Michael Liles of the Colorado Avalanche. Those three represent the current NHL players who began to hone their craft at Culver Military Academy.
There are three separate boy’s hockey teams at Culver. The prep team is the premier team and it is comprised of the school’s top players. They play a 70 percent prep schedule and a 30 percent AAA Midget travel schedule. The high school varsity team has been one of Indiana’s most formidable teams throughout the program’s history. The varsity team is comprised of those sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are not yet ready to make the leap to the prep team. Finally, the Under-16 team is strictly made up of new freshman and sophomores. Although they are the “bottom” tier of hockey at Culver, they are no less dominant on the ice.
Culver Girls Academy also has a highly successful varsity hockey team. The Culver girl’s hockey program began in the fall of 1998 and has grown to national acclaim.
“This system provides as many opportunities as possible for kids to play and develop,” Clark said, “they all seem to develop at different ages and different stages.”
Coach Clark strives to instill several qualities in his student-athletes that not only will make them better hockey players, but will make them better people when they leave Culver.
“The first thing we like to instill in them is that they are a part of a much bigger team than just the hockey team,” he explained, “The second concept is hard work. We’ve always tried to instill in the kids a solid work ethic. By the nature of the school, we don’t attract kids who are lazy because it is a challenging environment for them. They are kept busy and there is a lot expected of them in both the academic and athletic arenas.”
The typical day at Culver offers a unique experience for those student-athletes and it is certainly a system that not all teenagers are prepared for. The day begins around 7:30 a.m. as the students wake-up and head to breakfast. After breakfast, they attend four 90-minutes classes, including a free period. Class lets out at 3:15 p.m. and the students are afforded time to meet with instructors or to work on homework before practice begins at 4:15 p.m. They are on the ice until 6:00 p.m., then head to dinner. After dinner, the students enjoy some free time before three hours of mandatory study beginning at 8:00. Then it is lights out at 11:00 before waking up and starting the regimen all over again.
“I really enjoyed that part of it – the military aspect. It helped me grow up,” Suter said, “We had to be up early and standing outside of our doors for inspection. Shoes shined, belt buckle shined and bed perfectly made. Once you cleared that, we walked outside, got into ranks and marched off for the day.”
Suter played for Culver during the 2000-01 school year, following in the footsteps of his uncle Gary Suter. Gary played at Culver in 1982 and went on to play at Wisconsin, win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 1986, and was a five-time NHL all-star before retiring in 2002.
In 2003, Ryan became the first ever Culver player to be selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft when the Nashville Predators selected him seventh overall right here at Bridgestone Arena.
“Ryan is somebody who, if you don’t watch him carefully you might not notice how good he is,” Clark said. “When he first came here, we had parents who would say, ‘well why are you keeping that guy ahead of my kid?’ But when you watch Ryan play, you see that he is very strong on the puck, he doesn’t lose many battles and he makes that great first pass.”
A rookie and fourth generation NHLer, Geoffrion, skated for the Eagles from 2002-04. During his first season at Culver in 2003, Blake helped the Academy win the Indiana High School State Championship.
“I think Culver is why I’m here today,” said Geoffrion, who left home at 14 years old to attend class at the Academy. “I wasn’t a huge fan of the military-style training but as I look back, it is a huge part of who I am today.”
“He certainly had a very strong offensive skill set but he needed a little more physical development,” Clark said. “He was very patient and took his time. He went to Wisconsin and graduated from there. He probably needed that time to physically develop. He was always very skillful, he was very smart and he could see the ice very well.”
Liles played at Culver from 1995-97.
“He was very coachable, a hard worker and a good teammate” Clark said. “Those qualities stood out immediately with all three of them.”
All three players continued their careers with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., before continuing on to play college hockey – Suter and Geoffrion at the University of Wisconsin and Liles at Michigan State.
Clark explained that he is an educator first and a hockey coach second. Since hockey only accounts for a small portion of the student experience at Culver, establishing those skills that will make his players succeed away from the ice continues to be his first priority.
“Virtually 100 percent of our students go on to college,” Clark said. “Whether it is on to the East Coast and the Ivy League, or if they stay here in the Midwest. Culver is first and foremost a college preparatory school and that is the goal for most of the kids. We provide them with a high level education first – the athletics are a bonus.”
As Clark and his staff continue to prepare their players to win on the ice, they are also building a strong foundation for those young men and women to accomplish their future goals in life. And while only a tiny fraction of those student-athletes continue on to professional hockey careers, the lessons learned at Culver Academies will remain with them for a lifetime.