To many people unfamiliar with the team and the league, the members of the Spruce Grove Saints who play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League aren’t just here to play hockey. They’re also getting an education, both at and away from the rink.
This year three rookies on the Saints, Tyler Busch, Austin Hunter and Connor James are spending lots of time on the team bus but at the same time they’re working diligently towards putting the finishing touches on their high school educations with the hope of one day earning a scholarship to play U.S. college hockey.
Asked about how the school and the team have come together to get these three teens, and others over the years, through this tough part of their life especially considering they likely will spend a few hundred hours in their home on wheels travelling everywhere from Brooks and Okotoks in the south to Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray in the north, their program head at Spruce Grove Composite High School, Penny Trask, said it’s a team effort. This starts early, she noted, because generally the players are transferring in from another institution for their final year or two of high school.
“It starts usually in the spring. The parents contact me, we check their (son’s) transcripts and see what they need for courses for Grade 12. We then meet with the student, usually in August to set up their schedule. That works around their practice time (and away game travel days).”
Busch, who just turned 18, said switching schools mid-stream isn’t easy. That though hasn’t stopped his progression, both in hockey and school, as he recently signed a letter of intent to attend Ohio State University and play hockey for the NCAA Buckeyes.
“I came from a school kind of similar to this in Lloydminster,” he said of what was proving to be a fairly easy move for him. “There are different teachers and kids so there was a bit of a changing period there. But the teachers have really helped make things go smoothly.”
Hunter, 18, noted that playing and studying have worked quite well so far, thanks in large part to the programming at the Comp.
“So far the (hockey) schedule’s worked in with school but I’ve noticed when we’ve been away a couple of times there’s some catch up to do during the week.”
James, the youngest of the three at 17, in replying to the question ‘Do you do schoolwork on the bus?’ answered honestly.
“I’d say not really,” he noted wryly, to which Trask responded, “Wrong answer!”
He continued by saying his work does get done though. “There’s a PLT (personal learning time) day where you can come in earlier and that’s usually a good time to catch up,” where students can meet with teachers, do projects or necessary work to catch up to classmates.
The Saints head coach, Jason Mckee, pointed out that at this age moving away from home isn’t an easy thing. Top that off with attending a new school, adjusting to new teachers, meeting new classmates and having ‘new’ parents at a billet house and the struggle becomes even tougher.
“It’s not easy, especially for the first six weeks,” the coach said. “Once they start to get comfortable they pick up on the routine and the time management needed.”
Although they aren’t on the ice at school the trio said they still receive assistance from older teammates who have been down this road with their school assignments.
“It’s helpful with three of us going to the same school, and this is a young team so there are a lot of guys going to school (elsewhere) so you can get help if you need it,” said Hunter.
An interesting twist with the Saints is that their coaching staff that is led by Mckee who is helped by Michael Ringrose, are teachers. That’s a huge help in making the necessary adjustments, said Busch.
“They know where we’re coming from and they teach kids our age,” he noted. “They understand that school’s first and are good with understanding we sometimes need time to catch up.”
Mckee said success goes two ways with the Saints. Thus, while their on-ice abilities have to improve their work at school must also be strong.
“It’s very important. It’s mandatory,” they keep their school marks up, he explained. “They need to make sure they’re taking care of both parts. But by no means do I expect them to be 95-plus students … that’s not fair. But I do expect them to be working just as hard in the classroom as on the ice. Being a teacher and with my coaching staff having a teaching background, we put a lot of importance on academics. It’s something that doesn’t get washed under the rug here. It’s front and centre of what we do to go along with the hockey.”
That philosophy is paying off for the Saints, and its players, as every year the team moves as many players as any other team in the AJHL, and more, on to NCAA schools or Canadian post-secondary institutions. From last year’s team, five players are now at school in the U.S. and of course that’s the hope every player that enters the Saints dressing room has. In fact, Busch has already achieved that goal and the others likely aren’t far behind.
The thing is, Hunter explained, each player has to balance his hockey and his school life so that the first doesn’t begin to take away from the second.
“My goal is to play NCAA, so you have to keep your grades up and that’s a huge factor.”
James said it is tough to hit the books all the time but this is a case of forewarned is forearmed.
“Some nights you’re pretty tired but you have to look ahead,” he stated about seeing the proverbial carrot dangling at the end of the stick. “It’s kind of hit and miss but we get it done.”
Trask chimed in at this point saying that often young students struggle with this lifestyle at first but eventually they catch on, and up.
“They have 40 minutes of prep at the end of every day,” she said of time the players can use to catch up on work. “The teachers are great. If the boys miss class, I know about it.”
The Saints captain, Corey Chorneyko, said he is there as a mentor if his younger teammates need him, but at the same time he said they all know where they’re headed.
“Every one going to school is doing well, so far, and that’s good to see,” he said of this year’s rookie crop at the Comp. “When they came in they really took on the role of playing with the team and their time management has been good with school. They’ve done good with both academics and hockey.”
The educational program at the Grove school has been specifically designed over the years for Saints players, and other traveling athletes as well, but it took some time, said Trask.
“It was hit-and-miss to start. We had a lot of kids that would come and they had fourth block classes and they’d miss those especially if they were going on the bus somewhere. So, our school is quite flexible with classes, we have two or three of the same one, so we worked their schedules so they’d have a fourth block spare. But now with the seminar time at the end of the day, it’s really benefited these guys. They can leave early or stay and get that help they need. And the teachers here are pretty amazing. It’s the desire of the teachers here for these kids to do well and go on.”
It’s all fine and well to have a long term goal with educational/sporting aspirations, Trask said, but at the same time young men looking for a hockey scholarship have to keep in mind that U.S. schools take into account their last four years of marks (Grades 9 through 12). Canadian schools only look at high school (Grades 10 through 12) marks.
“We make sure these guys get all their (core subject) requirements,” Trask stated.
In closing, all three players said it’s tough to stay up to speed with school and hockey but with help they’ve all managed just fine.
“It can be tough,” said Busch, “but if you stay on top of it, it’s something that can be an easy transition especially with our organization here in Spruce Grove. They do everything they can to get you to the next level.”
“It is tough,” Hunter agreed. “But we’ve done this through midget hockey. You just have to keep working through it and look at the end of the day, when hockey’s over, you’ve got an education.”
James, who transferred to the Grove Comp from Wainwright, said his former school was small but Trask helped make his transition here easier.
“My transfer last year, to Kitscoty, was tougher because that was a small school too and they didn’t offer all the classes I needed,” so he’s spent part of this year catching up on his work in order to hopefully secure a future for himself at a university in the U.S. or Canada, like so many Saints of today and the past have done.
Mckee agreed the organization uses the schooling history of past players to recruit new players.
“It’s human nature that parents are going to look at past history, not only on the ice but where (former) kids are playing in regards to the NCAA,” who now skate and study for universities all across North America.