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Which way to the top? Path to college, pros different for girls

There are plenty of paths to the pros for the boys — be it major junior, college or otherwise — but what’s the best route for young female players?
Courtesy Gordie Stafford

Courtesy Gordie Stafford

The photo is all the evidence one needs. Standing in a row are Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux, Brianna Decker and Amanda Kessel. Proudly wearing their Team USA jerseys side-by-side with arms draped over one another, the four women have 2018 Olympic gold medals slung around their necks, holding their prizes forward for the camera and beaming with seemingly permanent smiles.

The caption, put there by Gordie Stafford only shortly after USA stood atop the podium in Pyeongchang, reads simply, “The Shattuck Golden girls.”

The moniker, of course, is in reference to their alma mater. Not from the college ranks, mind you. The Lamoureuxs are products of North Dakota, Decker a Wisconsin alum, and Kessel played her post-secondary puck in Minnesota. Rather, at one point in time, and for one season as a fearsome, near-unstoppable unit, the women skated at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School, where Stafford has overseen the women’s team for nearly 15 years. You can add a fifth to the Shattuck crew playing in the gold-medal game, too, as Canadian silver medallist Blayre Turnbull is also a grad.

How is it that the four Olympic champions and five of the best women’s players anywhere in the world came from one school in Faribault, Minn., about an hour outside of Minneapolis? It’s because in the world of girls hockey, Shattuck and its counterparts are the primary path to the college game, the road that needs to be travelled for those who have more than a passing passion for the game. “I can use specific examples of girls that have come to play at Shattuck that have gone on to the Olympics, for example, they would have run out of runway on the girls side because many of them had played with boys right up until they came to Shattuck,” Stafford said. “Then, physically, socially, emotionally, there’s a point in which a majority of girls will not be able to play boys anymore.”

It’s with prep schools such as Shattuck or the more traditional teams in the northeastern United States, as well as with elite club teams – such as Chicago Mission, Minnesota Jr. Whitecaps, Stoney Creek Sabres and Toronto Aeros – throughout the U.S. and Canada, that girls are afforded the opportunity to play with peers who see the game as more than an activity, with those who view it as a pathway to the college game and possibly a national team or the professional women’s circuits. It’s where the veritable iron sharpens iron for these young girls, their answer to the boys’ top-tier bantam programs that inevitably produce the next generation of NHL talent.

But what elite programs provide as much as anything is exposure. That’s an invaluable commodity for those with their sights set on the college ranks. In fact, it’s so important that Shattuck specifically tailors the team’s yearly travel schedule around tournaments that will get the most eyes on the girls. “Colleges don’t have infinite resources,” Stafford said. “So the colleges are going to recruit from the tournaments and showcases that are offered.”

It’s a similar pitch, an offer of exposure and a path to the women’s collegiate game, that enticed Sarah Zacharias to join the once-burgeoning and now-flourishing prep program at Balmoral Hall in Winnipeg in 2006. Before joining Balmoral in its second season, Zacharias believed her two options were becoming the first female NHL player or making the Olympic team. “It opened up a whole new world for me,” Zacharias said. “I hadn’t even imagined (the NCAA) as a possibility.”

Zacharias returned to coach at Balmoral after three years at Niagara University (N.Y.). She echoed Stafford’s sentiments that getting in front of scouts at major competitions like the NAHA Labor Day Tournament, Stoney Creek university showcase and Challenge Cup is of paramount importance for girls desperate to continue their careers into college.

It’s why Balmoral rarely, if ever, plays in Winnipeg. Every other weekend the team travels to ensure scouts are seeing the team on a regular basis. At some tournaments, Zacharias said, upwards of 100 recruiters can be present, searching for the next generation of college commits. Tiered tournaments allow the best U-12, U-14, U-16 and college-ready athletes to pique the interest of scouts. “I try not to use ‘never’ and ‘always,’ because they’re limiting terms, but it is true that your likelihood and chances of getting seen at these big hotbeds are just much greater in comparison to a kid that’s coming out of a small town,” Zacharias said. “Technology has advanced, and, yes, there are live streams that scouts can use to watch kids from anywhere in the world, but that doesn’t compare to being able to sit down in the rink and see kids’ tendencies on the bench or see the mannerisms when they interact with the coach.”

Nor does it take into account the one thing that prep schools can provide, which is an all-in-one package that ties athletics and academics together. Zacharias couldn’t overstate how important the academic aspects were for young women looking to take the next step. Conversations with scouts, recruiters and college coaches about on-ice aspects of the game are short and sweet. Most want to know how the girls are as students. And in most instances, Zacharias explained, if a decision has to be made between two players, the tiebreaker likely won’t be goals, assists or time on ice. Instead, it will be SAT scores, ACT scores and grade-point average. “You have to be a good student,” Zacharias said. “You don’t know what’s going to come of your hockey career. I used to say that my college career was a means to an end. I was able to get a full-ride scholarship and play four great years of college hockey, and that’s what led me to where I am in life today, and it wasn’t just the hockey side of things. For girls, the academic piece is just as important as the athletic piece in my mind.”

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