Former NHLer Brian Savage has never been reticent about taking the road less travelled. After all, during the most formative years of his youth hockey career, Savage packed up his hockey equipment and didn’t skate for two years to concentrate on golf and to play other sports. None of that prevented him from having an 11-year NHL career and making more than $16 million in the process. So it should come as no surprise that when Savage was presented with a unique opportunity this past summer, he didn’t hesitate to uproot his family (his wife, Debbie, and three hockey-playing boys from Arizona) to join the Red Bull Hockey Academy in Salzburg, Austria. It actually began when the academy tried to recruit his 15-year-old son, Ryan, a bantam draft pick of the Everett Silvertips, and it mushroomed from there. Before he knew it, Savage was being offered a job and the chance to have his three sons develop their skills at an academy that offers more than any kind of hockey program in Arizona, or almost anywhere else in North America, could. “It’s basically a Shattuck or Notre Dame on steroids,” Savage said. “And it’s brand new.”
In a season in which top draft prospect and Arizona-born phenom Auston Matthews shocked the world by playing his draft year in Switzerland, the hockey landscape is changing. Elite young players unwilling to slug it out for minimum wage in major junior are beginning to find there are other options available and they’re taking them. With Savage being hired by Red Bull to do some aggressive recruiting in North America, that paradigm shift could go to another level.
Already, the Red Bull program has a pretty impressive roster of North American talent in its ranks. The oldest Savage boy is on track to possibly join the U.S. National Team Development Program next season and was a fourth-round pick in the WHL draft. Chris McQuaid (cousin of Boston defenseman Adam McQuaid) and Noah Dobson, top prospects for the 2016 QMJHL draft, are also on board. And Savage used his hometown connections to lure 6-foot-7 behemoth defenseman Nathan Lavallee, a prospect for the 2016 OHL draft, to play in Salzburg. “His minor midget coach told me there was no way he could offer what Red Bull was offering,” said Lavallee’s father, Jason. “Playing minor midget in Sudbury, he’d be practicing three hours a week. There he can practice three hours a day.” The academy has been around for eight years now but has only recently stepped up its program. Much of the reason for that is a facility that opened last summer and cost $60 million to build. The facility has two international-sized ice surfaces, two skating treadmills and five shooting areas, along with 72 dorm rooms, an organic cafeteria and a gym. There are sports psychologists and sports scientists on staff, the latter of whom take blood from the 180 players every day to read their levels. Each team has its own physiotherapist and off-ice coach, along with a dedicated skills coach. Combined with a soccer academy, it represents the dream of Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz, who wants to build the No. 1 hockey academy in the world. And unlike other hockey academies in North America that charge in excess of $50,000 a year to hothouse child prodigies, the Red Bull program is free or inexpensive (around $280 per month) for any player who is good enough to play there. The costs are underwritten by the energy drink company. It does provide some branding for Red Bull, but it seems to largely be Mateschitz’s passion that drives the program. The academy is run by former NHL coach Pierre Page and has coaches from around the world. Ice time is always available and when the kids aren’t spending their time in structured skill development, they can usually get a shinny game going. The program has teams spanning from under-8 to pro teams in Salzburg and Munich, with a heavy emphasis on the under-16, under-18 and under-20 teams. The U-16 and U-18 teams will be coming to play in tournaments in North America about once a month. For his part, Savage’s main job is to be the academy’s international recruiter. He does some on-ice work with the players, but his main job will be to convince some of the best young players around the world – and their parents – that it is worth it to take a chance on the Red Bull program instead of opting for the more conventional routes through youth hockey, then junior hockey. It was that possibility that enticed Jason Lavallee, whose son was 6-foot-5 when he was 12. If he eschews major junior, he could be playing against men in the Austrian League as a teenager, the same way Matthews is playing in Switzerland. Nathan Lavallee is a raw talent who needs some work, but if he can develop his skills, who wouldn’t be intrigued by the thought of having a 6-foot-7 defenseman? “And that was one of the things that appealed to us,” the elder Lavallee said. “If he decides he would rather play NCAA instead of junior, it gives him some options for the next couple of years. It could make for a difficult decision, but that’s not a bad thing.” It’s not a bad thing for an elite young player to have options. As the game grows globally, so too do the choices for players. Savage finds the concept is still a tough sell on parents who fear the unknown, but he’s only just getting started.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the October 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.