The first-ever National Independent School Invitational Championship is happening now, just north of Toronto. Hosted by St. Andrew's College and Upper Canada College, the 10-team challenge brings together a lot of prep programs that are familiar with each other, but organizers hope this shindig will also increase the level of exposure these hockey teams receive.
While New England prep schools have long been known for hockey excellence, programs such as St. Andrew's and Stanstead College in Quebec are just beginning to rise up. St. Andrew's boasts Carolina Hurricanes third-rounder Warren Foegele as an alum, while Stanstead produced Calgary Flames first-rounder Mark Jankowski.
“The idea for us is to have a place for student-athletes to achieve both their hockey and academic goals under one roof," said St. Andrew's coach David Manning. "And not have to sacrifice on either.”
Naturally, the gold standard for schools such as these is Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota, an institution with one of the most impressive alumni lists anywhere in the hockey world.
“They're a measuring stick for everybody,' Manning said. "They've gained a lot of notoriety, obviously because of players like Crosby, Toews, Parise and Okposo. I wouldn't say we want to be just like Shattuck's, because their model may be a little different than ours, but we want to compete with them for sure. They're the top of the pyramid.”
And it's worth noting that when Manning's Saints took on Shattuck's a few weeks ago, his boys split a pair of games with the Sabres. This year's main draw for St. Andrew's is defenseman Austin Cho, a 2015 draft prospect committed to R.P.I. While he's not slated to go as high as Foegele, scouts are still watching.
“He's got good hockey sense and composure, doesn't panic," said Dan Marr, head of NHL Central Scouting. "He's always on top of the play in the right position so that he's not getting in trouble. And he's got some prickliness.”
The key for Marr and like-minded talent hawks is seeing Cho and others in this tournament (Stanstead's David Jankowski, Mark's little brother, is the other big name) in the right situations. Though St. Andrew's has played Shattuck's and other name prep teams such as Culver Military Academy (2015 prospect Karch Bachman) and the Dexter School (Boston Bruins pick Ryan Donato), there is a lot more variance in the competition than there would be in say, the Ontario League or United States League. So how do they evaluate players such as Cho and Jankowski?
“You learn how to take the parts of the player's game that you can apply for comparison purposes and take the elements of the level of competition and remove that from the equation," Marr said. "It's not an exact science but over time scouts have their own ways of evaluating that.”
Marr chose to watch Cho and the Saints play Ridley College at this tourney, for example, because he knows the Tigers play a physical, competitive style.
For Cho, the decision to come to St. Andrew's was about getting an education while playing hockey, something he will continue to do at R.P.I. Though he's already pretty solid at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, the blueliner wants to get stronger and St. Andrew's employs a full-time trainer and plenty of gym time. Plus, there's the unique aspect of boarding at the institution.
“It's really cool," Cho said. "You get really close to the guys you're playing with and it's a whole community. It's good for bonding.”
A puck-moving blueliner who is also solid in his own zone, Cho is a Drew Doughty fan and he can certainly jump into the play in a way that the L.A. Kings star would appreciate. But he's also a heady player.
The hope at St. Andrew's, of course, is that next year's Saints will also have someone on the NHL radar like Cho. Foegele put the program on the map last year and his coach could not have been prouder of how the current University of New Hampshire Wildcat handled himself.
“He worked for it and he handled the microscope very well all season," Manning said. "When NHL teams came to watch us, they came to watch him.”
While Foegele went straight from the draft to UNH, Cho will most likely play another season elsewhere before he heads to R.P.I. Cedar Rapids owns his USHL rights, or he could stay at St. Andrew's. Either way, he's excited to play for the NCAA's Engineers in the future.
“It was kinda like here," he said. "The coaching staff impressed me, the facilities were nice and everything just fit. I watched a game and loved their style of game.”
If an NHL team loves his style - and half a dozen have already come calling - he may just hear his name called in Florida this summer. And even if he doesn't, he's still well on his way to a college hockey career. Some of his teammates with the Saints will join him on that circuit, but as Manning points out, the worst-case scenario is that his charges get an education at one of the best independent schools in the country.
And there's no downside to that.