Getting into the Shattuck-St. Mary's hockey program is not easy. In a typical year, the Minnesota prep school, famous for developing the likes of Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Toews among many others, receives anywhere from 400-600 applications for the boys program – and there are only 30 spots available. This year, the applications shot up to 1,000.
Part of that may have been pandemic-related – Shattuck is independent, so its schedule is more flexible than a program tethered to a particular league – but the growing number also reflects the race for development spots among elite kids in North America, especially in the United States.
As the game continues to grow in the U.S., so do the number of parents who want their kids playing with the best of the best, at prep schools that have proven they can meld academics and athletics. But there are only so many programs like that around.
"There's an incredible demand for places like Shattuck and other prep schools," said Ben Umhoefer, director of hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary's. "It's actually been overwhelming."
That scarcity can drive up prices, which is not a good thing for the grassroots game – especially in hockey, a sport that can be prohibitively expensive for many families in the first place. Geographically, it also means that a lot of kids are leaving their club teams in non-traditional hockey markets and that's tough for the local programs that are trying to build themselves up.
So the folks at Shattuck believe they have a solution.
The school launched a new low-residency online division for 8th and 9th grade students for the 2021-22 season and if it works, the program could be expanded in many exciting ways.
The idea is for enrolled student-athletes to do asynchronous online schooling built around their hockey schedules, with the syllabus coming from Shattuck-St. Mary's curriculum. The players would get a diploma from Shattuck upon graduation and would also get to visit the Shattuck-St. Mary's campus twice a year: for two weeks before the season and two weeks after, they will live in the dorms and interact with the famed hockey staff while skating on Shattuck ice. When not on campus, players have access to weekly NHL video breakdowns and individual sports psychology appointments.
So far, the concept has attracted a small group that includes hockey players and figure skaters (who have many of the same challenges as hockey players when it comes to balancing training and academics). If the concept works, the possibilities would be incredible. Instead of teams from California or Nevada losing all their best players, they could have a ready-made program to keep them local while also providing top-notch schooling and hockey training. Kids from Europe who want to play NCAA hockey could take part, earning themselves American high school course credits, thus making it easier for them to qualify academically for the universities of their choice. And perhaps most importantly, kids who don't even own shaving cream can play hockey and live with their families without worrying they're going to fall behind their peers.
"No one has to say 'I have to leave home' anymore," Umhoefer said. "This is intended for kids who can't leave home now or don't want to leave home yet."
Every parent wants the best for their kids, but competitive sports and the dream of an NHL or pro women's career can put families in a difficult spot. Hockey certainly isn't the only pastime to have parents worry about their kid missing out on an elite opportunity, but it's not immune to those pressures either.
Shattuck's new online program would cost about one-third of the price of a regular prep school season, but the school is planning to help subsidize (and find more subsidies for) players whose families need financial support.
It's a fascinating concept and frankly, it's nice to see a top school delving into an alternative solution for what can sometimes be a dizzying industry for families. This is just the beginning, but the future is very exciting.