When Frances Kelsey Secondary vice principal Lori Hryniuk first proposed a hockey academy for the Mill Bay school, she had to convince School District 79 officials that it was the right thing for the school and the district.
After a successful first year for the program, she won’t need to convince them to keep it going.
Twenty-seven students in Grades 10-12, including three female students, wrapped up the first year of the Frances Kelsey Hockey Academy last month, all of them seeing a marked improvement not only in their hockey skills, but also in teamwork, fitness and nutrition.
"I’d definitely recommend it," said Grade 12 student Alex Amiri, who considers himself a "way better" player after completion of the program. "I think all of us definitely improved over the first 18 weeks."
Grade 11 student Josh Byers agreed. "I’ve seen improvement in my skills, in the little things, the technical things," he said.
All of the students who took part in the academy had minor hockey experience in one form or another before the program started, ranging from the house level to elite rep. Everyone was given an equal chance, and everyone saw the benefits.
"The way we advertised it was that we weren’t looking for elite players," Hryniuk explained. "We were looking for a range of abilities. They are definitely at varying levels."
Parents have commented on the difference it has made for players to skate alongside those from other levels that they never would have played with under other circumstances. Players have raved about the extra ice time, with three early-morning sessions – before school officially starts – every week. There’s a lot more to the academy than time on the ice, however. Students also get two sessions a week with a certified fitness instructor, and cover health and nutrition in the classroom. Players also keep a nutrition journal.
"That was a real eye-opener," said Lynne Dayton, a Grade 12 student who also plays midget at Kerry Park.
Hryniuk has seen first-hand the students’ improvements in the off-ice areas.
"The overall level of fitness from September to now has skyrocketed," she said. "Hopefully it sticks with them and they continue and adapt the lifestyle and fitness in their lives."
Kelsey does have a hockey team that competes against other schools in the Cowichan Valley league, and while there is some overlap between the academy and the team, they function separately; the academy doesn’t play any games.
"Many of them are on the school hockey team, but it’s not the same entity," Hryniuk said.
For their efforts, the academy students get eight credits of course work, including phys ed credits. If they go through three years of the program, that’s 24 credits toward the 80 they need to graduate.
"It’s an easy eight credits," said Amy Osmond, a Grade 10 student who plans to return to the academy next year.
"It’s a great way to link their love of hockey to the academic program," Hryniuk added,
getting at the heart of the program. Part of Hryniuk’s rationale when she proposed the hockey academy to SD79 was attracting and retaining students, and it paid off immediately as two students began attending Kelsey specifically for the academy. Other students have experienced their own success, even in the form of showing up for the before-school ice times.
"Some of them were struggling to get to school on time last year," Hryniuk noted.
The academy has been run as a partnership between Kelsey and SD79 and RPM Hockey Company, which puts on similar academies throughout the province.
RPM brought in Trent Brandvold, a coach with plenty of experience at the minor and junior levels, to run the on-ice sessions.
"It’s been a lot of fun," he said. "There’s a good mix of kids. For the most part, it’s been pretty productive."
Brandvold hasn’t been directly involved in an academy like Kelsey’s in the past, but he has seen how much this one has meant to the students.
"I think hockey promotes education for them," he said. "To be in this program, you have to be in school, and that motivates them."
As for the on-ice component, Brandvold has been impressed with those results.
"Overall, their skill level has obviously improved," he said. "The goal is to give them an opportunity to develop their skills and be more efficient at the game."
Brandvold and his assistant coach, Jason Reimer, left a positive impression on Jeremy Webb, whose son Gerome was part of the academy this year, particularly with regard to their experience and level of organization, with every lesson planned well in advance.
"That made it easier for the school board, knowing what they were getting onto," he said.
"I’m more than impressed with the program Kelsey has put together," Webb added. "They’ve done a fantastic job. The players want to be here. They’ve improved their skills, improved their fitness and their knowledge of nutrition."
The school is exploring the possibility of adding a bantam program next year for Grades 8 and 9. A meeting will take place at the school on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. to gauge interest in a bantam program.