How a small Minnesota high school shaped the careers of Team Canada’s biggest stars
No. 29 offers up a “yes.” Yes isn’t the right answer. There is no right answer.
“So did you tell him?” Ward yells. “Are you a leader or a follower? Do you tell him or do you let him sink like a rock?”
With the accent of a native Minnesotan, “rock” comes out like “rack.”
“Are there any leaders here?” he says. He spares no one the question that cuts. Ward shouts himself hoarse, but this teachable moment will not pass by. Someday, though, Nos. 27, 29 and the rest will look back on this as the best time of their young lives. Their parents, hockey royalty among them, will be glad they packed their kids off to Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn., cutting cheques for $40,000 for the best hockey education money can buy. No guarantee that they’ll turn into pros, just that they’ll emerge as men.
Until then, the teenagers at the practice can take consolation from the fact that a dozen guys in the NHL were pushed this way, same place, same drills, same drillmaster. OK, the kids on Shattuck’s teams this year don’t have any illusions about being the next Crosby, the next Toews, the next Parise. But when they’re watching the original Shattuck stars in action in Sochi, it’s bound to occur to the 2013–14 Sabres that these players laced up their skates in the modest dressing room where they hung their maroon-and-white sweaters after practice that day.
Then again, some players on this year’s prep team are hard to impress. “You see pictures of those guys in the arena and you think, ‘Wow, they were here like me,’” says Jeremy, an outgoing goaltender. “After a while, it just becomes where you play.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a goalie’s head wouldn’t turn, especially if his father happens to also be a goalie, a former teammate of Zach Parise and an owner of three Stanley Cup rings. Yes, Martin Brodeur decided that Shattuck would be the right place to send his three sons: Jeremy; his twin brother, William; and their older brother, Anthony, who graduated last year and was drafted by New Jersey in the seventh round.
Jeremy Brodeur’s nonchalance notwithstanding, you can mount a strong case that Shattuck’s icehouse is the most important arena in the game circa 2014. It looks like thousands of venues across the U.S., Canada and the semi-civilized hockey world. If you were driving down Shumway Avenue parallel to the Straight River you could easily miss the complex: a tight little vintage barn with a low wooden roof, the former home of a long-gone local team, the Faribault Butter Kernels; a not quite 10-year-old rink with a few hundred seats; and a new practice pad good for three-on-three games. The campus beside it would be more eye-catching with its clock tower, assembly hall and other 19th-century buildings designated as a national historical site. Yet, when the viewers around the world watch the Olympics next month, they’ll see players whose road to Sochi ran through Faribault.
ow did this cluster of elite players land at a prep school in a town of 23,352 an hour’s drive down the interstate from Minneapolis? The answer requires a little history, and Shattuck-St. Mary’s has lots to draw from.
The grounds of Shattuck-St. Mary’s were at first the home of Bishop Seabury University Primary School, an institute founded in 1858 by Episcopal priests to educate the children of Faribault, a bustling outpost in the fur trade. “A school is the fashioner of childhood for the work of manhood,” said Bishop Whipple, one of the founders. In the 113 years since his death, Bishop Whipple has watched the school evolve from his portrait’s perch on the oak-panelled walls in the main building. Early on, the school expanded its focus from God to country, and trained young men for the military. Sports also became a component of school life: Back in the 1900s, Shattuck’s football team debuted, and in the ’20s, the varsity hockey team hit the natural ice pads for the first time. All of this would have pleased the stern-faced, abundantly sideburned Bishop Whipple, but the ’70s would have caused him distress. Military academies lost their cachet during the Vietnam war, and Shattuck-St. Mary’s enrolment plunged, leaving not enough numbers to parade in formation or field a football team. Dropping military training, going co-ed—nothing could slow the school’s decline. By the ’90s, Shattuck-St. Mary’s was careening toward obsolescence and insolvency.
And then came a change of fortunes that no one could have expected. Understandably, folks on campus these days have a near-religious zeal about the game of hockey. The sport saved the school. Hockey might have been an unlikely godsend, but even more so was the man who made it happen, J.P. Parise.
“Jeep,” Zach’s father, was hardly a college man. As a player in St. Catharines in the ’60s, he had been pressured by his team to focus on hockey even at the expense of school. Parise played almost 900 NHL games, most of them with the Minnesota North Stars, but became best known for an infamous incident in the Summit Series in 1972: After a spate of bad calls by referee Josef Kompalla, Parise wound up swinging his stick like an axe, as if threatening to decapitate the zebra.
Parise’s arrival on campus was unmitigated serendipity. “Back in ’96, I was living in Bloomington, and Craig Norwich [another retired NHL journeyman] asked me if I wanted to coach Shattuck’s bantams,” Parise says. “He’d started up the program a few years before. He had maybe 10 grand to pay me with. I told him I’d do it so long as my older son, Jordan, could enrol there. Then, a few months later, Craig told me he was taking a job in Vail, Colo. So I go from something like a volunteer to the head of the program.”
It still looked like Shattuck might fade to black. The student body was under 200 with full tuitions running $10,000 a year. But under Parise’s direction, word of Shattuck’s program got around. “We started with two teams my first year,” he says. “Four years later, we had four boys’ teams, two girls’ teams… 140 students playing, and tuition was 20 grand. A complete turnaround, and growing.”
Parise can’t articulate any formula for success, at least anything more out-of-the-box than common sense. “We had parents come to us because the players could get a good education,” Parise says. “I didn’t care what money they had. I told them, ‘Everybody has to earn a spot. To be here you have to study hard, play hard and be a good guy.’ It was a character thing. I didn’t want any attitude from players, no nonsense.”
Parise wanted to pass on bench duties to a younger man and, in 1999, went looking for a candidate who shared his philosophy, a kindred spirit. He landed on Tom Ward, a former University of Minnesota defenceman and a ninth-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 1992. “Tom was an impressive guy, a great two-sport athlete with the Gophers varsity, hockey and baseball. He hit .360 before he got injured and had to give up the game,” Parise said. “He had experience coaching in the United States Hockey League, but what I liked was that he had worked as an assistant coach at [the University of] Minnesota. I wanted my program to send kids to college. Tom’s a coach but first he’s an educator.”
When he applied for the job, Ward wasn’t thinking he was an educator. “I was a hockey man who needed work so I could feed my wife and three young daughters,” he says. “The Gophers fired the hockey coach, and I was gone too. It was a real tough spot to be in. I’ll always appreciate J.P. giving me a chance.”
Shattuck’s reputation in hockey circles was growing, but it truly took off three years later. By the summer of 2002, 15-year-old Sidney Crosby had run out of places to play in Cole Harbour, N.S. He was too young for major junior, too dominant to play another year with the midget AAA Dartmouth Subways. Looking for a way to raise his game, Crosby enrolled at Shattuck in the fall of 2002 and took his place in the sophomore class. The school’s tuition then was almost $30,000, but students were eligible for assistance based on need. Crosby’s family’s income qualified him for full assistance. “Sidney had a sense of what he was going to do,” Ward says. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to pay every cent of that back.’ And he did pay the school back. In spades.”
As it turned out, there’d only be a single year’s assistance to come off the books. Sophomores rarely make the prep team—even last year’s first-overall draft pick, Nathan MacKinnon, didn’t. Crosby made it and set scoring records that might outlive him: 72 goals and 162 points in 57 games. Says his former Shattuck teammate and roommate Ryan Duncan: “Those numbers could have been so much bigger. Games that were 4–0, 5–0, Coach would hardly play Sid and the first line after that.” Crosby capped the season by leading the school to a national title, scoring 10 goals and adding eight assists in six games in the tournament. When asked that season where Crosby could play, Parise’s stock answer was the NHL. “People would say it’s hard to project that far ahead with a 15-year-old kid, and I’d tell them, ‘No, he can play there right now.’”
Crosby didn’t just set an unmatched standard of play—he did more than any player to raise the emerging program’s profile. When the 2005 draft rolled around, Shattuck appeared as a line in Crosby’s thumbnail bio, in newspapers and magazine stories, in television features. Instant lore: Crosby’s best friend at Shattuck was Jack Johnson, the defenceman selected third overall in the draft; as it turned out, Johnson once charged the mound in a varsity baseball game when an opposing pitcher brushed back his buddy. Effectively, Crosby’s year at Shattuck served as an unmatchable seal of approval.
Crosby has gone on to become the defining player of his era, yet you hear other names when you ask about the player who best represents the Shattuck experience. Teachers mention Tyler Ruegsegger, a Leafs draftee back in ’06 who’s in the ECHL these days. At Shattuck, the Colorado native won the Spectator Cup as the school’s “Most Worthy Boy,” the most charismatic kid on campus, even taking a lead role in the stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They mention Alexis Crossley, another product of Cole Harbour. In her senior year, she served as school president, won the Cornelia Whipple Award as Shattuck’s “Best All-Around Girl” and over the Christmas break scored the winning goal against the U.S. in the final of the world under-18 championships.
Of the NHLers, a few stand out. Zach Parise gets a lot of love, not just for scoring 146 goals in 125 games in his junior and senior years. Parise made full use of the greatest asset of the hockey program: an unlocked arena door. He not only played in pickup games in the off-hours but learned to drive the Zamboni to a professional standard. It was fitting that he’d be the catalyst behind the construction of the three-on-three mini-rink adjoining the main arenas. Parise summers on a lake a few minutes from the campus, goes out fishing with Tom Ward when he gets a chance and visits his old haunts to get a workout and a skate in every August. Drew Stafford gets consideration as well. Alumni of the girls’ varsity prep heard all about his exploits from their coach, his father, Gordon Stafford, now the director of girls’ hockey at the school. “When he was working with us at practice, Mr. Stafford would always tell us stories about Drew in the NHL,” Crossley says. “Drew was sort of our window into the men’s game.”
The one grad always cited as Shattuck stuff is Jonathan Toews. If you see JT wandering around with a well-thumbed paperback of Albert Camus’s L’etranger, don’t imagine that he is somehow identifying with the protagonist Meursault and opening his heart to la tendre indifférence du monde. No, when Toews invited his former French teacher at Shattuck, Amine Bekhechi, to be his guest when the Hawks came to play the Wild, it piqued his interest in a book on his old reading list at Shattuck. “He said he wanted to reread Camus,” Bekhechi says. “He was virtually fluent when he arrived here. You could tell right away he was a very strong student.”
Toews made a better first impression in the classroom than he did on the ice. “I had heard about him but I hadn’t seen him until he came down here to work out for us,” Ward says. “And, honestly, he didn’t play well at all. I said, ‘This is the guy you told me about?’ I wasn’t sure that he could play for us. I don’t know if it was just a case of nerves, but Jon figured it out.”
He figured it out and led Shattuck teams to consecutive national championships. It wasn’t the titles, though, that won Toews respect across campus so much as his decision to stay on at Shattuck for his senior year, when the Tri-City Americans, the team that had selected him first overall in the Western Hockey League draft of 2003, were ready to roll out the red carpet. NHL scouts wondered about the decision, believing that he was staying on to play a level of hockey well below the competition he would have faced in the WHL. Toews rejects out of hand the idea that staying in Faribault was an easy way out. “I think of the bus trips we’d take and having to do homework all night on the ride, with staff watching us,” he says. “We would be on the bus for six hours or eight hours, sometimes from lunchtime Friday through the night, and we’d have to get off the bus and play four or five games in a couple of days. Then we’d have to get back on the bus, get to our rooms at 3 a.m. and be down for breakfast and in class—no exceptions.”
It sounds like a Dickensian approach to player development, yet Toews and others thrived. “You are pushed, and you have to push yourself, and then everyone has to push together,” Toews says. “Then at some point you find out what you are really capable of. I loved it.”
On game-day Friday, Tom Ward has a private, closed-door meeting with a player during one of his spare periods, and they discuss what the young man is really capable of. OK, “discussing” overstates it. As Ward breaks down the player’s game, point by painful point, the volume rises and some of the language would make Bishop Whipple blush and his wife Cornelia faint dead away.
It could have passed for a disciplinary session following a breach of team rules. It wasn’t. When Ward waves a visitor into his office seconds later, the coach calls the kid “my best player” and says “he has a chance to make some money playing this game.”
Ward’s is not an approach to teaching in vogue in the 21st century. Shattuck isn’t a place where no one is cut from a team and everyone gets handed a trophy. Ward pushes players hard but everything is calculated. “We had a good trip to Sweden for a bunch of games over the Thanksgiving break,” Ward says. “The boys played really well, but we could have been better this week in practice. You have to head off any complacency. You can’t chance that.”
It seems like a moot point. If you blanketed the campus with a crack forensic team wielding magnifying glasses, you wouldn’t be able to come up with evidence of complacency, not even a shred. Amid the throng of young people in matching khaki pants and style-free sweaters, you couldn’t turn up a slacker. No rebels, no bad boys, no bad girls, no repeat offenders, no goths, no other subset of those bucking the system. The great irony: The defining icon of rebellion attended Shattuck back in his day, but, as you’d expect, Marlon Brando didn’t last here. Nor will anyone who doesn’t buy in.
Between the crushing load of schoolwork and the demands of their sports or other passions that suck up hours before and after school, it’s hard to stay. Conversely, given the money laid out by parents, it’s easy to leave. That’s not to say that the Shattuck students are willing to go along with anything—they’ll speak truth to authority on a matter of principle. New York Rangers scouting director Gordie Clarke had that experience after drafting Shattuck alum Derek Stepan, who’ll join Zach Parise on the American team in Sochi next month. “When you’re scouting kids from Shattuck, it’s rare that there’s any questions about character,” Clarke says. “I wondered about Derek’s decision to go back to [the University of] Wisconsin for his sophomore year rather than turn pro, but he told me that he had made a promise to people at the school and he was going to keep it. You have to respect that. And you respect what it takes for these kids to get through a year in the Shattuck program.”
Dr. Robert Irby might have the best description of the Shattuck ethic. Irby left Kansas by train and made his way to the Shattuck campus as a student back in 1957. But for his time in college, he has been a fixture on campus as a math teacher ever since. “A teacher, a coach, any sort of educator likes this environment and students like these to work with,” Dr. Irby says. “We’re getting results by appealing to the maturity of the student: Grow up and take this challenge, dare to be more than average and understand there’s going to be a lot of work, sometimes more work than you think you can handle… but you will persevere.”
And sometimes there will be bitter pills to swallow. One Shattuck parent, George, saw his son cut from the prep team and land with crushing disappointment on the under-16 squad. “Graham had injured his shoulder when they had the tryouts for the preps,” George says. “Tom has a rule that if you can’t skate during the tryouts and you’re not a player coming back from last year’s prep team, you’re not going to make the cut. No exceptions. I explained to Graham that it was the right call. You have to respect that about Tom.”
George is bleary-eyed after getting out of another arena late the night before, a morning flight to Minny and the drive to Faribault, but he volunteers to work as an off-ice official for an under-16 game. It will keep him from drifting off and, maybe, getting buzzed with questions from other parents about his work, which happens to be in the destination of their sons’ aspirations, the NHL.
In the arena in Faribault, George works as a timekeeper. In the NHL, he sits in the executive box, because he is GM of the Washington Capitals. George McPhee isn’t the first NHL executive to send a son to Shattuck. Kevin Lowe and Wayne Gretzky beat him to the punch, and others will follow.
The reference from an NHL GM would highlight a CV for a coach looking for career advancement. Though McPhee and others would offer glowing recommendations, Tom Ward has never asked for one, never shopped for another job. His players have gone on to make millions and shape the game, but he has stayed behind. A chance to coach at an NCAA school, maybe minor pro, maybe some sort of stepping stone to an NHL head-coaching job and a million-dollar salary: These are the overtures he has heard but never heeded. Within a circumscribed world, he has found what makes him happy.
The team has come and won and up and left. It was a clinical win, and Tom Ward didn’t have to raise his voice. “Tom used to let his anger get the better of him in games,” says an NHL scout. “Really giving it to his players. It had to embarrass them. But he’s a better coach now. He’s more in control.”
That self-control probably takes more out of him than shouting. He takes refuge in the dressing room. No one comes in without knocking. No one comes in even with knocking. The players don’t see their coach after they clear the dressing room. No one does. Ward just wants it that way.
Other coaches might crack open a beer or smoke a cigar in quiet celebration. Not Ward. The game’s not out of his mind quite yet. He has it on video, but that can wait. The dressing room is tight enough to induce claustrophobia, redolent of sweat even after the laundry has been wheeled off. He goes from stall to identical stall—no personal items, as Spartan, utilitarian and orderly as a boot-camp barrack. Ward is doing inspection. He straightens the rare sweater that doesn’t hang perfectly squarely in place, team logo in the front, numbers in the back. He is lost in thought, of what the next practice will look like, what the next game will bring. If he drifts at all, it’s about a longing for something that he fears lays beyond his reach, something that will never come to be.
You have to trespass if you want to see Ward unwind. And if you are brave or fool enough to trespass, he’ll share the why of it all. “I’d like to have one thing that was mine, something that made the game better, that my name and the school would be associated with,” he says. “That’s the impact you want to have on the game.”
Tom Ward turns 50 in a few weeks, short of time for that one thing that eludes almost all career coaches. Maybe because his world plays out in this arena in a small Minnesota town, he can’t see how much he and Shattuck have already impacted the game. Maybe it will occur to him when he gets together with his coaches to watch Crosby, Toews, Parise and Stepan play in Sochi, maybe when Amanda Kessel and numerous other Shattuck alums play for the U.S. women. Maybe the road to the Olympics didn’t start for them at Shattuck, but the road ran through Faribault. Probably, though, when the medal games are being played and the Shattuck team is back from a long bus ride to Buffalo, Tom Ward will be lost in thought about his own team’s next game, the nationals a few weeks ahead and why the hell No. 27 just can’t get it right. Are any of you leaders?
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.