The Russians took a lot of hits during the gold-medal game of the 2015 world junior hockey championships. So did Yale Hockey Academy’s website.
“Our hits on our website were up 456 per cent on that day,” said Yale’s Billy Wilms, who started the school’s hockey academy in 2004. “And 70 per cent of those hits were new visitors.”
The surge of online interest came after “Jake Virtanen’s Story” aired just before the start of the third period. The one-minute Canadian Tire feature focused on the positive impact Virtanen’s longtime coach at the Yale Hockey Academy, Brad Bowen, had on his career.
The fact that Shea Theodore, one of Virtanen’s teammates on Team Canada, had also graduated from the Yale academy, likely cast even more national attention on the hockey program in Abbotsford.
“Our stock is pretty high right now, given those two alumni and the success of our program,” Wilms said.
After the 5-4 Canada victory over Russia, Wilms texted Virtanen, who replied with a photo of himself and Theodore sporting big grins and gold medals.
Prior to the world juniors, Wilms would get one or two calls a week about the program at Yale; now he’s getting 15 to 20 inquiries weekly, some from as far away as Nova Scotia.
The program at Yale is a byproduct of the 1999 Molson Open Ice Summit that was held after a string of disappointing international results from Canadian hockey teams.
One of the 11 recommendations made to restore the country’s on-ice supremacy was to “promote co-operative efforts between school boards, local hockey associations and sponsors, to better utilize ice times and school facilities and move towards the development of school sports.”
At Yale, that began in 2004 with about 30 players enrolled in the new hockey program. “It was a mixed bag, we had some house players, some AAA players – all on the ice together and we worked on the skills all the way through,” Wilms recalled.
The program has evolved over the seasons and now boasts U-15, U-16 and U-18 high performance teams, as well as a skill development group for minor players. Next season a bantam program will be added.
“[The Yale Academy] is a program that helps both elite hockey players, and players who are working on their personal hockey skill development,” said Yale principal Lance McDonald. “The program is a magnet for players across our district, and for some of our neighbouring districts.”
During the school week, players attend regular classes, as well as participate in on-ice practice and skill sessions and off-ice training sessions led by the program’s coaches and trainers at the Abbotsford Recreation Centre rink beside the school.
On the weekend they play games — more than 50 per season against other teams in the CSSHL (Canadian Sport School Hockey League).
“It’s a really fantastic system for development,” said Wilms.
Players like Virtanen and Theodore prove that. The notoriety gained from the world junior tournament will likely attract more talented program applicants.
“I know it only helps,” said Wilms.
— Calgary Hitmen (@WHLHitmen) January 6, 2015
Yale has another high-profile prospect, Noah Juulsen, playing in Everett in the Western Hockey League. He is one of a growing list of grads now playing in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), Junior A and B leagues and U.S. and Canadian universities.
To earn a spot on one of Yale’s elite development teams, players must try out. If they make the team, the cost of enrolment is $9,000 per year.
“Anyone is free to try out. I have a kid from Pittsburgh who wants to try out and I have kid from Ontario who wants to fly in and try out,” said Wilms. “But at the end of the day, you can only take 19 kids.”
Players currently enrolled in the academy hail mostly from Abbotsford, Mission and other Fraser Valley communities.
Wilms regularly gets calls from high schools in Canada and the United States asking for consultations on developing their own hockey academies.
“It’s a great model. Because if you think about it, it’s all cost recovery. We’re not a business model here. As much as it’s like running a business, it’s a public school program. Yes, it costs money but high-end sports do.”
Earlier this month, Wilms was off to the airport to catch a flight to watch the academy’s U-18 team play at the Kelowna International Tournament.
It’s been a banner year for the Yale program – and not just at the world juniors.
The U-16 team won the Lakecity Invitational in Idaho and also captured bronze at the Richmond International. In November, the U-18 Lions won the prestigious World Bauer Invitational in Chicago, defeating the No. 2-ranked Honeybaked 4-3 in the final.
“Yale, we just came out of nowhere, a public school from Abbotsford, B.C. wins the largest U-16 team in the world,” said Wilms.
That led to calls from a dozen or more NCAA schools.
At the Kelowna tourney, there were scouts at the rink from several schools, including Yale, University of Minnesota Deluth, Boston College, Michigan State and University of Michigan, to name a few.
One of the Yale players who has already received overtures from U.S. schools is U-18 captain Kohen Olischefski, a Grade 11 player who has suited up for the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs this year.
“It’s been really good for my development,” said Olischefski about the academy. “It’s great to be on the ice every day.”
The unique aspect of a sports school like Yale is that it opens doors to both junior and college hockey.
“We’re open to both avenues,” Wilms said.
Another Yale player, Devon Toews, a draft pick of the New York Islanders, recently received a full-ride NCAA Division 1 scholarship at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
“A ton of U-18 players will go that route,” explained Wilms.
And they have the grades — at Yale, student hockey players must maintain a 73 per cent GPA — and grit to succeed, on and off the ice.
“I always say to people, the day that we are focused solely on a hockey players is the day we fail as an academy. Because we’re all about training these guys to be the best hockey players they can, but they also have to be the best student athletes and people of character.”