BY BOB DUFF
When Robb Serviss first launched the A21 Academy in Windsor, Ont., his initial thought was to find other prep schools of similar talent levels to compete against in order to give his team a better chance at success on the ice.
He also sprinkled in a few games with some of the elite programs in the province like St. Andrew’s in Aurora and Ridley College in St. Catharines, enabling him to gauge where his team’s talent level was and where it needed to get to in order to compete with the top teams.
From discussions with the coaches of those teams, he soon came to realize that the best method of measurement was to take a Ric Flair approach to success.
If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
Serviss, who had coached AAA midget and junior C clubs before moving into the world of hockey academies, was instantly struck by how high the caliber of play was among these top schools.
Team captain for St. Andrew’s last season was Matthew Stienburg. The 6-foot-2, 186-pound center from Halifax was already an NHL draft pick. The Colorado Avalanche selected Stienburg right out of St. Andrew’s with the 63rd pick of the 2019 entry draft.
“Moving forward I think a lot of guys are going to start choosing this route over the junior route a little bit more,” Stienburg told Sportsnet.
Robert Thomas, who won a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019, also played at St. Andrew’s.
“People don’t realize the level of hockey,” Serviss said. “When you look at Shattuck (St. Mary’s in Minnesota) and St. Andrew’s, those teams are so good. It’s really good hockey.
“A lot of people don’t know that because they’re so fixated — especially here in Ontario — with the OHL and AAA hockey.”
Where the hockey academies offer a huge edge is in the area of skill development. The programs follow a similar scheduling pattern to university hockey. Games are slated for the weekend. Monday-Friday is reserved for practice, also ensuring that the kids aren’t missing classroom time for hockey.
“It’s all geared toward development,” said former NHLer Garry Unger, the head coach at Alberta’s Banff Academy. “And the number one aspect is the schooling, because they’re not going to go anywhere in college, if that’s what they want to do, if their marks aren’t where they need to be.”
Even when he was coaching in the junior C ranks, Serviss was lucky if he could schedule one or two practices per week. His team at A21 is on the ice every day.
“There’s way more skill development,” Serviss said. “If we go to showcases or tournaments, we go in there and play Friday night and Saturday morning and we’re back home by Sunday.
“You get all your practices in. We’d even practice on a Friday morning before we would hop on the bus.”
Hockey academy teams will play between 40-60 games a season. In Ontario, most top schools operate as independents, rather than skate in a league. It offers them the freedom to schedule more games against elite teams from across North America.
“I want to play the best teams, the best schools,” Serviss said. “Playing in the best tournaments, against the best teams, that’s really where the exposure is. We went and played St. Andrew’s and you’re going to have NCAA, or possibly NHL scouts at that game, and junior coaches as well.
“In the prep scene, it’s all OJHL and CCHL scouts.”
Stability is another appeal that the hockey academies offer. Players work with the same coaching staff for three or four years. They aren’t getting new coaches every season.
“It’s so much more long-term thinking and development,” Serviss said. “You might go through minor hockey and have four or five different coaches. A lot of these kids who are coming to us, it’s for anywhere between two and four years.
“Kids really want to have that long-term growth — physically, academically and skill wise.”
Opportunity is another perk. Once a player is on an academy team, they’re there for the season. No one gets cut. No player is traded.
“There’s no politics,” Unger said. “There’s no parental interference. A kid comes and we’re going to try and make him a player. Whether he’s a top-notch player, or whether he’s not, we’re going to try and develop them.
“They get an opportunity to play. They’re not sitting on the bench. We’re not playing one line so we can win a game. We’re not playing the same goalie all the time. We’ve got three goalies on the team and if it’s time for the third goalie to play and we happen to be playing the top team in the league, he plays.
“It should be a development program, to get these kids to a point where they can get to junior, where they’ve got an opportunity to make the team.”