What are two things that Minor Midget stand-outs Ethan Del Mastro (Toronto Marlboros), Connor Punnett (North Central Predators) and Tyson Jugnauth (Okanagan Rockets) have in common?
Answer No. 1: All three were drafted in the first round by CHL teams this year. The two-way rearguard Del Mastro was selected 12th overall in the OHL draft by the Mississauga Steelheads, the Saginaw Spirit picked Punnett, a play-making forward, nine spots later at No. 21, and Jugnauth, a smooth-skating defender, was chosen 21st overall by the Swift Current Broncos in the WHL draft.
Answer No. 2: Each of them sharpened their elite abilities by attending a Hockey Canada Skills Academy (HCSA) program.
Future stars of the game are attracted to these institutions, as the training they receive builds upon the instruction they receive from their minor hockey coaches.
“It’s a great way outside of their team environment to focus on individual skills,” said Teal Gove, manager of hockey development at Hockey Canada. “Rather than maybe focusing on team systems with their minor hockey team, the skills academies are strictly skill development.
Within the hours of a school day, athletes are working on skills as diverse as puck handling, creativity in the attacking zone, skating stride, gap control, positioning and more.
They are ultimately gaining a competitive edge in the form of 400 extra hours of training time per season.
But enhancing the gifts of the players who have been demonstrating on-ice potential from a very young age is not the achievement of HCSA programs over the past two decades. The skills academies are just as passionate about providing high-quality coaching to players who decide to give the game a try later in childhood.
Gove said the academies create a great learning environment for a 14-year-old trying the game for the first time.
“It’s often difficult if you decide at 14 years old to play hockey to go out and try out for a team and try and keep up with players who have been playing since they were five. So, with the skills academy, where everything is skills-based, it allows kids to jump in and try drills.”
Jordan Sobkowicz, a program coordinator and teacher with the St. James Assiniboia Hockey Academy in Winnipeg, says his school has up to eight instructors on the ice at once, which enables them to provide a lot of individualized instruction to newcomers.
“If there is a group of kids starting out, we can put them together in a similar skill-leveled group as they rotate through stations, and we can have one of the instructors be more focused on basic skills.”
The instructors are not the only group of individuals fostering an environment of inclusivity; Gove says that school administrators do their best to make these academies an affordable enterprise for families, and the players with years of experience take the time to work with the kids coming to the game late.