Long-time Kitscoty High School teacher Neil Williams has fond memories of watching a student who once struggled at math being earning a top honours award for that subject at an end-of-year ceremony.
The educator, who specializes in math and chemistry, also cherishes witnessing numerous students over the past 15 years completely change their attitude towards school from indifference into enthusiasm.
What incited these positive, dramatic transformations? The Hockey Canada Skills Academy (HCSA).
“This program got students to realize they didn’t have to wish the school day away so they can go play hockey,” says Williams. “They could look forward to school because hockey is a part of the curriculum. That enthusiasm rubbed off onto other academic courses. We saw a definite increase in performance among kids who were struggling.”
Another triumph of the HCSA in Kitscoty – a village of 925 in Central Alberta – is its track record of providing students with an opportunity to play the game for the first time. Many of these adolescents harboured a desire to try hockey for years. However, minor hockey enrollment was not an option because of cost, travel requirements and even the daily responsibilities that accompany living on a family farm.
The majority of the 23 Grade 8-12 students enrolled in the skills academy for the 2019-20 school year fit the grassroots background. This reality was not always the case; many of the students who took the course during the first several years it was offered already possessed significant skills and were looking for a forum to refine their craft even more.
Williams was – and still is – well suited to service elite youth athletes. His stand-out play at the Midget level with the South Side Athletic Club in Edmonton earned him a scholarship to play college hockey at Dartmouth College.
He admits he was initially unsure if mentoring beginner students – Williams calls them “grassroots students” – would match the thrill of working with high-end young players.
“It has been just as rewarding, if not more so, for me to see a kid who has never played the game display their enthusiasm on the ice while advancing their skill level.”
Even though the HCSA in Kitscoty has shifted towards a grassroots-heavy roster of students, the program remains stimulating for youth with a bevy of minor hockey experience.
Jaxon Oakes, a second-year kinesiology undergraduate at the University of Saskatchewan, says Williams empowered him to mentor classmates during his three years as a Kitscoty HCSA student (2016-18), which facilitated a heightening of his hockey IQ.
“I would be explaining different techniques for shooting, skating and positioning, and doing stuff like that would allow me to fully understand why I am doing those things,” says Oakes. “It is one thing to be taught those things when you are little, but it is when you turn around to teach someone else that you fully understand.”
After inspiring hundreds of students over the years, Williams will be turning over stewardship of the skills academy over to fellow teacher Mark Anger at the end of the school year. Williams announced his intention to retire over 13 months ago, but he stayed on for the remainder of the school year to find his replacement. He returned this year to primarily help his colleague become acclimated with managing this program. (He also teaches math via video conferencing.)
Dave Sherbinin, the principal of Kitscoty High School for the past 12 years, is in awe of what Williams has accomplished.
“Neil is an amazing guy. He’s the moral fabric of our school. He has used the program as a platform to teach kids life skills, character, perseverance, integrity and grit.
“For Neil, as an educator for over 40 years, we have a countless number of students who are now adults who say that Neil is a teacher who gave them that experience in school that kept them coming to school. That’s a fantastic legacy to have.”