This is the first story in a series on the top development organizations in hockey from around the world. The six-part series will profile organizations from six different countries over the course of the season, and is written by Matt Dumouchelle, exclusively for The Coaches Site.
It was at a bonfire a few years ago that I came across a heated debate about one of the all-time greats.
Two friends of mine, both adamant in their stances and perhaps a little tipsy from their evening engagements, were disputing the truth to Pittsburgh Penguins star, Sidney Crosby, attending high school in Minnesota.
“Blasphemous,” said one party. “How could a Cole Harbour, NS, native and Captain Canada have attended school in the United States?”
The back and forth was solved just like any other these days.
“Google: where did Sidney Crosby go to high school?”
As the results trickled in, a map pulled up directing us to Faribault, Minnesota. To a former military school, erected in 1858. To a place that holds a Hall of Fame alumni list, that continues to add to its resume year-after-year. To Shattuck-St. Mary’s School.
The campus sits on 250 acres about an hour south of Minneapolis. The home to Centers of Excellence in engineering, bioscience, vocal performance, soccer, figure skating, golf and hockey.
In the early 1970s, the school dropped their military distinction and struggled to find a new specialty, to the point where the doors were close to being closed on the institution forever.
“The school had brought in a consultant a while afterwards,” Ben Umhoefer, director of hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s explains. “He suggested the one asset the school had that wasn’t being utilized was the hockey rink, and that’s where it started.”
Umhoefer was a student enrolled at the school at the time, he would graduate from Shattuck-St. Mary’s in 2005, returning in 2010 to coach five of the program’s eight teams over 10 seasons before transitioning to his current role.
At the time, Craig Norwich, a local Minnesota hockey legend who starred at the University of Wisconsin and amassed over 100 NHL games, was a coach at the school and is the one credited with the vision of getting out of the state high school league, playing more games and increasing travel.
Norwich was able to bring in JP Parise to begin the hockey movement.
Parise in turn hired Larry Hendrickson, Mike Eaves and Andy Murray to post up behind the benches and then went on a recruiting spree to get the best players from Minnesota and beyond to attend.
It started at home for Parise, bringing his young sons Zach and Jordan into the fold.
Jordan, a goaltender, played three years at the University of North Dakota, while Zach would go on to play six seasons at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, starring in 125 games and posting 340 points in his last two years, before going 17th overall to the New Jersey Devils in the 2003 NHL draft.
The school had arrived.
Since that time, Shattuck-St. Mary’s has won 27 USA Hockey National Championships, had 93 players selected in the NHL draft, seen over 750 players play D1 or D3 hockey, produced 19 Olympians with six Gold Medalists, a Hobey Baker winner, two Patty Kazmaier Awardees and over 30 current and former USA National & U18 National women’s team players.
The list keeps growing, longer and more impressive as the years go on.
Just this past year, eight Shattuck-St. Mary’s players were selected in the 2021 NHL Draft.
“That’s becoming the norm,” Umhoefer admits. “Our strengths have always been consistency, execution, doing what we say we are going to do, not over complicating, pride in the work and focusing on development.”
An Easy Decision
Some journeys to Shattuck-St. Mary’s happen in their own backyard, others happen on the other side of the world.
“After 14 years in Russia, my family and I started thinking about moving to the United States,” Artem Shlaine says. “You get a much better look from scouts, and your chances to get seen just increase.”
“My dad had sent emails around to a few American schools, but the amount for Shattuck was not affordable for my family, so we ended up in South Florida, which really helped me transition a lot.”
Shlaine, a Moscow native, moved to South Florida on his own to enroll at the South Florida Academy, headed up by former NHLers Olli Jokinen and Tomas Vokoun.
He was living in a dorm and just playing hockey. There were a number of Europeans at the school, so that helped him get settled in his new surroundings.
But Shattuck was always on his mind.
“In my second year in the US, Coach Ben (Umhoefer) saw me at a tournament and emailed my dad saying we would love to have him (at the school),” Shlaine beams. “At that point it became a reality and it was a no-brainer. I was like, ‘Dad, we’re going there’.”
You can tell the pride he has in telling that story even a few years removed from the school.
Shlaine’s father worked in the US and lived in Russia over the course of five years. His mother and brother would join him in America in his third year of high school.
Once arriving at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Shlaine settled in nicely, despite being the only Russian on the team.
“The biggest change is that everyone who comes to Shattuck was some kind of a leader or a big guy on their former team and they teach you how to play the right way,” Shlaine explains. “It doesn’t matter if you are a goal scorer or a play maker, you’re going to play in the role you are assigned. They do such a good job of getting players to play the right way and put players in a position to succeed.”
His high school career notes 102 games and 168 points.
Before graduating to the University of Connecticut, Shlaine was drafted in the 5th round by the New Jersey Devils in the 2020 NHL Draft.
“I always thought I was a guy who can make plays and be responsible in my own zone, but I didn’t really think Shattuck would round me up so well,” Shlaine notes. “Every year you are on a team and your role changes. My first year I started on the 4th line and you make your way through and you have to prove you can play on the 4th line to get on the 3rd line and so on.”
It’s a point that is echoed by many others.
“It was definitely weird at first. My 8th grade year was my first year just playing girls,” explains Mackenna Webster. “It took time getting used to it and being the youngest and coming from St. Louis, the girls around you want it so bad and that’s the kind of atmosphere I’ve always wanted to be in.”
Webster arrived on the scene in 2015, joining the school’s U16 program, posting 62 points in 61 games.
“It was an easy decision,” Webster recalls. “Especially the people that went there, Brianna Decker, the Lamoureux twins and a bunch of other women who were Olympians and knowing Shattuck produced that level of talent was a big plus just going there.”
Webster’s family had received an email from women’s hockey director and head coach, Gordie Stafford and invited them to visit the school.
It immediately checked off all the boxes.
“The teachers are so accommodating, it’s the perfect place for a hockey player and really just grows you as a person and a hockey player,” Webster reflects.
“Gordie Stafford, Pete Johnson, they are obviously legends. You learn a lot about the game, you learn little skills, the mental skills, how bad we want it. Everyone there was so competitive. It’s not just the hockey, it’s the friendships and it was such a great opportunity for me.”
“I have four kids that all played hockey, Jackson was the lucky one who got to go to Shattuck,” Chris LaCombe admits. “I still catch heck from the others who did not get a chance to go.”
LaCombe got involved with Shattuck-St. Mary’s through a different route – the sports agency giant CAA.
He had coached youth hockey in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and was contacted by CAA to make an introduction to the school when the agency started branching out to athletes.
LaCombe would become so involved with the agency, he would soon join legendary agent Pat Brisson at CAA, leaving his previous career behind.
Jackson LaCombe would return to Minnesota to enroll at Shattuck-St. Mary’s for the 2015-16 season.
He was small, going to the school as a defenseman where he would transition to forward, before returning to the blueline at the end of his high school career.
He also grew. A lot.
Now standing 6-foot-2, the current University of Minnesota product was a 2nd round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2019.
“The number one thing he got at that school was confidence,” the senior LaCombe notes. “He was the little guy all the time, fighting as hard as he could. He developed some leadership skills in his last year. Learned how to talk to adults, to give speeches. When you go on that campus, you get a great education and learn so much about yourself as a person.”
LaCombe sees it from the agency side as well.
“When you send them to Shattuck, we feel 100% comfortable when we see a kid went there,” LaCombe says about a potential client. “You can feel they are going to be a reliable player when you see that’s where they came from.”
You hear that from players, agents and especially parents.
“As a parent, the first thing you’re looking at is what kind of people are working there, how they can develop him as a human being and then you look at things on a hockey level.”
Evgeni Nabokov played nearly 700 NHL games. He’s the all-time leader in games, wins and minutes for the San Jose Sharks.
His son Andrei will be attending the school this year.
“Obviously I’ve been very fortunate to know a lot of people who have gone there, so I made a lot of calls and talked to people,” Nabokov explains of the process of deciding where to send Andrei for school. “To be honest with you, I was trying to find something where I’m not going to like it, but I couldn’t find anything.”
“Their reputation speaks for itself, it was comfortable, convenient. I care about good people and I want him around good people.”
Playing 14 seasons in the NHL, Nabokov can tell what’s real and what’s not. He’s trusting Shattuck-St. Mary’s to find that in his son.
“I want him to develop. I want him to play hockey and see what that is like. They are one of the closest places to pro hockey,” Nabokov states. “When you’re in the hockey environment it’s going to be interesting to see how he responds. He wants to have fun and play tons of games, win and have fun.”
So how does it happen?
How does a high school on the brink turn into the epicenter of hockey?
There are several similar themes that you continue to hear over and over: Good people. Love of the game. Playing with the best. Discipline. Team. Earning your spot.
“We place a premium on the kid’s love of hockey, are they competitive, do they work, how badly do they want to be here,” Umhoefer recites. “Most of the interaction at the start is with the parents – you want to feel good rapport when you’re talking to them. You want your messaging to be well received and get good responses from them.
“We steer away from families that aren’t willing to let their kids work and earn what they get. If the first questions are ‘where do you see him fitting?’, that’s a red flag.”
Shattuck-St. Mary’s doesn’t have to recruit. They get the pick of the litter.
When Shattuck-St. Mary’s calls, you listen.
“The volume of people the school say no to is huge,” Umhoefer admits. “Last year we got 1,100 boy’s inquiries for 35 spots.”
“You can overthink it too, don’t be an idiot about it. When we have our short list, there are people you trust in the hockey world who knows players better than you and then it’s boxes we are trying to check off,” Umhoefer explains. “Are the parents’ good people? Was the kid raised well? Does the kid buy into the rules we lay out for him? Be a good person, love the game and be super competitive.”
It’s quick to overlook the fact that there is an academic portion to this facility. And that’s not to understate it, because it’s top of the charts as well.
“It’s the quality of the student body we have at the school. Our hockey players are more than just hockey players. They excel in the classroom and want to do well at our school.”
Father Henry Doyle knows everyone. He’s worked at the school for 33 years. He does 15-20 weddings a year, all Shattuck alums.
“One year I had 28,” Doyle laughs.
In your life, you will not meet a lot of people like Father Doyle. Engaging, encouraging, dedicated and uplifting is just the start.
“We have some high achievers here and some people that develop here,” Doyle brags. “The students here are driven, there is a rigor here. They want to achieve great things on and off the ice.”
“The faculty and staff put a lot into their students. They extend themselves over and above what any public school teacher would be able to do,” Doyle regals. “Some of our faculty live in the dorms and are dorm parents. A math teacher could be on duty and have a chance to talk to students about this problem or that problem, not just in math but in life.”
One of the more impressive things in Father Doyle’s back pocket may be his address book.
Doyle famously sends thousands of cards every year to former alums – to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. And to grieve with them during tough times.
“The players always get so excited to send one back,” Doyle chuckles. “I remember seeing Jonathan Toews and the first thing he brought up was that he finally sent me a birthday card.”
Toews spent two years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s from 2003-2005 before launching into a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Blackhawks.
His pride of being an alum is obvious to Father Doyle.
“Jonathan got us tickets to a Blackhawks/Wild game and my friend took me and brought along a neighbour and their son,” Doyle recalls. “We went downstairs to meet the players. The kid was wearing a Blackhawks hat and a Wild jersey, but under his jersey he had an old Shattuck sweatshirt. He raised up the jersey when he saw Jonathan and he said, ‘It’s the best thing I’ve signed all day’ and I knew Jonathan meant it.”
“I get goosebumps talking about it. How far these young people have gone in their lives and how they add to and enrich our lives.”
“They become people of integrity. They are hardworking, diligent, passionate, they are respectful to themselves and to others,” Doyle says proudly. “It’s a joyful honour to see them do so well and to have been a part of it.”
The Magic Potion Is Sweat
“The coaches here are the reason why I wanted to start coaching,” Umhoefer recites. “The environment has always been if you put in the time and work hard at it, being around good players, you will get better.”
“As a weaker player on the team, Tom spent so much time with me after practice, simplifying things so I could easily connect and see the improvement to build my confidence. But then he really challenged and was hardest on the best players on the team. There is no doubt in my mind, Tom is one of the best coaches in hockey. I was so fortunate to play for and learn from both him and Gordie.”
“Tom is the big toe,” Gordie Stafford, the school’s girl’s hockey coach and director, jokes.
Indeed, Tom Ward is larger than life. In Minnesota hockey, he may be the most successful coach in the state’s history.
A Minnesota native, the first tales of Shattuck-St. Mary’s may not have painted the picture Tom envisioned.
“If you were getting in trouble your old man would threaten to send you to Shattuck because it was a military school,” Ward laughs.
Ward would spend time recruiting players from Shattuck for his junior team, the St. Paul Vulcans of the USHL. He would then move on to serve as Assistant Coach with the University of Wisconsin for four seasons.
“The school was in trouble, but Craig (Norwich) had this vision and got carte blanche to do what he wanted with the program,” Ward explains.
“I needed a job and I knew JP Parise a little bit, but he was a legend in Minnesota. My name got brought up when Andy Murray left for the Kings and there was an opening at Shattuck.”
“I thought I would be here for a year and then go coach junior or college, but that turned into 18 straight years,” Ward notes. “I knew the first week I got here that this was going to work. There were a lot of people here who created this thing and I was the beneficiary of that, when I came in. Thank God I didn’t drop the ball.”
Ward’s philosophy as a coach has stayed the same. It’s time honored and simple.
“The magic potion here is sweat,” Ward claims. “We’ve got ice time till we are blue in the face and if you happen to have the talent, we have good coaches here and we can coach these players up. These are good players and we are just trying to move them along.”
“This whole thing gives you a chance. We aren’t the only place, but we are one of them where you can move on and try to realize some of your dreams and goals.”
The team mentality oozes from Ward as he speaks. Team and fundamentals.
“We are a developmental program, we believe in jumping over the boards and playing,” Ward explains. “This isn’t a skills competition; this isn’t the home run derby. We are gonna line up, they are going to drop the puck and we are going to have to play a game. You are not out there alone. This is a team game. Lose yourself in the team and be selfless.”
The dynamics of the team are another part of the equation, one that Shlaine found out right away and that Ward preaches.
“If you find yourself in a bottom six role or bottom pair role or backup goalie, there is some of that you have to accept and ‘atta boy’ the other guys as they jump over the boards. It’s in practice when you get those reps.”
“You may not play with the top three in the game as much, but you’ll be with them every day in practice,” Ward reminds us. “We rarely have our top six players playing in the same colors in practice. We like to start the year with our sixth D paired with our top D. It should be a badge of honor for our top D. Don’t come to me and say ‘this guy can’t play,’ go to him and show him how to play with you, so by the time we get to game 65 we can all play.”
The game has changed, the players have changed and how it’s coached has changed, but for Ward there are many things that will stand the test of time.
“We do video and things like that, but we aren’t jumping off our foundations,” Ward admits. “Skating, competitiveness, playing from the goal line out, angling in every way, stick work, footwork, more technical things. If you aren’t fundamentally sound, you can’t skate, you can’t backcheck, you can’t attack a 1-on-1, you can’t attack a 2-on-1, you can’t play at the end of the day.”
And you will see that throughout a player’s career at the school.
Ward confirms they do not force coaches into coaching the same way, playing the same systems, using the same forecheck every year. Everyone adds their own personality and it’s only to the player’s benefit.
“We don’t browbeat our coaches to run the same PP or PK or forecheck all the way through. When the kids go all the way through they are going to have this dossier of hockey that’s pretty thick”, Ward believes. “My mantra with the coaches has always been shame on us if our kids get somewhere else and the coaches that get them think “holy smokes what were these kids taught?” We want them thinking “I’m going back there to get more players, because they have a clue.”
The value of what is being done at Shattuck-St. Mary’s is undeniable. The confidence in the program amongst hockey directors, coaches, players and staff is unmatched.
But the realism and humility are just as prevalent.
“Jonathan Toews could have stayed home in Winnipeg and still done everything that he has done,” Ward admits. “We are not naive to that either, but we are confident that if a hungry, young athlete comes here and is serious about it and wants to play hockey there’s a chance with the way we do our business that you can move on and do something with it.”
Ward would leave the program after the 2015-16 season to become an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres.
After the 2018-19 campaign, he would return to his roots.
“I never knew how long I was going to be in the league, but I had always kept in touch with everyone back at school,” Ward admits. “I was super fortunate where they basically created a new position in the program, and I got to come back.”
“It’s never been about egos or careers here,” Umhoefer declares, reciting the story of bringing Ward back. “I’m sure there were some people in the rinks that were like ‘why would they even do that?’ but for us it was a no brainer. It’s always about the best people.”
And they expect that from their player as well.
“You have to earn what you get. Everyone practices the powerplay. Everyone practices the penalty kill,” Umhoefer agrees. “End of the day, it’s a team game. You have to be a good teammate and a good person. Those are the foundations of any team that does well. Comradery, good people, all the cliches and you can see that with every team that wins the Stanley Cup.”
Don’t F*** It Up
My first introduction to the staff at Shattuck-St. Mary’s was an enlightening conversation between The Coaches Site CEO Aaron Wilbur, Umhoefer and Stafford.
The line of the meeting was delivered by the relaxed Stafford reflecting on all decisions that get made by the school.
“Whenever we discuss how we are going to move forward or if we are going to make any change, we know it’s a big deal, we can feel the shadow of all the alumni over us,” Stafford regals.
Waiting for something poetic and thought-provoking, Stafford delivered a much more punctual response.
“And that shadow is reminding us, ‘don’t f*** it up’.”
“However historically this came about, we are a school first,” Stafford emphasizes. “A sports academy that fills into a school. The families that send their kids here want them to become better people – not just hockey players.”
“We run into older players all the time and they are so interested in what’s going on. They want to know exactly what’s going on, how it’s going and if something changed, they want to know why because they think it was the best when they were there,” Ward recalls.
“We have this old dorm, Whipple Dorm, was built in 1858. You go by there on a windy day in February and it sounds like an orchestra is playing there’s so many whistles coming from it,” Ward chuckles as he tells the tale. “We talk about how we built all these brand-new dorms and they’ve got air conditioning and all we hear is “What? No way! Get them back into Whipple! Don’t change Whipple, everyone needs to have their time there.”
All these memories, all these legendary players and the staff and coaches truly ask for one thing in return from their students.
“Leave the place better than you found it and when you leave here go make it better wherever you’re at,” Ward requests. “If you’re a 2nd grade teacher or a biologist or a barrister. Go make it better.”
Leave It Better Than How You Found It
There comes an incredible pride worn on the face and heard in the voices of alums, parents, players, staff and coaches at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.
Some, like father and son Nabokov are about to begin that journey, others, like Father Henry Doyle have lived it for the better part of three decades.
“I don’t get nostalgic. It’s always great to see where they have gone in life. What are they doing in their lives? That’s what gives me thrills,” Father Doyle recites. “Seeing them apply what they have learned from here in their lives. That’s what is great to see. I marvel at the success they have here.”
“It is tattooed squarely on everyone here – we are everyday committed that we are not going to screw this thing up. We are going to leave this place better than how we found it,” Ward commits.
“There are always new challenges, always more you can be doing. We never feel like we’ve arrived we always feel like there’s more we can do,” Umhoefer replies after being asked what gets him excited year after year.
No one second guesses it and everyone I’ve encountered only has the highest of praise.
Chris LaCombe talks about his son wanting to go back to the school as much as he can, give back, donate and represent the school out in the real world.
His son, Jackson, (above) recently experienced what the Shattuck-St. Mary’s alumni connection is like.
“He played in a summer pro league and he heads into the locker room, sits down and Zach Parise was right there,” LaCombe states. “Zach came up to them and started talking to them right away ‘so I hear they redid the locker room at Shattuck’ and it became an ice breaker for them.”
“Anywhere you go you’re going to find a relationship of someone who went to Shattuck or knows a Shattuck guy and if you’re a young, up and coming player it gives you a ton of confidence.”
Artem Shlaine credits the school for not only making him the player he is today, but the person. His main emphasis was that no one was going to walk you around and show you how to manage your time, that you are in charge of what you get out of the time there.
And Makenna Webster, fresh off a National Championship at the University of Wisconsin, points back to the school as her finest memory.
“As long as I’m alive I’m going to tell everyone I went to Shattuck. It was the best time of my life,” Webster states. “I learned so much about myself on and off the ice and I grew so much as a person. I’m going to hopefully send my kids there. There’s no place like it. It’s one of a kind. It’s like one big family.”
“The one thing I’ve learned since coming back is I know, for sure, guaranteed, in granite, stone cold lock, that we do it right here,” Ward exclaims. “This is what makes players successful when they move on.”
Oh and for the record, Sidney Crosby played one season at Shattuck in 2002-03. He scored 72 goals, picked up 90 assists and totaled 162 points in 57 games. He also became more well-rounded off the ice and continues to be one of the best people to have ever played hockey. Period.
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