School’s in Session
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2008
By Lucas Aykroyd
Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe never finished high school, and they might be the three greatest hockey players ever. So can major junior prospects afford to slack off with their education? No way. Only a few players go on to NHL careers that spawn nicknames like “The Great One,” “Super Mario,” and “Mr. Hockey.” You need a fall-back position.
In the 21st century, education is essential in an increasingly competitive job market. That’s why the WHL is committed to ensuring its players keep up their grades. For every season that players suit up in the WHL, they receive a full-year, guaranteed scholarship (including tuition, textbooks, and compulsory fees) to a post-secondary institution of their choice. At one time, the annual scholarship value was $1,000, and that was later increased to $2,500. But now it’s based on the maximum cost for attending university in a player’s home province. Since 1993, WHL clubs have handed out nearly 3,000 scholarships, amounting to over $9 million.
During high school, clubs pay for tutors when necessary, and players who’ve graduated can get financial assistance to take college or university courses. Every club has its own education advisor, and WHL Director of Education Services Jim Donlevy coordinates the program league-wide.
Special awards also highlight the value of education. In 2008, the Chilliwack Bruins were named the WHL’s Scholastic Team of the Year. Associate coach Dan Price praised education advisor Maryanne Mussell: “Maryanne…holds a full-time job elsewhere, but spends much of her spare time with the players at study hall. I have no recollection of Maryanne ever missing study hall, and the players were organized to study at minimum twice a week.”
Last year, Jordan Eberle of the Regina Pats won the Daryl K. (Doc) Seaman Trophy as the WHL Scholastic Player of the Year. The 18-year-old centre, a 2008 first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, racked up an 85% average at Regina’s O’Neill High School. Eberle’s performance was a credit to the trophy’s namesake, a longtime part-owner of the Calgary Flames and Order of Canada recipient who has steadfastly supported education.
“It was nice to get an award for something other than hockey,” Eberle said. “When you play in the WHL, you’ve got a full schedule. With the travel we do, it’s tough to do school when you’re missing so many days. But we have great education advisors who help a lot.”
Eberle, whose favourite subject is math, believes good on-ice and off-ice habits go hand in hand: “When it comes to the work ethic you put in on the ice, I’ve always been taught to put that in with the books as well. I’m also taking post-secondary classes in Regina right now. It’s kind of a secondary thing in case hockey doesn’t work out.”
Some players pragmatically elect to go the university route, believing their chances of success are simply better with a non-hockey career. And these aren’t necessarily lower-level talents. A good example is Steven Da Silva, who twice led the Kootenay Ice in scoring. The 21-year-old right wing passed up an invitation to the San Jose Sharks training camp this fall, enrolling at the University of Saskatchewan in his native Saskatoon instead.
“Obviously [the Sharks] are disappointed but they understand where I’m coming from. Being a free agent, I’d have to impress quite a bit to get myself a contract to play in the American Hockey League,” DaSilva told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. “They were fine with my decision to stay home, go to school, and take advantage of [the WHL scholarship].”
Going to university doesn’t always mean quitting hockey, either. DaSilva will suit up with the U of S Huskies in CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) action. Nowadays, it’s not unheard-of for a university team like the Huskies to have eight or nine former WHL captains on the roster, and the pace and strength of the mostly early-20’s players is impressive.
If DaSilva wonders where his new path could lead vocationally, he need look no further than two other former WHLers and Huskies who completed U of S degrees: Dan Hulak and Mason Wallin.
Hulak, 28, now works as an RBC Dominion Securities advisor in Saskatoon, specializing in high-end investments and wealth management. In 2001, this solid defenceman was named the WHL and CHL’s scholar-athlete of the year, and captained the Portland Winter Hawks to the WHL finals. A 1998 eighth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Hulak attended three NHL training camps (two with Tampa, one with Carolina). But key people in his life influenced him to pursue his degree in finance and accounting.
“With my mother, who recently passed away, education was always number one,” said Hulak. When he played for the Swift Current Broncos, he was billeted with the family of Roy Schultz, a former Boston goalie prospect and RBC employee. Hulak peppered him with questions about investment advising, and got a summer job with RBC.
While in Swift Current, Hulak was already taking university courses. A broken wrist that limited him to 46 games in his 19-year-old season also taught him a valuable lesson: “It’s an eye-opener when you realize the ability to play physically doesn’t last forever. It made me take a step back, and reinforced the importance of education.”
In his overage season with Portland, Hulak took more courses at Portland State, encouraged by education advisor Hazel Hansen. He’d earned a full year’s worth of university credits by the time he left junior. “I entertained some offers from lower-level pro teams, like the ECHL,” Hulak recalled. “That year I went to Carolina’s camp, and they invited me back to their AHL camp. But I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue pro hockey by working my way through the ranks, or take advantage of the WHL’s scholarship program. To me, it was a no-brainer.” It was off to the U of S.
Hulak’s younger brother Derek was recently named captain of the Saskatoon Blades. What advice would Hulak give the hard-working left wing? “Derek has an intense passion to be a pro hockey player. I’m not saying I didn’t, but I can see in him that he really has that desire. I would encourage him to pursue it as best he can, while keeping in mind that education’s very important too.”
Mason Wallin, another Saskatchewan native, parlayed five seasons with the Spokane Chiefs into five years at the U of S. “I got out of school without any debt, and that’s huge,” the 26-year-old pointed out. With his accounting degree, the onetime Chiefs scoring leader today works for Meyers Norris Penny LLP in Prince Albert, and aims to become a certified accountant.
Other former WHLers like Jeremy Rondeau and Steven Mann are also employed by the firm. According to Wallin, a field like accounting is a natural fit for ex-players: “We grow up with a team environment. We’re committed, hard workers. Employers look for those qualities in employees.”
“If your WHL career is winding down and your hockey options are getting smaller, it’s comforting to know you can go get your education and be successful,” Wallin added. “The biggest thing I’d tell the kids is that either way you go, it’s very positive.”
Brilliance with the Books
Here are the all-time winners of the Daryl K. (Doc) Seaman Trophy as the WHL Scholastic Player of the Year.
2007-08 Jordan Eberle, Regina
2006-07 Keith Aulie, Brandon
2005-06 Brennen Wray, Moose Jaw
2004-05 Gilbert Brule, Vancouver*
2003-04 Devan Dubnyk, Kamloops*
2002-03 Brett Dickie, Brandon
2001-02 Tyler Metcalfe, Seattle
2000-01 Dan Hulak, Portland*
1999-00 Chris Nielsen, Calgary
1998-99 Chris Nielsen, Calgary
1997-98 Kyle Rossiter, Spokane*
1996-97 Stefan Cherneski, Brandon*
1995-96 Bryce Salvador, Lethbridge
1994-95 Perry Johnson, Regina*
1993-94 Byron Penstock, Brandon
1992-93 David Trofimenkoff, Lethbridge*
1991-92 Ashley Buckberger, Swift Current
1990-91 Scott Niedermayer, Kamloops*
1989-90 Jeff Nelson, Prince Albert*
1988-89 Jeff Nelson, Prince Albert*
1987-88 Kevin Cheveldayoff, Brandon
1986-87 Casey McMillan, Lethbridge
1985-86 Mark Janssens, Regina
1984-85 Mark Janssens, Regina
1983-84 Ken Baumgartner, Prince Albert
* Also named the CHL Scholastic Player of the Year