St. Charles College Hockey Canada Skills Academy lead Darren Michelutti, left, says he has learned so much from the example of elite students such as Jack Thompson, 2020 third round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Chase Stillman (2021 eligible) and Quinton Byfield, the second overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Photo courtesy St. Charles College

Catholic hockey academy boasts NHL-level talent

By 
  • November 6, 2020

Grade 9 to 12 students enrolled in the Hockey Canada Skills Academy (HCSA) at Sudbury, Ont.’s St. Charles College enjoyed multiple years in the orbit of an eventual history-making NHL draft pick.

They saw Quinton Byfield, chosen second overall in the NHL draft this year, make history as the highest drafted Black player ever.

Byfield attended the Catholic secondary school while completing his first two seasons with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).

“Our kids got to witness how hard an elite player works in the gym, and how quickly and efficiently he can complete drills,” said Darren Michelutti, the athletic director and HCSA lead for St. Charles College. “It sounds funny, but we as instructors learn so much from players like Quinton.”

As a member of the Wolves, Byfield could not fully participate in the on-ice sessions beyond as a guest instructor. But he was immersed in the off-ice conditioning and established a standard of excellence for his peers.

The mission of these hockey academies is promoting a fun and meaningful on-and-off-ice skills development experience for both newcomers to the game and elite prospects looking to elevate their craft. The HCSA program emphasizes growth opportunities for late bloomers, late starters, late maturity and ensuring equal focus on male and female development. 

These academies were conceptualized at the 1999 Molson Open Ice Summit for Player Development, which called for the promotion of “cooperative efforts between school boards, local hockey associations and sponsors, to better utilize ice times and school facilities and move towards the development of sport schools.”

Such institutes have since been established in eight provinces.

Michelutti said the program fits nicely with what a Catholic school tries to inspire in its students. He said “that not a lot of people see how associated sport and religion are,” but both teach life skills like teamwork and good citizenship.

“Day 1 we tell the students in the program we obviously want you to be better hockey players, but we also want them to be better citizens,” said Michelutti, a Sudbury native who played for the Sudbury Northern Wolves in the Northern Ontario junior league.  “We ask them to be role models in the school and in the community. We want our students to integrate their faith with life. One of the Catholic Graduate Expectations talks about developing attitudes and values founded on Catholic social teachings.”

Michelutti ran a hockey school of his own for several years before merging with the HCSA framework. He says partnering with Hockey Canada — this is the school’s second year offering the program — was beneficial on multiple fronts.

“The partnership transformed the program in many ways,” says the 37-year-old. “Originally, we used to be limited to what we could do on and off the ice regarding how long we can be on the ice. We were stuck with one period. Partnering with Hockey Canada enabled us to spend more time with the kids, helped instructors become more qualified with certification programs, seminars and workshops.”

Michelutti was also attracted to the intangible benefits that have been reported about HCSA programs over the years, such as student morale, attendance and grades increasing because students are excited to come to school.

The Hockey Canada “paired programming” framework sees on-ice and gym instruction team up with a course striving to teach similar values. Grade 9-10 HCSA students are paired with religion, and the Grade 11-12 crop complete a leadership course. Each program lead can choose what days are devoted to on-ice activities and what sessions will be devoted to work in the gym or classroom.

Another benefit is that all HCSA schools have access to a treasure trove of skill development videos and materials created by the player development department at Hockey Canada’s head office in Calgary

The 95 students enrolled in the academy for 2020-21 have been divided into three groups based on ability. Dividing the class in this way gives instructors the flexibility to fashion activities and lessons tailored to the skill level of the kids on the ice.

Michelutti puts his own stamp on this program by arranging special guests to lead virtual seminars or make guest coaching appearances. Former NHLer and current Sudbury Wolves assistant coach Zach Stortini, Washington Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray — a 2018 Stanley Cup champion — and former Toronto Blue Jays strength and conditioning coach Jeff Krushell are a few of the notable contributors.

It wasn’t just Byfield St. Charles’ students saw take the next step in their hockey dream. Jack Thompson, drafted 93rd overall by the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and Isaak Phillips, taken 141st by the Chicago Blackhawks, are also St. Charles students who play with the Wolves. 

St. Charles College is poised to celebrate another draft pick in 2021. Seventeen-year-old right-winger Chase Stillman (he plays for the Wolves), a HCSA student since Grade 9, is considered a top prospect for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

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