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Tahoe Hockey Academy growing substantially, on and off the ice

 

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It hasn’t quite been 14 months since Tahoe Hockey Academy first opened its doors and put its first team on the ice wearing the program’s distinctive purple and white sweaters, and already California’s first prep hockey boarding school has established itself as a force to be reckoned with.

In the last year alone, the program has gone from icing one team to two, has built a top-of-the-line locker room at its temporary home rink, has opened the doors to a dormitory that would make many college players jealous and has signed an affiliation agreement with the USPHL’s Potomac Patriots, among a number of other milestones.

And that’s to say nothing of the development THA players have undergone thanks to an intensive program that has helped them improve by leaps and bounds with plenty of time on the ice.

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More growth is on tap for the upcoming years, with two more phases of building on Tahoe’s picturesque campus scheduled to include additional student-athlete housing and the program’s own rink. Things are progressing nicely on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and it is clear that the ground-breaking new academy is here to stay.

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“We’re less than two months into our second season, but we already have people who are inquiring about next year, so that shows us that something is working,” said Mike Lewis, Tahoe Hockey Academy’s athletic director and the head coach of its prep team. “We’ve had a great response already. The goal is to keep growing until we reach our ceiling, but we never want to get to a point where we have to say no. I think if we continue growing and developing hockey players the right way, we’ll be fine.”

With a staff that includes Leo Fenn, Tahoe’s president, director of hockey and varsity head coach, as well as Lewis, assistant coach Chris Collins, goalie development coach and 11-year NHL veteran Guy Hebert and goalie coach Brad Sholl, Tahoe Hockey Academy is blessed with a wealth of experience that can only benefit its players. Add to that an advisory board that includes a handful of former NHL standouts and two key leaders from the South Tahoe Amateur Hockey Association (STAHA), and the academy has put in place a team that is primed for success.

Players are already enjoying their 2,000 square-foot, custom-designed locker room, which opened midway through last season at Tahoe Ice Arena. Each player has his own locker stall with space for all their equipment and other gear, rivaling a major college or pro setup. There’s a skate sharpener, coaches’ offices and everything else the teams need right at their fingertips.

The Hobey Baker Residence Dorm, opened in July for summer hockey camps and first experienced by full-time students this fall, is two levels and approximately 8,000 square feet, accommodating 22-40 student-athletes along with two resident coaches. The Calder Memorial Lodge adds another 6,000 square feet. There’s a TV room on each floor for film study or just relaxation watching TV or playing video games.

The academy has a professional chef, Francisco Santana, on staff, and the dining room seats 60 while doubling as a study hall. There’s even an infirmary room where students can stay when they’re sick so they don’t infect their teammates.

The academy’s 16-acre plot of land is scheduled for two more phases of development that are expected to include another residence hall and an ice rink over the next four years. Fenn said that when players came back to campus late this summer, the staff provided tours of the building for players and their families, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

“There was this one dad who was just totally silent, and he kept putting out his hands,” Fenn recalled. “I thought something was wrong, so I asked him, and he said, ‘You built Disneyland for hockey players.’ That was probably one of the best compliments we could get.”

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Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne is a longtime friend and business associate of Fenn’s – they worked together in opening Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach, among other ventures – and the longtime Ducks right wing has served as a board member and mentor since Tahoe Hockey Academy was first conceptualized. So far, he has been impressed with what he has seen.

“I’m so happy that we have this kind of a program on the west coast,” Selanne said. “Hockey is really growing in this area of the country, and I’m really excited about it.

“There are people involved there with a lot of passion, who want to do things the right way – and they have done a great job so far,” Selanne said. “All these guys have been involved in youth hockey for a long time, and that experience always helps. When you have that heart and passion for helping kids, it really makes a difference. From what I have seen, things are progressing really nicely there.”

For Lewis, seeing the young players under his charge improve is always the top goal. Tahoe’s student-athletes are able to focus more time and energy on hockey and academics than players in other programs who may spend hours in the car each day driving to and from practices and games. More regular ice time allows for more skill improvement and faster development, and that was clearly evident in the program’s first year alone.

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“As with a lot of programs out there, we always measure our success by how our players are improving,” Lewis said. “One of the things that has really pleased us was last summer, when kids went home and got on the ice with friends or former coaches in their hometowns, we had a few people call us and say, ‘I’m not sure what you did to this player, but he left for eight months and I almost don’t recognize him because he’s gotten so much better.’ For us, that’s a pat on the back and it’s what I feel our program should be about.

“I’m not going to judge our progress on wins and losses, because that’s going to make me coach differently. I think if we develop individual hockey players at their positions and they get better at skating, passing, shooting and other skills, they can go on to have success – whether it’s with us or somewhere else.”

For Lewis, building a program from scratch is nothing new, as he founded the California Wave and took teams to USA Hockey Youth Nationals multiple times. Developing California’s first prep school hockey program has brought a new set of challenges, but he and the team at the Tahoe Hockey Academy have tackled them head on and have always kept their mission clearly in focus.

“Last year, I think we made some great strides getting started,” Lewis said. “Now, we have a lot more kids to do that with and next year, we expect we’ll grow more. But our focus will always be on bringing in players and helping them to get the most out of their ability. If we do that, that’s really a key indicator of our success.”

Photos/Tahoe Media Collective

— Greg Ball

(Nov. 9, 2017)