Tahoe Hockey Academy set to bring new model to Western U.S.
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If starting a boarding school for hockey players from the ground up seems like a daunting prospect, consider just how much more difficult it might be to do so in an area of the country where it has never been done before and the concept is a foreign one to most of the hockey community.
Where others may have seen only challenges, J.J James, Mike and Kelley Sechrist and Leo Fenn saw great opportunity. And after years of planning, financial forecasting and steady, diligent work, the group – along with athletic director Mike Lewis, academic head Pete Smith and the support of a handful of friends with NHL connections – finds itself just three months away from opening the doors of the Tahoe Hockey Academy.
“This is the first time this has ever been done in California,” said James, who founded the idea for Tahoe Hockey Academy before connecting with the Sechrists for financing and then bringing in Fenn after a year of planning to handle the business side. “We really didn’t want to be like another school, but we’ve taken a lot of ideas and concepts that we’ve learned throughout our lives in hockey and academics and tried to blend them together with this project. We wanted to put it all together for a year-long curriculum of student and player development at Tahoe Hockey Academy.”
The project began with James, a Bay Area native who played collegiate hockey and some minor-league hockey before settling into a coaching career guiding players from the Mite to professional levels. Reflecting on his positive experiences and life lessons learned attending Minnesota Hockey Camps as a child, he came up with the concept for a hockey boarding school in the Western U.S. His vision – which he developed over a period over more than four years before bringing in his partners – was to create something in the mold of Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota or Culver Academy in Indiana, but also put his own stamp on it.
“We strive to be different and make our own way,” James said. “We don’t necessarily want to be exactly like one of those schools, but we have a lot of our own ideas that we have developed that will make our academy unique and amazing in its own right.”
James connected with the Sechrists, owners of a successful medical supply company in the Bay Area, and got a commitment from them to help finance the roughly $6 million project. He knew he had found partners that were as passionate about his idea as he was and a few years later, he met Fenn when the two were coaching against each other in the CAHA state playoffs.
Fenn, an Orange County-based wine distributor, restaurateur and youth hockey coach, spent months running numbers through financial projections. After what seemed like endless months of planning and conceptualizing, the group bought a 16-acre piece of land in South Lake Tahoe with a large lodge on it, and suddenly the idea that they had talked about for so long was now becoming a reality.
“I met with J.J and started learning about this project, and I certainly had some skepticism at first, but the more I looked at it, the more it made sense,” Fenn said. “The thing that really attracted me to this project was J.J.’s passion. Talking to him was almost like looking in a mirror.”
The academy is expected to open for the 2016-17 school year on Aug. 12, and could have anywhere from 20-35 students in grades 8-12. It will feature one or two teams, depending on the number of students enrolled, all living in brand-new dorms that are being constructed on campus.
Student-athletes will spend part of each day in a rigorous academic program developed by U.S. Performance Academy, and will be able to focus the rest of their attention on developing as hockey players. James and Fenn said the level of hockey should compare to AA or AAA, and their teams will play a top-notch schedule in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League (as one of the league’s five pure teams) and the Western Prep Hockey League while also traveling to showcase tournaments across the country.
As the academy grows, it could ice as many as five teams. In the first year, ice time will be rented from a local rink, but there are plans to build a first-class facility on the academy’s property in the near future. A number of current and former NHL players have pledged their support to the academy, including Rob Zettler and Teemu Selanne, with whom Fenn works with on various business projects.
“I really like the vision of the academy,” Zettler said. “I love the idea of having this type of academy in California, close to the Bay Area, where hockey is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Selanne will serve on the advisory board, and hopes to visit the academy as his schedule allows.
“I think it’s a great idea and it’s something that has been missing in California,” Selanne added. “When J.J. told me that he was planning this, I was really excited about it. It gives kids a different option, and that’s a great thing. These guys have a lot of passion.”
Academics are prioritized equally with hockey, and the U.S. Performance Academy curriculum designed by Smith and his colleagues will meet the highest standards. The unique and modern approach will allow students to complete coursework while traveling, thus eliminating lessons missed for tournaments and other games.
“We offer a full independent school program in a format that allows kids to pursue their athletic goals at the highest level,” Smith said. “They can still travel the world for athletics – as long as they have a laptop and Wi-Fi, they can be connected with us and doing their schoolwork.”
Students currently enrolled come mostly from Northern and Southern California, but Fenn said they have also already registered players from Vermont and Ohio. While it’s been a common practice for decades in hockey hotbeds like Minnesota and New England for young players to go off to boarding schools to better their skills on the ice and their educations, the same model hasn’t taken root in the Western U.S.
“It really seemed like a logical place to start this,” James said.
James and Fenn emphasized that the Tahoe Hockey Academy is still accepting applications. Players or parents interested can find more information about the academy at www.TahoeHockeyAcademy.com and can follow the school on Facebook and Instagram by searching for Tahoe Hockey Academy.
“Every single piece of this puzzle had to fall into place perfectly to make this work,” Fenn said. “It’s such a monumental task to build the brand while you’re also building the physical facilities.
“This is kind of our Herb Brooks year. We’re not looking for the 20 best players – we’re looking for the 20 right players. We want them to come here, work hard and have a great experience. If we can communicate that to other potential students, that’s a powerful and effective way to grow the academy in future years.”
— Greg Ball