Three years in, the West Coast’s first hockey boarding school booming at Tahoe Prep
When taking on a big venture with a ton of moving parts and wading into uncharted territory by pioneering something completely new, it often can be difficult to manage expectations.
Of course, the leaders behind the effort have lofty goals, but it isn’t always that easy to see a clear road from idea to execution, and many intermediate steps need to be checked off before ultimately reaching the end goal.
While the leadership team at Tahoe Prep Academy will never stop pushing forward and trying to achieve more every day, week, month and year, it’s safe to say that the progress made so far has lived up to and even exceeded their expectations.
Now in its fourth season, Tahoe Prep first opened its doors in the fall of 2016 as the first hockey boarding school on the West Coast and since then, the unique program has doubled in size. The first academic school year and hockey season served 18 student-athletes and as the 2019-20 season begins, the academy boasts both a prep and varsity team, with 38 young men enrolled in its program. Each and every one of them is improving day by day on the ice and is establishing the academic foundation they’ll need to prepare for college.
“From an expectation standpoint, we always hoped it would grow like this, but what has been especially gratifying is the acceptance of the program within the hockey community from other teams, leagues and parents reaching out from around the world,” said Leo Fenn, Tahoe Prep’s varsity head coach.
It certainly bears emphasizing that the student body this year hails not only from California, but many other states in the Western U.S. The academy also landed its first international recruit this season with the arrival of goalie Gian Buerer from Switzerland.
The timing for starting the academy three years ago was right, Fenn said, and that has had a lot to do with its early success, but that wouldn’t have made a difference without the dedication of the leadership team, coaches, trainers and academic support staff at Tahoe Prep.
“California has done a phenomenal job developing players over the last decade, but there were no opportunities for students to stay on the West Coast for a prep experience,” Fenn explained. “We offer a distinct geographical advantage for West Coast players.”
The school’s teams compete in multiple leagues. The prep team plays in the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL) prep division and this year is traveling to the East Coast to face teams like Boston Advantage in the East Coast Elite League (ECEL). The varsity team competes in both the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League and the Sharks High School Hockey League.
The students at Tahoe Prep are on a heavy travel schedule, but thanks to the academy’s affiliation with South Tahoe High School, their focus on academics isn’t lacking in any way. A major selling point for many of the players who faced long commutes and unexcused school absences with their former teams is that Tahoe Prep’s student-athletes take a number of their core classes online through an NCAA-approved program, and they study their electives in classrooms at South Tahoe High School.
Chris Collins, the head coach of the academy’s prep team, said he sees the school’s progression among student-athletes and the hockey world as a result of their successes on the ice.
“We are consistently playing top-ten teams, and we wouldn’t be playing teams like Boston Advantage if they didn’t believe in us,” Collins said. “To go from being a guest team in NAPHL to helping create our own prep league but then always playing a NAPHL elite team outside of our division, and now joining the ECEL, I definitely believe we have been accepted within the hockey community outside of California.”
Fenn also credited social media for helping to spread the word about the pioneering program offered to every student at Tahoe Prep.
“We have found student-athletes by doing the work and research, and then presenting what we have to offer to their parents,” Fenn said. “The word has spread relatively quickly about the great opportunities here in Lake Tahoe for kids from the west and all over, really.”
Both coaches said that each year since the first students arrived on campus has been a learning experience for them as well.
“We are constantly working on how we can develop a better student-athlete experience,” Fenn said. “We want our boys to compete against the best, because that is how they grow and benefit when they are competing individually for spots to advance. If they’ve competed against the best, they aren’t going to be intimidated at the showcases and camps.”
One standard measure of success for any athletic program is seeing its student-athletes advance to play at the next levels. Nearly every player who enrolls at Tahoe Prep has aspirations of playing junior hockey, college hockey or both. With two graduating classes in the books, Tahoe Prep has alumni playing in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC), the Western States Hockey League (WSHL), the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) and the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL).
Shane Gilbert, one of Tahoe Prep’s first graduates, is currently a forward for the Ogden (Utah) Mustangs and through mid-November was among the top scorers in the WSHL with 11 goals and 22 assists for 33 points.
“Tahoe Prep set me up to know what I was getting into at the junior level,” Gilbert said. “From the coaching and strength training to being on the ice every single day, the academy is mapped out for what the junior experience is like – probably even better.”
Going into the WSHL so prepared, he feels that he’s even more ready for his next step.
“This year, I’m now on the path to a college commitment,” he said. “I just want to keep getting better. The key is once you get all the skills, to simplify it. Once I decided to simplify my game and use my teammates around me, everything changed.”
So, with three full seasons behind them and hopefully many, many more ahead of them, what does the future look like for Tahoe Prep?
Collins said he sees Tahoe Prep becoming a destination program and steppingstone for student-athletes whose goal is to play college hockey.
Fenn added that with some great results in recruiting and plenty of interest in the program from players and their parents, he expects Tahoe to continue its expansion to more teams – and possibly add an additional sport, using the success of the Tahoe Prep hockey program as a model for building it.
“We think Tahoe is one of the most beautiful places in North America, and the community has really wrapped their hands around us,” Fenn said. “With that support, the experience for our student-athletes is really unique and will just continue to improve.”
Photo/Ed J. Fritz
— Greg Ball
(Nov. 27, 2019)