14-year-olds Nathan Noel and Andrew Picco attending Shattuck-St. Mary’s this season
When the pucks drops on a new NHL season in October, five Newfoundlanders — Dan Cleary, Ryane Clowe, Adam Pardy, Teddy Purcell and Michael Ryder — will be in opening-night lineups.
That number could climb to seven if Colin Greening makes the Ottawa Senators (and given his new one-way contract, it’s not likely he’s headed back to the minors) and Luke Adam cracks Buffalo’s roster (the Sabres, facing cap issues, will have to move salary, making Adam’s relatively cheap entry-level price tag all the more attractive).
On top of that, there will be a slew of others playing major junior and Tier II junior hockey across the country.
Newfoundland hockey players, in other words, are being noticed, and nobody understands this better than the parents of the little ones, hell-bent on getting Junior a shot at the pros and a big, fat contract.
Careful what you wish for.
Thing is, here in Newfoundland, to advance their hockey cause, a player will almost certainly have to pack up the equipment bag and leave home at 16. No different, I suppose, than an Ontario kid, but it’s one thing to move from Mississauga to Windsor — four hours away — than it is going from St. John’s to Moncton.
So imagine the parents of a 14-year-old, up and gone from Newfoundland to the U.S. Midwest, chasing the dream.
“My wife is taking this very hard,” admits Glen Noel.
“This is extremely difficult for us,” Glen Picco chimes in. “He has a twin sister and she’s going to prep school, too. We will have a serious empty nest.”
The two Glens are the fathers of Nathan Noel and Andrew Picco, a couple of just-turned 14-year-olds who left town this week for nondescript Faribault, Minn., about 45 minutes south of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
They’re bound for Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a prep school with a hockey program that, dare we say it, is somewhat legendary within the U.S. hockey system.
Among Shattuck’s alumni are Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise and Jack Johnson. Last year, highly touted Nova Scotian Nathan McKinnon — tabbed first overall in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft in June — played for the school’s under-16 team.
Of the two Newfoundland boys, Noel might be best known. A St. John’s native, he is, by all accounts, one of the best minor hockey products to come along in some time.
There are good minor hockey players. There are very good ones, and then there are players who might be deemed special talents. Cleary was one. So was Purcell, although one local coach suggests Noel might be ahead of Purcell at this stage of the game merely because Purcell was so small at 14.
Noel, a centre, is a finesse player with good wheels. His best attribute, however, may be his ability to see the ice and read the play. Hockey smarts, they call it. You can’t teach it.
St. John’s won the Irving Oil Cup Atlantic bantam championship in April, and Noel was the tournament’s top scorer. More impressive was the fact he did it as a 13-year-old underager.
Picco is a boy in a man’s body, a 6-2 defenceman from Marystown who moved to St. John’s for a better game of hockey two years ago. Given he just turned 14 in April, he’s still finding his legs, but Picco offers a combination of skill and size, the latter of which is most appealing. And Picco doesn’t mind using that size.
The two will play on Shattuck’s Tier I bantam team this season, skating every day and playing in a series of weekend showcase tournaments around the U.S., primarily against teams from Minnesota and the Chicago-Detroit areas.
They’re certainly not the first Newfoundlanders to attend U.S. prep schools. Harold Druken skated at a private school outside Boston, before playing in the Ontario Hockey League and embarking on a pro career. He’s but one.
There have been others, but none have attended Shattuck — a relative “Hockey Heaven” — and none have gone away this young.
The Noels and Piccos were in a bit of a quandary. The boys, they felt, needed a bit more competition, and major midget hockey against kids two- and three years older was not the answer.
Prep school, it seems, is.
Not that any Tom, Dick or Nathan can get into Shattuck-St. Mary’s. To secure an invite, the athlete must first visit the school to allow officials a first-hand look-see at the player’s skills. From there, there are background checks, everything from poring over stats to chatting with coaches and other hockey officials.
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If the player is deemed good enough to play sports at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, then there are academic requirements which must be met, an elaborate process that involves teacher recommendations and the viewing of report cards.
Both boys just finished Grade 8.
“We have no choice,” said Glen Picco.
“They’ve maxed out with the hockey here. Andrew grew up in Marystown. We bought a house in St. John’s and he’s been here the last three years because he ran out of opportunities in Marystown. It’s something you have to do.”
“They will play within their own age group at Shattuck, and that’s important to us,” Glen Noel said. “The kids have played a lot of private hockey, in the States and Canada, and to be frank and honest, these boys are as good as anyone out there in their age group. So to continue to give them the opportunity to be at the top of their age group, I think they have to go and play elsewhere.
“Look, I wouldn’t be doing this if it was for me. I’m doing this because this is Nathan’s dream — not mine — and I guess you do anything for your kids to help them fulfil their dream.”
It’s a tough call for any parent to make. For all intents and purposes, young Noel and Picco have left the nest. They will be back in the summers, but soon there will be junior or college hockey and after that, maybe, a pro career.
So parents have to be honest with themselves: does the athlete really, truly have the ability to take their game to another level and beyond? Bottom line: does he or she have the goods?
In this case — Noel, certainly — the answer is yes.
“One way I rationalize this is if he wants to play in the Quebec junior league, or even U.S. college, you’re going to have to leave here when you’re 16, playing with adults, with people who can get you in trouble,” Glen Noel said.
“At least now they will go away and they’re in a very good environment. This prep school has zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol, zero tolerance for girls in the room. Any of that stuff and they’re sent home.
“They’re expected to go to church on a weekly basis. It’s a very safe environment, one we’re very comfortable with. I would never want to place him in a position where you’re leaving here at 16, immature, and playing with 18- and 19-year-olds. I think now, in a very structured environment, you will be that much more prepared to pursue the Q or whatever he decides.”
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to pro sports might well be paved with promise, promise often left unfulfilled.
In the case of Noel and Picco, the parents understand nothing’s guaranteed, even if the boys are part of the vaunted Shattuck program.
But in this case, they also understand they owe the kids a chance. Hard as it is.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org