Putting down the hockey stick and picking up the textbooks. It’s the life of a college hockey player – but you can say the same for the Boston Shamrocks Hockey Academy players.
By Joshua Boyd
Boston Shamrocks Hockey Academy offers boys 18-and-under AAA full-season hockey in conjunction with a private Catholic high school education in Massachusetts. The Shamrocks, starting in 2016, partnered with Pope John XXIII High School in Everett, Mass., to create this complete education/hockey experience.
“About two years ago, [Shamrocks owner] Bob Rotondo and I began putting this together,” said Jon Sokolski, head coach of the Boston Shamrocks Hockey Academy team. “We spent the better part of eight months or so really preparing for everything.”
Although it’s not a varsity high school team, the 18U Shamrocks Hockey Academy team is considered by Pope John XXIII to be its “official” hockey team. The student body shows up at games for support, and teachers work with the students in the very rare times when school days have to be missed for hockey.
“The teachers understand we’re not going on vacation, we’re working towards something. We’re using hockey and school together to get these student-athletes to college,” added Sokolski. “There’s a sense of camaraderie. You’re playing for your school, while also playing full-season AAA hockey.”
Sokolski was brought in because he brings a mix of local prep and college experience. He grew up in Burlington, Mass., and attended St. John’s Prep (down Route 128 in Danvers).
After a year of post-grad hockey at the Canterbury School in Connecticut, Sokolski joined and played for Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
“Having grown up in New England, I know the landscape of prep, high school and Midget hockey very well,” said Sokolski.
Players begin the school year at Pope John XXIII on Aug. 24, and they remain with the team straight through the end of March. Shamrocks Academy is a USA Hockey-certified Midget program and is able to qualify for state and national championship tournaments.
“If we’re playing a Midget team, we’ll play their 18U squad. If we play prep schools, we’ll play their varsity team,” said Sokolski.
This past year, the Shamrocks Academy team had players who were essentially split between 2000 and 2001 birthdates. It can certainly be a challenge for these players going up against prep schools. Some prep teams might have players of birth years from 1998 to 2002, but certainly top-heavy towards the older players. So, Shamrocks Academy players do get to cut their teeth against older competition as part of their schedule.
Sokolski is not looking specifically for players of 2000 and 2001 birthdates. He is looking for young players who are as serious – or more so – about their education as they are about the game of hockey.
“We really do all the recruiting. We don’t have an open tryout. Myself and the rest of our staff meet a lot of kids across the country who are playing AAA hockey,” said Sokolski. “Perhaps their school doesn’t have a relationship with their team, and their coaches might look around and say ‘OK, who faked a doctor’s appointment to get out of school?’ Where we are combined with a school, you have the education right here. Last year, we only missed four total days of school between August and March.”
The 2016-17 Shamrocks Academy AAA team finished under .500. However, Sokolski was very pleased of the team’s performance as a first-year program.
“I knew we’d be up against it. We were going up against teams that have been around 20 and 30 years,” said Sokolski. “Honestly, it went as well as I could have hoped. I judge us by how the kids were playing and how they developed. I got compliments from teams we saw a second time later in the season.
“Our team in September was far different than in March. We finished on a seven-game winning streak, and coaches [of teams we saw twice] were telling me ‘that’s a different team.’ From a development standpoint, we’re looking to carry a lot of momentum into this season. We’ll still have growing pains this year. We’re still growing. But I want to play our best hockey at the end.”
The Shamrocks Academy schedule is showcase-heavy, including multi-team shindigs such as the East Coast Labor Day Cup and the Bishop’s School Tournament in Montreal.
There is also league play in the East Coast Elite League, and that league itself has four showcases.
The players on the 2017-18 Shamrocks Academy team will be ready for whatever is thrown their way. After all, every player is set to return for the new season from last year.
“We didn’t have anyone graduating last year. We’ll have five seniors this year, and we are mainly seniors and juniors,” said Sokolski.
There are five seniors who will move on with their academic and athletic careers, and Sokolski will be working hard this year to make sure they’re going somewhere that is a step up.
“My goals for these kids is that I want them to play in the best athletic and academic situation possible,” he added. “We definitely have kids who are capable of playing college hockey. There are a few who want to continue on and play a year or two of juniors. We’ll make sure they understand the process, and know what they’re getting into. I just don’t want them going somewhere, playing three more years and aging out and not reaching their goals.”
The Shamrocks Academy and Pope John XXIII faculty have the same vision in mind. The first priority is to create well-educated, well-rounded individuals.
“We push the academics first, and hockey second here. We had a team grade point average of 3.5. Ten of our players made the Headmaster’s List, the highest honor at the school,” said Sokolski. “These kids will be the ones who are given spots on college rosters, and we want them to use school and hockey to get there.”