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THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT ST. MARY'S

7/8/2008
Erik Lee Snyder

Hockey's finest are currently knocking themselves silly chasing the Stanley Cup. But for Sidney Crosby and dozens of other NHL hot shots, the fun really started at a little hockey factory in rural Minnesota.

At first glance, they appear to be just another group of boarding school students, standing in the oak-paneled hallway that leads to the stone arch over the doors of the Gothic dining hall. There are 19 of them on this Saturday morning in January, looking anxiously at their watches (8:59), some peering menacingly down the hall. That's because of a team rule: They can't go inside until all 20 members of their little fraternity are together.

Then, just as the campus clock chimes nine times, Jordy Murray comes racing down the hall. The 17-year-old son of St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray had been on the ice at dawn, but that's hardly an excuse, not when stomachs are growling. Besides, even after seven years at the school, Jordy is often the last one to arrive for breakfast.

Upon his arrival, the players file in and take their seats at two long mahogany tables under wrought-iron chandeliers and the penetrating gaze of Bishop Henry Whipple. He died in 1901, but his oil portrait still watches over the students at the Episcopal institution he founded in Faribault, Minn., 148 years ago. Right now, the bishop is watching David Toews shovel it down as fast as he can so that he can get in a one-hour skate to test out his sports hernia before the Sabres' big game against Culver Academy tonight.

Welcome to Shattuck-St. Mary's School. Welcome to the Hogwarts of Hockey, where carbon-fiber sticks take the place of magic wands.

Legendary football coach Bud Wilkinson went here. As did Brent Musburger. As did Marlon Brando—actually, he was kicked out back in 1943, when it was a military school. But it's hockey that has put Shattuck-St. Mary's on the map: 50 miles south of St. Paul, off Exit 21 on I-35. This is where Zach Parise, the Devils' leading scorer, matriculated. Add to that the Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews (David's older brother), Drew Stafford of the Sabres, Jack Johnson of the Kings, Kyle Okposo of the Isles and 2007 Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan of the University of North Dakota. Oh, and three Pittsburgh Penguins: Ty Conklin, Ryan Malone and a young wizard called Sid the Kid.

The school has a slew of regional and national titles, for both its men's and its women's teams. But neither the banners in the new rink nor the list of NHL players who went there does justice to the special qualities of SSM. They only partly explain why Wayne Gretzky sent his son here, why Mario Lemieux probably will too. "A little like a cult," is how J.P. Parise, the NHL journeyman and father of Zach (and the hockey program), explains it.

Here's another way: On the only day off during the World Junior Championships in Prague, dozens of NHL scouts forgot about food and sleep to watch a meaningless morning exhibition game between Slavia, a local team of 19- and 20-year-olds, and Shattuck-St. Mary's.

"You go see Shattuck whenever you get a chance, especially if they're challenged" says Dave Morrison, the Maple Leafs' head scout. "There's something about their teams and their players that scouts love. They have this swagger, a confidence in their ability, and they earn it, every game and every shift."

In the end, the bigger, older, chippier Czech team beat the jet-lagged Sabres by a couple of goals. But Thommie Bergman, the Leafs' European scout, still came away impressed. "I wanted to see what they were talking about," said Bergman. "Now, I know."

Shattuck has other sports, mind you. A few years ago, in a JV baseball game, a pitcher from a local school made the mistake of beaning the Sabres' hurler, a stocky smack-talking sophomore. A Shattuck teammate rushed from the dugout and decked the pitcher. The decker was Jack Johnson, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2005 NHL draft.

The HBP: Sidney Crosby.

Lifetime memories are made of stuff like this. Crosby spent only that one year at SSM, but he says it changed his life: "It was my first experience away from Nova Scotia, and I had to catch up academically. I struggled with it at first. But I loved the atmosphere. You can have friendships wherever you play, but at Shattuck, you lived together, went to class together, traveled and played together. You get to know each other—everyone—a lot faster and a lot better. Leaving Shattuck was the hardest decision I've had to make."

In his year at SSM, Crosby had 72 goals and 162 points in 57 games, impressive since coach Tom Ward rolled four lines and didn't give him extra shifts. "I think he liked the fact that he didn't get special treatment," Ward says. "He had to try out like everyone else. And I think at some level he knew this was going to be the last time he was just Sid from Halifax, not Sidney Crosby, Hockey Star."

If the literary world has J.K. Rowling to thank for Hogwarts, then the hockey world has J.P. Parise to thank for Shattuck. A native of Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., he spent 14 seasons as a two-way left wing in the NHL, playing for five different teams. On YouTube you can find a clip of Parise threatening to decapitate incompetent referee Josef Kompalla in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. (The threat wasn't real, but the cowering Kompalla didn't know that.)

Parise recalls that when he was playing junior hockey in Niagara Falls, Ont., in the 1960s, he was called into the office of his coach, Hap Emms. "You're going to have to make a decision," Emms told him. "School's starting to interfere with your hockey." Parise promptly quit school.

After his playing days ended in 1979, Parise decided to get a proper education. He took a course at a local college in Minneapolis, but got discouraged—pushing 40 in a class of 18-year-olds—and did not complete it. Parise regretted that he had sacrificed his youthful school days to his prowess with the puck, and he hoped returning to school might prepare him for future opportunities: "I thought if I ever had a chance to be in a hockey program, I'd want to get it right."

That chance came in 1996, when SSM approached Parise, who had coached with the Minnesota North Stars for six years and was selling insurance in Minneapolis. Parise was still a popular figure in the community and highly respected around hockey arenas everywhere. In other words, he was just what Shattuck needed. At the time, the school was in a bit of a downturn, with enrollment having fallen below 200. The administration wanted to build an elite hockey program, to pair its old-school ideals with new-school ideas.

Parise's first speech to his charges at the school became the same speech he gave over his next nine years at Shattuck, first as coach, then as director of hockey, now as director of prospect evaluation. "I told the players three things," he says. "One, you have to work hard on the ice. Two, you have to keep your marks up. Three, more than anything else, you have to be good guys." Parise also has two hockey-playing sons: Jordan and Zach. "Shattuck was the best gift I could give my sons," says J.P. "A chance to become pros and complete guys."

At first, SSM worked in partnership with Faribault High, but state high school rules restrict teams to a limited number of games within the state. Shattuck had national ambitions, so the Sabres went independent. Parise also expanded a feeder system of midget and bantam-age teams that played in tournaments across the continent.

And won a lot of them. The teams' performances and Parise's connections persuaded Andy Murray to come to Shattuck in 1998, just months after he returned from the Olympics, where he was an assistant coach for Canada. In his one season behind the bench, the Sabres went 70–9–2, won their first national championship and made Shattuck the No. 1 destination for North American youth hockey. Even the NHL took notice. "I intended to stay on," says Murray, whose two sons and daughter attended the school. "But the [head-coaching] offer from the Kings came along, and I couldn't refuse it." Ward succeeded Murray as coach in '99 and Parise as director of hockey in 2005. Under Ward, the Sabres have won five of their six national titles.

For all the travel that elite hockey entails, SSM has not sacrificed academic standards. The Sabres are more likely to be reading and studying on trips than playing video games. Bus trips are like rolling study halls, with at least one teacher on board to help. As Jonathan Toews recalls, "We never got a class off or any break. One weekend we had an eight-hour bus ride, then we had to get off and play six games in three days. Getting back to Shattuck, we dropped our equipment off at the arena at 4 a.m. and had to be ready for class at 8."

That holds true today. "For seven years I've had classes I couldn't miss, homework that had to get done, chapels to attend, practices and games. A lot of kids have trouble getting the discipline they need going to college. I'm going to have to adapt to having so much freedom," Jordy Murray adds.

No player, no matter how skilled, can expect special treatment. "The school has a genuine concern for character development," says Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, whose son Keegan plays for the Sabres' top bantam team. "All the right messages are sent. There are no corners cut, no elitism."

Yet special players continue to emerge from Shattuck, starting with Conklin. Last year's team produced Tyler Ruegsegger, a plugger who will never be mistaken for Crosby but who was drafted in the sixth round by the Leafs. "I could try to put into words what's special about Shattuck," Ruegsegger says, "but, really, you have to go through it
to understand it. It's a brotherhood." And a sisterhood: Rebecca Ruegsegger, Tyler's younger sibling and a Sabre, helped the U.S. win the world U-18 title in January.

The hockey program has offered a model for other areas of the school, says headmaster Nicholas Stoneman: "We've built our soccer program exactly the same way, and now we have a young man who's ready to sign with a team in the Premiership in England. We've started a preconservatory string music program and another in bio-med with the Mayo Clinic. Hockey was just the start."

The evening's opponent, Culver Academy, is a military school in Indiana. But by the look of the game, Shattuck is more disciplined. It's not so much what the Sabres do as what they don't do: no vanity shifts, just 35 seconds at sprint speed. No facewashes. No trash-talking. No garbage after whistles.

The Sabres roll out four lines, each one pretty much like the other, with buzz-saw forechecking, credit-collector pressure. Even in the home stands, there's a certain uniformity, as the kids cheer with open textbooks in their laps.

David Toews, who'll probably be Shattuck's highest pick in the June entry draft, has his moment in the third period when he makes a slick little deke in tight quarters, then slides a backhander between the pads of the Culver goalie. Jordy Murray, the last one to breakfast? He's going as hard in the 60th minute as he was running down the hall, scoring two goals in the game.

Game over: Shattuck-St. Mary's 4, Culver 1.

A tidy win, almost as tidy as the dressing room. Even after the long day, none of the Sabres leave until the area is spotless. (Actually, that's what Crosby remembers first about SSM: "The locker room is cleaner than any I've been in.")

Season over. In early April, the Sabres beat Team Illinois, 5-1, at the national Tier-1 U-18 championships in Buffalo, Shattuck's second-consecutive national title.

And for seniors Toews and Murray, their school days are almost over. A few assignments to hand in, some Sunday chapels to attend, but no long bus trips, no morning skates. They'll be packing equipment and saying good-bye to friends in a few weeks.

But no one ever really leaves Shattuck-St. Mary's. There are all those alumni to watch in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then there's the June draft. And then comes summer, when former players find their way to Faribault to vacation by the lakes and give back to the school—and maybe get in some ice time. ("It's unbelievable not just to play with those guys, but to be around them and hear them talk about the league and what they had to do to get there," David Toews says.) On any given day, you'll find NHLers playing three-on-three shinny with 14-year-old boys, 16-year-old girls, maybe even with the Parises.

Why Shattuck-St. Mary's? You had to be there.