Every religion has its holy places. Devout Christians flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the Temple Mount is fundamental to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; followers of Islam make their pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca; Buddhists have the Mahabodhi Temple in India, which also claims the city of Varanasi, a sacred site for Hindus, along the banks of the Ganges; atheists, I imagine, have Reddit.
In the nineteenth century, Canadian pagans established a religion—at least by the secondary definition of the term—of their own, drawing inspiration from European predecessors to worship on frozen ponds and lakes across the country. By the twentieth century, the movement had spread south of the border and infiltrated the United States. Its truest followings as passionate and rituals as sacred as any of its counterparts, ice hockey became its own dogma.
Within the United States and particularly for the denizens of the Upper Midwest, there is no holier place to celebrate the game’s gospel than at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a prep boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota, the “state of hockey.” Like many places of glorification, the interior of the Shattuck hockey arena is adorned with the denomination’s deities—Sidney Crosby, captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Jonathan Toews, captain of the Chicago Blackhawks. Their jerseys hang from the rafters of the main foyer, while their team photos loom nearby, and larger-than-life cutouts of the icons guard the old rink on the south side of the building.
The men are the latest Shattuck-St. Mary’s alumni who have achieved the sport’s pinnacle by capturing the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup. (Toews and his Blackhawks have won three: 2010, 2013, and 2015; Crosby and the Penguins, two: 2009 and 2016.) Though both men are the only gold medalists the school has ever produced, Shattuck, colloquially known as The Hockey Factory, has produced nine Tier I U18 U.S.A. Hockey National Championships, four more across its U16 and U14 groups, sixty-two N.H.L. draft picks, more than four hundred college and junior hockey players, six Olympians, eight International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior champions, and one winner of the Hobey Baker Award, annually given to the N.C.A.A.’s top hockey player.
In addition to Crosby and Toews, Drew Stafford, of the Winnipeg Jets, Derek Stepan, of the New York Rangers, and Kyle Okposo, of the Buffalo Sabres, are some of Stattuck’s notable alumni currently playing in the N.H.L. And then there’s Zach Parisé, the native son who returned home to play for the Minnesota Wild after capturing an Eastern Conference title with the New Jersey Devils in 2012.
An annual pilgrimage to Shattuck is a welcome and revered journey for coach Darrin Madeley and his Lake Forest Academy prep team. And like any good spiritual leader, Madeley has guided his unit to understand the nature of the afterlife—in this case, what trips to this holy place, among others, may bring.
Thursday, January 19th: One day before Shattuck
The last practice before the Shattuck tournament is lighthearted. It flies by, barely over an hour, a welcome experience for players and a classic coaching trick to lift spirits before a major event. Afterward, senior goaltender Zach Rose stops by Madeley’s office, intent on asking the same question he always asks before a road trip: Who is starting the first game? The Newfoundland native is naturally inquisitive, but also asks because the team has no defined starting goaltender. Fellow senior (and Canadian) Adam Wisco is the team’s other mainstay in the net, and the two young men generally split playing time. Their relationship is much more akin to a pair of ace starting pitchers in baseball than to starter-and-backup netminders. They respect each other’s unique skills and understand the team needs both of them to win consistently—equals, not rivals.
Rose and Wisco are two of the team’s fourteen seniors. Two more of them, defensemen Davis Browning and Peter Corsiglia, won’t be making the trip because of injury. Eight of the seniors have leadership roles within L.F.A.’s student government. Wisco is the school’s head prefect, or top student-disciplinarian; and Rose is a proctor, helping the faculty run Atlass Hall, one of the academy’s dormitories that happens to house about half the team. Alternate captain Joe Alexander is the school’s senior class president, while Will Everett is a prefect. Four other players, including team captain Cam Judge, serve as additional proctors.
Living, eating, lounging, playing, and conquering a unrelenting obligation together have helped the team form an unshakable bond that leads to benefits on the ice (28-6-3 record prior to the Shattuck tournament) and off of it. “The team is just so close. We’re like a family,” Rose says. “I know a lot of people say that, but … we’re such a tight group of guys, and it’s something I’ve never experienced with a hockey team. These guys are my brothers and we’ll be together and close for the rest of our lives.”
Many of the seniors, including Rose, have been playing together on the prep team since their sophomore year, so it’s understandable why so many of them are sentimental about their time together. “Come graduation day, it’s going to be a rough day for most of us; I already know that,” he says. “I know it’s a little sappy but it’ll be a rough day because we’re so close.”
The next morning, the Caxys are greeted by an omnipresent, low fog that envelops the bus as it winds through Wisconsin. The swirling mists only worsen as the team rolls into the Comfort Inn parking lot in Owatonna, some thirteen miles south of Shattuck along Interstate 35 in southeast Minnesota.
After check-in, the players are confronted with an unexpected adversary before their matchup later that night against the Iowa Wild: downtime. Typically on these road trips, the team will play between four to six games over the course of a three-day weekend, often playing one game in the morning and another in the evening. They have only three slated for this trip.
About three-and-a-half hours before game time, the pizza-hungry team gathers outside near its bus. The bus driver has gone AWOL, so following a game of two-touch, a warm-up game in which participants knock around a soccer ball or volleyball, the team walks to nearby Sportsman’s Grille for lunch.
Founded in 1857, Lake Forest Academy is actually one year older than Shattuck. Though its hockey pedigree over its lifetime doesn’t stand up to its neighbor to the north, L.F.A. is the undisputed star of Illinois’ prep hockey scene.
This team is a far cry from what you know as a high school hockey team. Lake Forest Academy has that, too, calling it the varsity team. That’s the team that plays against other standard high school units, the likes of New Trier Green, Loyola Academy Gold, and Lake Forest High School. While still composed of teenagers, the prep team would eat those teams alive. L.F.A’s prep team attracts top talent from across the United States and Canada, all coming to Chicagoland to chase their hockey dreams. To compete, the team must travel across the country and to Canada to spar with other teams of the same ilk.
Recently, L.F.A. has produced Teddy Purcell, who has spent time with four N.H.L. teams since entering the league in 2007. And there’s Alex DeBrincat, a player whom coach Madeley—also L.F.A.’s athletic director and head of hockey operations—calls the “one percent,” an athlete gifted enough to leave L.F.A. prior to graduation to become the Canadian Hockey League’s 2014-15 Rookie of the Year. Composed of three national leagues, the C.H.L. boasts some of the top junior hockey players in the game and is a major feeder to the N.H.L. DeBrincat’s accolades came virtue of skating on a line with N.H.L. phenom Connor McDavid while playing for the Erie Otters. That helped him become the thirty-ninth selection in the 2016 N.H.L. Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. Small, fast, agile, five-foot-seven, and one hundred sixty-five pounds, DeBrincat immediately drew comparisons to Blackhawks superstar right wing Patrick Kane, another diminutive forward and former C.H.L. Rookie of the Year (2006-07 with the London Knights).
Coach Madeley knows a thing or two about pro hockey, too. Scattered on a shelf in Madeley’s office—amid strategically placed goaltender masks, a puck from his first N.H.L. game, and a plaque from The Hockey News naming him the College Hockey Player of the Year—are numerous signed and framed photographs of current N.H.L players. There’s one from DeBrincat. Jousting a stick toward the camera, he’s wearing a red Blackhawks’ sweater and a cheeky smirk as if his dreams had just come true. They had. “To Mades, Thanks for everything” it reads, followed by a scrawled signature that surely will improve with repetition.
Directly underneath DeBrincat’s photo sits another signed photograph; this one featuring an iconic moment in Blackhawks’ history: Patrick Kane blissfully leaping nearly out of his skates near center ice in front of hundreds of dazed Philadelphia Flyers fans, who look on with a mixture of marvel and condemnation. It’s just after Kane flicked a puck into the Flyers’ net—from an impossible angle about five yards out near the goal line—in 2010 to deliver the Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961. “To Mades, Thanks for everything and the support! You were a huge influence!” this one reads, followed by a slightly more fluid signature.
7:30 p.m. Friday, January 20th: Lake Forest Academy vs. Iowa Wild
Playing in the old rink on the south side of Shattuck, the teenage hockey players will skate underneath gym guardians Toews and Crosby. You can feel the history here. It’s palpable, the smell of must soothes, confirming the stability of such an old barn. It is abysmally cold, even by ice rink standards, as if the spirits of those who have graced the surface of this ice still linger within the rafters.
Because the rink was built in 1968, the width behind the goaltenders’ nets to the end boards is twice as big as the current standard, leaving more room for players and forcing teams to adapt. It’ll be a different game, an old-school one, and it pits two teams with opposite styles. L.F.A. isn’t a big team, but they play fast and with skill. The Wild, on the other hand, are physically imposing. But they are slow. They want to grind you down along the boards.
To counter that strategy, however, the Caxys believe they have a secret weapon. Senior forward Tyler Hamilton, who hails from Westlake, Texas, played the previous two seasons with the Wild. He scored against L.F.A in a 2016 contest won by the Caxys at Shattuck. Teammate Davis Browning helped convince him to come to L.F.A. for his senior year. “Everyone glues together, and I’m really comfortable around everyone here,” Hamilton said on the transition. “I’ve made a lot of new friendships, and this year feels more comfortable than every other team I’ve been on. Everyone really gets along, and we have the same passion for hockey.”
Madeley’s pregame speech is succinct. The Caxys have a history of going 2-1 when they come to Shattuck. He does not want that to happen this time, pushing for an unbeaten weekend, and says that Hamilton will be the difference in tonight’s contest; after all, he owes the team a goal for scoring on them last season.
Wisco gets the start in goal, which pleases both senior goalies, since it means Rose will get the prestige of playing Shattuck-St. Mary’s the following night and Wisco will get to start two games.
Typical high school hockey periods last fifteen minutes, and the zamboni will usually only make an appearance during one of the two intermissions. At the prep level, the zamboni schedule stays the same, but the period length is upped to seventeen minutes. At the Shattuck tournament, it’s twenty minutes a period with a full zamboni during both intermissions, making the game as long as an N.H.L. contest.
Standing by the half boards to the right of the team’s bench, I am joined by junior goaltender Nick Kakavas and senior forward Jimmy Krzeminski, healthy scratches from the lineup. Both are day students, meaning they commute to L.F.A. rather than live in the dorms. Kakavas has a quick wit, reminiscent of Wisco, the latter of whom is considered the most cerebral on the team. Kakavas is content to be the team’s fallback plan this year, knowing that he should have an excellent opportunity to be the team’s starter next season with Wisco and Rose out of the picture. Krzeminski is laser-focused as the game gets underway, soaking in everything. It’s his first road trip with the prep team after a long journey to reach this point. Not being on the ice doesn’t faze him; he’s just grateful to be here.
On the ice, thanks to goals by Chris Dusek and senior forward Ryan Nolan, the Caxys take a 2-1 lead by the first intermission. Despite the lead, they aren’t playing well. No one is satisfied. Joe Alexander and Will Everett chirp at the referees throughout the period, upset about a couple of whistles and non-whistles. The mood carries over into the locker room. It’s still tense when Madeley makes a late appearance. His speech is abrasive, but fair. The song “Semi-Charmed Life,” by Third Eye Blind, harmoniously drifts into the locker room from the sound system outside, a loaded dose of coincidence that is hard to miss as the players are recalled to the ice.
The Caxys play better to start the second period but cannot convert chances in the offensive zone and give up two goals. With just over two minutes to play in the period, however, Andrej Hromic feeds a nice pass to Hamilton, who bests the Iowa goalie five-hole to knot the score before the final intermission.
The locker room is more upbeat this time as players convince themselves that they have stolen momentum; though, it’s not to be. The Wild score twice in the third period, where it becomes clear that the Caxys are suffering from “bus legs,” while their opponents are well-rested after getting into town the day before. A late goal isn’t enough. The Caxys lose, 5-4.
It’s a bad loss, one that could have been avoided. I wonder aloud if there’s any punishment for this type of lackluster performance. As the players go through the handshake line, I turn to Kakavas, “Does Darrin skate you guys after losses?” He’s quick with a crooked glance and incredulous laugh, “What? No. This isn’t ‘Miracle.’”
The postgame speech from Madeley is equally succinct as its pregame predecessor. He believes that the team should have zero losses, since they beat themselves tonight, just as they’d done in their six previous defeats. He sternly reminds them that there are still two more wins up for grabs, and the team breaks out and cleans up. The Caxys heed his words and police themselves. They will be ready for Shattuck the following evening.
As a teenager, Darrin Madeley had decided to move on from hockey. Intelligent and driven, he was committed to going to college to focus on his education and had already told his junior hockey team he wouldn’t be back the following season. Then, the team’s starting goaltender got hurt, and Madeley was asked to come back for a weekend tournament. He accepted the invite and was rewarded with three scholarship opportunities as a result.
He met his wife at Lake Superior State University, where he racked up a slew of Central Collegiate Hockey Association awards and helped the team capture a national championship under Jeff Jackson, now the head men’s hockey coach at the University of Notre Dame. “Everything I have hockey-wise is because of that guy,” Madeley said. “He took a chance on me, and hopefully I gave him back what he asked for.”
Following an outstanding collegiate career, Madeley played professional hockey from 1992-1999, most notably as a goalie for the N.H.L.’s Ottawa Senators from 1992-1996. His career was on the right track, but like too many in his line of work, it was derailed by injury. Dozens of sprawls, twists, and turns while tending net took a toll on his left leg. Taking now-antiquated treatment and advice, he played on, worsening the injury. The nerve damage is very active today. His leg randomly pulses with pain. Sometimes, he doesn’t feel a thing in that leg, making standard movement a guessing game.
In 2001, subsequent to his retirement from the professional ranks, Madeley was hired by Mike Eaves to help run the U.S.A. Hockey National Team Development Program, where he would coach future N.H.L. star players like Kane, Jimmy Howard, Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson, and Ryan Kesler. Then, in 2005, he began his tenure at L.F.A., where at the time a friend of a friend was president of the academy’s board of directors. He has molded young hockey players there for more than a decade now. One of his prep team’s staples is a trip to Shattuck in Fairbault, Minnesota, each season. It’s a special trip sandwiched in between the only two weekends the Caxys will spend playing on home ice over the course of their six-month season.
7 p.m. Saturday, January 21st: L.F.A. vs. Stattuck—St. Mary’s
It’s a relatively quiet day, filled with homework and study groups and punctuated by a musical performance from Krzeminski atop a chair during lunch at Famous Dave’s. It’s tradition for rookies to have to sing for the crowd on their first road trip, Rose explains.
As the game approaches, one of the seniors, Ryan Nolan, invites me to be on the team’s bench for the game, a role typically reserved for coaches and players. I think he’s joking, until assistant coach Andrew Poska offers me the same thing. I accept; a better view couldn’t hurt.
The game is held in Shattuck’s new rink on the north side of the building, where six hundred fans can comfortably watch. The speed of the game is apparent and startling from the bench.
L.F.A. makes one crucial lineup change, as forward Reiss Jensen moves to defense. As the players take the ice for warm-ups, I ask Poska who the team needs to get going tonight, and he identifies Hromic and Che Landikusic, the team’s center on its top line. In the first, the Caxys play their best period of the tournament to that point, yet they trail 1-0 at the intermission. Shattuck makes it 2-0 early in the second period with a power-play goal, which ignites the L.F.A. bench.
Senior forward Daniel Rabin is one of the few who does not have to think about playing junior hockey next season; he’s already committed via early decision to attend Tulane University in the fall, where he wants to play club hockey and study pre-med. He’s going to be a surgeon one day. He certainly has the hands for it, showing them off with a pretty move and goal that gets L.F.A. on the board before the second intermission.
Belief builds in the locker room and boils over onto the ice for the third period, where the chances build to a crescendo. It’s intense all over the ice. Joe Alexander comes screaming into the bench, smashing his stick on the ice in a rage after getting hooked in his own zone. No call. But just as Poska turns to tell him to cool it, Chris Dusek scores to tie the game at two goals apiece.
“Junior hockey is a meat market. That coach has to win, so he doesn’t care who is on his team as long as he wins.” – Coach Darrin Madeley
Rose plays well in net, and Wisco becomes a vocal leader on the bench, as does Alexander, sophomore forward Justin Palmer, and senior Will Everett. The Caxys prove they want it more and outwork Shattuck. They grind until they earn a five-on-three power play with a little over five minutes remaining. Landikusic finds some space and delivers the game-winner with 4:48 to go.
From there, it’s a mad scramble until the final whistle. When the Caxys win it, the euphoria spreads on the bench before the players rush the ice and meet Rose at the net, then compose themselves to go through another round of handshakes. Back in the locker room, Poska delivers a short speech about the virtues of putting egos aside and reminds the seniors that they will remember this win forever. He then departs, leaving only the team and me behind. After wins, the team usually awards a hard hat to its best player of the night. Browning, one of the injured and a non-traveler, has it, so Reiss Jensen doesn’t receive the physical object but is awarded the honor.
The celebration is about to burst when Nolan asks me to give a speech, addressing me as coach Derek, a sentiment the team gleefully echoes. Uncomfortable, but grateful, I again embrace the nature of the Caxys’ inclusionary ways, which know little bounds. The team is happy to spread the cheer to every last person in the locker room, including the geeky journalist along for the ride.
I give a short talk, telling them that it was a good win and they need to finish the job tomorrow morning when they play R.H.A. I use cadence and patience, emulating the speech patterns of N.H.L coaches I’ve heard give these speeches before. When I finish, the locker room goes crazy. I’m proud, but realistic. I could have told them that the Russians have invaded the country and they would have celebrated. Victory anthems boom from a nearby portable speaker, and the team rises as one to the beat, dropping when the bass drops. It is a wild scene. I am awarded a helmet from Max Wigfield, an old one from CCM, an iconic hockey brand, akin to the ones the U.S.S.R. guys wore in the eighties. The team chants “Put it on, put it on!” I do, and the celebration continues, with water bottles subbed in for Champagne bottles, their contents spraying into the air and covering the room. I hand the helmet to Chris Dusek and walk out.
Afterward, I ask Nolan how one acquires that helmet, another trophy the team gives out game-to-game. He smiles broadly and shakes his head, laughing. “We give that to the guy who fucked up the worst.”
At elite prep levels, school is often a secondary concern for top athletes. They attend an institution for its athletic prestige, holding tight to hopes of advancement in their chosen sport. Club hockey teams abound all over the country, and the ultimate goal for many young hockey players is to get picked up by a junior hockey team, which can offer a path to the N.H.L. The demand for young talent is insatiable, and supply is at a similar level. Some of professional hockey’s top players can’t legally drink yet in the United States. Plenty of men who are the current faces of the N.H.L. began playing juniors before they could legally drive a car.
The pressure to leave school and begin playing junior hockey is immense, particularly because there are so many junior hockey leagues from which to choose. Almost every senior on L.F.A.’s prep team has been approached by one or more junior teams about playing for them, yet all of them have stayed. “Junior hockey is a tough life,” Madeley explains. “I tell them right away, ‘I’m going to take care of you here, because I care about you and so does Poska; he cares about you as a person.’ Junior hockey is a meat market. That coach has to win, so he doesn’t care who is on his team as long as he wins.”
Lake Forest Academy is a college preparatory boarding school. The rigors of the education process, including the strenuous task of finishing homework on buses and hotel beds, could also make junior leagues an appealing alternative. Not for L.F.A.’s prep players, though. The team believes in Madeley. “Pretty much every practice Darrin tells us that as soon as we leave we’re not going to find a team as good as this one,” Ryan Nolan says, “and I believe him because we’re all boys and we’re all pushing for the same thing. As you go on, guys become more self-oriented about where they’re going to go and where they’re going to play. I think the guys are on for the ride right now.”
High school graduation doesn’t alleviate the pressure to go play juniors; in many ways, it magnifies it. The decision then becomes choosing between entering college right away or pursuing junior hockey for a year or two, where, if things go perfectly, players will have a chance to play Division I college hockey after a season or two. It is incredibly difficult to make a college hockey team at the DI or DIII levels without playing junior hockey first.
Wisco turned nineteen years old on January 23rd. The talented goaltender is weighing his options between playing junior hockey next season or heading to college, a decision that might hinge on receiving an acceptance letter from some of the Ivy League schools he aspires to attend. If he does choose the junior hockey route, however, he’s aware of the social consequences. Most of his friends from his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, are already in college, and playing two years of juniors would mean that he’s entering college at a time when most of them are graduating.
Believe it or not, that’s just fine with Wisco. Possible social abnormalities are not of particular concern to the guy who once repeated a grade because it didn’t live up to his standard of excellence. “I have no problem taking my time,” Wisco said. “I’ve talked to my family, I’ve talked to my coach. What’s the rush to get my real life started? Play hockey, go to school, and have fun. I don’t see why people are in such a rush to graduate high school and graduate college. If I love where I’m at, why would I try to get out there faster?”
Joe Alexander is in the same boat. He plans to play junior hockey next season but has applied to four colleges just in case. The social pressure appears here, too, but it cannot turn him away from chasing his dreams of playing hockey at the highest level. “It’s a bit in the future, and I haven’t thought about it that much but it’s a bit weird,” the senior class president says on entering college late. “People don’t understand if you’re going as a freshman at twenty years old. People will think (you’re stupid). We’ll cross that bridge when it gets here.”
9 a.m. Sunday, January 21st: L.F.A. vs. R.H.A. Winnipeg
The odds are not in R.H.A.’s favor the following morning. Following Saturday night’s emotional victory for L.F.A., and R.H.A.’s simultaneous loss to the Wild, the momentum overwhelmingly favors the Caxys. But hockey isn’t that convenient.
Despite a pair of goals from Nolan and one from sophomore Henry Seebeck and solid goaltending from Wisco, the Caxys head to overtime, the game tied 3-3, to play for the fate of their trip. With 1.1 second left in the overtime period, Jensen redirects a shot into the back of the net. Game over.
The Caxys are wearing their home white jerseys, and after the game-winner, Jensen lets everyone in attendance know it, grabbing the L.F.A. crest during his victory lap after being mobbed by his teammates. It’s a show of loyalty that Madeley cultivates. No L.F.A. player has his name on the back of any jersey; they are always playing for what is represented on the front.
In addition to a slew of players from around the North Shore, the team boasts players from Texas, California, Utah, Nevada, and Canada. The senior class is the glue that holds the team together, and Jensen, a senior, has helped solidify that once more in delivering the team’s thirtieth victory and a successful business trip all in one. The team finishes the celebrated tournament 2-1, again. But ending with two victories leaves a better taste on the collective palate. The long trek home is not as dreaded as it could be. Plus they’ll be together, goofing around, throwing each other’s gear, reliving top moments from the weekend, as well as uniting to shake off their misfortune from the first game. This is what they do best, and there’s limited time for it.
Will Everett cherishes these moments. Despite offers to continue playing at the junior level, he plans to attend Arizona State University in the fall, where he wants to study broadcast journalism and play club hockey. The Lake Bluff native doesn’t live on campus, but he appreciates the unbreakable bond the team has built. “We became a family so quickly, and it was just incredible how that sophomore year these kids from all over the United States and Canada all came together,” Everett said. “We were all new to this team and guys had different backgrounds but we put those aside and became friends first. We carried each other through that season. … I love these guys.”
The fog from Friday didn’t lift once during the entire weekend, and the hockey state is not visible as the bus rolls south and east toward Chicago. Two hours into the return journey, land is visible. It’s a melancholy day in a halcyon voyage. These teenagers have their entire lives ahead of them, but their futures are here and now. There’s a lot to think about. The team is comforted by the wins, and the knowledge that they have games at home the following weekend, an excellent opportunity for family to come see them.
Several parents made the trek to Shattuck. Depending on where the team is playing, various sets of parents will come see their sons hold on to their dreams awhile longer. But when they return to campus, their family stays with them, surrounding them for class, meals, practice, everywhere. If not, there’s Madeley, their preacher, their guide. His continued positive reassurance is calming in periods of hesitation and reaffirming in moments of triumph. “Hockey is a marathon; it’s not a sprint,” he advises. “The ones who try to sprint to the finish either burn out or they just get to a point where they decline while someone else is going up. Hockey-wise, if you stay (at L.F.A.), you’re going to keep developing because you’re still playing in all these crucial situations. … The biggest reason to stay here is that hockey is going to end one day and you want to make sure that academically you’re ready for life after hockey.”
Day in and day out, the players give more of their soul to the game, content reaping its present rewards, as well as what waits for them when the time comes to hang ’em up. The afterlife, through L.F.A., is all but assured.