The Hockey Canada Skills Academy (HCSA) at St. Charles College in Sudbury, Ont., boasts some impressive star power credentials.
While their responsibilities with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League precluded their involvement in any on-ice activities, the HCSA could still technically count 2020 second overall NHL draft pick Quinton Byfield, 93rd overall selection Jack Thompson and 141st draftee Isaak Philips as pupils. After all, all three actively participated in off-ice classes and activities.
Despite those three players graduating school and advancing to the next stage of their respective hockey journeys – Byfield was just named to Canada’s National Junior Team for the second year in a row – HCSA lead Darren Michelutti has found ways to ensure his HCSA maintains its special glimmer.
Michelutti, a former rearguard with the Sudbury Northern Wolves of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League from 2001-04, says that one of the silver linings of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is that he is able to attract guest coaches and speakers from the sports world.
“Typically, these people would be unavailable at this time because professional and junior sports would already be underway,” says the 37-year-old Michelutti. “We are fortunate that each of us who work in the program know people who could put together some great guest presentations.”
The marquee guest stars who have spoken to 95 HCSA students (divided into three groups) via the Zoom platform since classes commenced in early September includes:
- Lyndsey Fry, an Olympic silver medallist in 2014
- Jeff Krushnell, the former strength and conditioning coach for the Toronto Blue Jays
- Scott Murray, 2018 Stanley Cup-winning goaltending coach with the Washington Capitals
- Thompson and Phillips
While each guest has infused their session with personal, distinctive testimony about their journey in sports, Michelutti has noticed some messaging through lines.
“It’s funny because I was thinking about the different presentations and they all seem to be winding up at the exact same spot. All of our speakers have stressed the importance about sports psychology and how we must prepare our mind just like we prepare our body. Sometimes this gets overlooked by hockey players who are trying to get to that next level, but we can’t forget to care about our mental health.”
The on-ice component of the 2020-21 HCSA year began in October with former NHL forwards Derek MacKenzie and Zack Stortini leading the first two practice sessions.
MacKenzie, who played with the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers, now functions as assistant general manager for the Panthers. Stortini was a well-regarded grinder for the Edmonton Oilers before a one-game stint with the Nashville Predators. He played for six American Hockey League (AHL) squads from 2011-19 before being hired to serve as assistant coach for the Sudbury Wolves in August 2019.
Stortini says it was a thrill to work with the HCSA students.
“The hockey community is so passionate in Sudbury, and it is great to have the lifeblood of our youth being involved in the game every day through the skills academy at St. Charles College,” says Stortini. “I appreciate getting to work with them on the ice, and then get to spend some time answering their really creative and intelligent questions. These players are inquisitive and are always looking to become better.”