School for Blazers a different breed
Every student faces challenges on the road to a high-school diploma — and it’s no different for members of the Kamloops Blazers.
“The biggest issue is their schedule,” said Vic Bifano, who became the Blazers’ education consultant when the Tom Gaglardi ownership era began in 2007.
“They practise every day and they’re on the road a lot. Our players miss somewhere between 43 and 55 per cent of their school.”
There are eight Blazers attending Valleyview secondary, along with four at Thompson Rivers University, three studying online through Athabasca University and two players — Europeans Tim Bozon and Marek Hrbas — being tutored individually.
The Blazers are in the midst of a rare stretch, playing seven-straight home games in a span that runs from Nov. 16 to Dec. 1.
It presents the team’s players with a chance to catch up on schoolwork and sleep in their own beds at night, unlike the stint they endured in October, when Kamloops played six games in eight nights, five of them road tilts — in Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Cranbrook.
“Six games in eight days and then you’re back at school, seriously?” said Paul Cordonier, a counsellor at Valleyview.
“Some of them are taking pretty challenging courses, like as hard as it gets in high school, and they’re exhausted. They’re so busy on the road and then there’s practices and charity work . . . the list goes on. It’s tough on them.”
It’s tough on the teachers, too.
“They’re [teachers] going to have to make sure the players have packages of stuff to do when they’re on the road and follow through with it,” said Cordonier, a jack-of-all-trades-type counsellor who helps students with everything from course loads to emotional problems.
“They’re going to be marking and testing outside of their usual times, like way outside, and they have to take into account players miss class discussions. They really give a lot.”
Blazer forward Chase Souto, 18, is a Grade 12 student at Valleyview.
Being from Yorba Linda, Calif., he knows what it’s like to be dropped into an unfamiliar place and forced into a new school environment.
“Some kids, they don’t really like us just walking into their school and they think that we’re all just cocky hockey players,” Souto said.
“We might come across that way, but we’re really not. All the guys that go to our school are pretty down-to-earth kids. Of course, the girls are going to like the new guy, or whatever, but most guys are pretty cool with us now. No fights. Nothing like that.”
When it comes to grades, Bifano said the Blazers combine for an average of about 80 per cent, with some players bringing the number down and some — like Colin Smith, the WHL’s 2010-2011 scholar of the year — bringing it up.
“We’ve been lucky,” said Bifano, a longtime teacher, administrator and principal in the Tournament Capital.
“The team has done a really good job of bringing in players that not only have the athletic skill, but have academic skill. I don’t mean everybody is an A or B, but people that apply themselves.
“Every once in a while, you have to say, ‘Hey, there’s some work that has to be done and it has to happen soon,’ but it hasn’t been that much of an issue.”
The club does what it can to give the players something that resembles a normal high-school experience, but absence from the classroom is just part of what makes that impossible.
High-school life is unusual for the Blazers, even when the team has a string of home games.
There’s no volleyball team, no after-school drama productions, barely any time to mingle with other students and rarely time to hang out after class or on weekends.
The players attend classes throughout the morning and head to the rink for practice when the lunch bell sounds.
“I think they’re a little bit more isolated than we like to think,” Cordonier said.
“In the past, students have gone, ‘OK, these guys probably think they’re superstars.’ There are a lot of people they have to win over.”
The players do mingle with other students at school and friendships with non-hockey players are not out of the ordinary.
It’s just tough to become close with anyone but their teammates when so much time is spent at the rink, on a bus or in a hotel.
As for socializing at parties and spending time with girlfriends, both happen, but the life of a major-junior hockey player is not always glamorous.
“I know there are girls out there who definitely just want to do their thing with hockey players and there are others who want to stay away,” said 16-year-old Blazer blueliner Jordan Thomson, who attended a kindergarten to Grade 12 school in Wawanesa, Man., before coming to Kamloops this season.
“That’s totally their decision. I’m the kind of guy that stays away from that stuff. It could lead to bad things. It could distract the whole team.
“Your friends go out and drink and you want to go really badly. I’m not going to lie, it would be nice to go out and have fun with the guys, but that time will come.
“You’ll be four years in the league. You can have time to party when you’re done.”
Perhaps Cordonier said it best when he referred to a hockey player’s high-school life as “an exercise in compromise.”
“The teachers give a little, the players give all they can and, certainly, the Blazers’ club, too,” he said.
“I had no idea a couple years ago to what length they would go to try and support the high-school players.
“They certainly are not prima donnas. They’re just a bunch of really nice kids trying to get through.”