Schooled in hockey

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:37 AM ET

Dan Girardi has a well-rounded and well-travelled education.

During his first four years in the OHL, he changed high schools at least twice a year, sometimes three.

The 20-year-old defenceman has been traded three times in five years, the most recent deal seeing him come to the London Knights on Jan 5.

He began with the Barrie Colts, drafted in 2000, and was dealt to the Guelph Storm during the 2002-03 season.

He's managed with his schooling, but it hasn't been easy.

No two high schools are the same and when a season ends players usually return home and finish their school year there. Girardi did three high schools the season he was traded from Barrie to Guelph.

"It's hard," he says. "The courses aren't the same. And when I was traded here, I lost a semester of university."

He was attending the University of Guelph, but couldn't retain those courses at Western.

Regrets?

"Not really," he says.

"Luckily, my high school back home, the teachers knew me and helped me. I've always done pretty well in high school -- better than average -- and it can be done."

Girardi says it's a cop-out for a player to say he doesn't have time for school.

"It can be done. You just have to work through all the distractions. It takes discipline and time management. You've just got to juggle a few things."

Every OHL team has an education consultant, usually a teacher or a guidance instructor at the school they attend. They all meet twice a year.

Knights players who are in high school attend Saunders, except for Rob Drummond, a Londoner who is at South.

The Knights' educational consultant at Saunders is physical education head Rob Waugh. He got involved five years ago through his brother-in-law, Basil McRae, a former Knight and NHLer and now a Knights minority owner.

"We have a good support group at the school," Waugh says. "We co-ordinate between the school and the team, but we're also there to make sure the players succeed in their education."

Waugh enjoys his association with the players.

"Some are extremely academic. . . . It's incredible to see them grow."

Assistant general manager Jim McKellar says the team takes education seriously.

"Both our owners (Dale and Mark Hunter) have taken part in junior hockey and a lot of the discipline they learned in their lives came when they were 16 and 17, and we were able to tap into that," McKellar says.

"Their heart and their mind know what the kids are going through.

"We have a good track record of getting the kids through school. We've lost one credit in the five years (the Hunters have owned the team)."

McKellar says they don't expect miracles.

"If they're an 80-per-cent student, do we want them to be 100 per cent? Sure. But realistically we want them to keep their 80 per cent.

"If they're a 60-per-cent student, we want them to keep the 60 per cent and improve on it and not drop off, and that's what their parents' expectations would be."

McKellar says they begin lining up classes for the players as soon as they're drafted.

And, if a player misses school it's a $25 fine.

"We get a fax from the school before they arrive at the rink that afternoon for practice," McKellar says.

"We feel it's important. We're their parents away from home, and maybe the punishment is even worse than they'd get at home."

Most OHL teams have reciprocal agreements with their local boards of education where out-of-town players are not charged to attend high school.

Waugh says the Knights pay almost $8,000 for a foreign student to attend.

The Knights have 10 players in high school, three at Western and two at Fanshawe.

For centre Dan Fritsche, coming to the OHL was an education in itself.

He was drafted by the Sarnia Sting in 2001 and was enrolled in Grade 10 at Northern secondary school.

"That whole situation was really awkward," Fritsche recalls.

"I grew up going to Catholic preparatory schools, where everything was proper and I wore a tie right up to my button and if the tie was a little bit undone I'd get a detention.

"The first time I go to a public high school, I couldn't believe it. I was totally shocked with the jeans and T-shirt scene."

Teams offer university packages to players when they're drafted. The OHL has a policy that rewards a player with one year of university for each year in the league. Some teams will supplement that with guaranteed packages.

Second-year right-winger Trevor Kell was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the fifth round last summer. He's 18 and has another year with the Knights, then wants to see where hockey will take him.

Kell has graduated from Saunders and has an education package.

"If it all ends, I'll go home (to Thunder Bay) and play for Lakehead University," he says.

"I had a lot of U.S. scholarship offers when I played Tier 2, so my parents made sure if I wasn't going to play in the NHL my schooling is taken care of."

Defenceman Danny Syvret has been at Western two years. Last year he took two classes. This year he cut it back to one class, knowing he might have an opportunity to play for the Canadian junior team at the world championship -- which he did, winning a gold medal.

"I've found university to be a little easier than high school, where you have four classes a day," Syvret says.

"I've got one class, two times a week, an hour long. In my off time I can study. I just wanted to do something to keep my brain thinking."

Many teams will send players home when their season finishes. That means a change in school.

But the Knights can stay and finish the year in London if they wish, and the team will continue to pay their room and board.

"They have the option to go home or stay once the season is finished," McKellar explains. "We want to make sure they get their education and graduate on time.

"If it doesn't match up at home, Mark and Dale value education enough that they want to make sure they get it.

"For most kids it's an easy transition at home, but if it's not, then we want to make sure he can graduate on time."


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