The Hockey Academy held at the Ralph Engelstad Arena trains nearly all the area's best
Jacob Benson plays for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League. The former Grand Forks Red River player is preparing for a college career at St. Cloud State.
Jade Miller just finished his senior season as the leading scorer at Grafton-Park River. He’s working out before joining the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League.
Kevin Moderer, who spends his summers with his fiancé from East Grand Forks, is a forward for the Graz 99ers of the Austrian professional league. The native Austrian is training in advance of his sixth pro season.
These hockey paths are all different, but the trio — like many of the top tier players in the area — has one thing in common: They work at their craft at Ralph Engelstad Arena’s Hockey Academy.
The Hockey Academy, in its sixth year of existence, trains nearly all of the area’s best — whether they’re in pros, juniors, midgets, college, high school or youth hockey.
The Hockey Academy’s offices are located at ice level of the REA. There, the academy houses synthetic ice stations and a hockey treadmill. The group also uses the REA weightlifting areas, the Olympic ice sheet and the main rink.
“From the start, our whole thing is to push the envelope as to what kids in the area believe they can experience and achieve in their hockey lives,” said Eli Rosendahl, head coach of the Hockey Academy. “Whether your potential is as a first-line junior varsity player or an NHL player, our mission is to get the most out of each particular kid. If you want to get the most out of yourself as a hockey player, the tools are here.”
The local hockey scene is booming. Greater Grand Forks has produced four NHL draft picks (all four train at the Hockey Academy) in the past two years: Gage Ausmus, Luke Johnson, Tucker Poolman and Paul LaDue.
That’s the first time Greater Grand Forks has produced that many NHL picks in that short of a time frame. Before LaDue in 2012, GGF didn’t have an NHL draft pick since Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen in 2003.
“We’ve had lots of players experience success here, but we’re not here to take credit for that,” Rosendahl said. “The kids still have to completely commit. Becoming a hockey player is a long process with a lot of ups and downs. We want to be a piece of that puzzle. We provide the vehicle, but the kids still have to drive it. There’s no magic potion.”
The Hockey Academy started in 2009 with now-UND men’s assistant coach Brad Berry at the helm, with assistant Erik Fabian, who’s now an assistant women’s hockey coach at UND.
Two years later, Berry went to work with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and Fabian joined Brian Idalski’s staff at UND.
The Hockey Academy then hired former UND goalie Karl Goehring, who was in charge of operations for three years.
Earlier this year, Goehring stepped down from the Hockey Academy to pursue other career opportunities. The academy is now led by Rosendahl, who has been with the academy since its beginning with Berry. His assistant is former North Dakota Mr. Hockey winner and Fargo Force player Ryan LaDouceur, who has also worked with the academy since its inception.
The two full-time employees, who are supervised by the REA general manager Jody Hodgson, also employ a permanent part-time position in Kyle Kosior, who works as essentially a hockey operations coordinator.
UND hockey trainer Mark Poolman is a full-time stipend position with the academy. They also have 10-15 other part-time coaches, including newly acquired Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, a former UND goalie who is heading a goalie-specific division of the academy.
Rosendahl said the ideals of the organization haven’t changed much since Berry started the academy.
“Before the academy, there were separate organizations, but there wasn’t a group of people who commit their lives to giving kids what they need for the next level,” he said. “Brad and Erik created a great culture of professionalism. They wanted passionate hockey people in place.”
Perfect mix of young and old
The academy’s service to a wide range of ages and abilities fuels its goals, Rosendahl said.
For example, young players might work out next to former UND player Matt Greene, a veteran NHL player who works at the REA at times in the offseason.
“I’ve seen so many guys older than me go on to the USHL and commit to college and play college,” Miller said. “That makes you want to work out harder and get better at everything to try and get to that level some day.”
That’s part of what makes Miller’s daily drive worthwhile.
“Guys ask me how I can drive 40 miles a day for this,” said Miller, who’s been attending the academy since he was 13. “But it’s easier and easier with this place. I love coming here every day.”
Growing up in Grand Forks, Benson was also a regular at the REA.
“I lived at this place,” Benson said. “Eli and Ryan were great about it. They never kicked me out. I lifted and skated with Eli every day. I worked on the synthetic ice with my stick-handling and shooting. It was the basic stuff you have to do to get better.”
Benson wrapped up his first season in the USHL last week. He had seven points in seven playoff games and 14 points in his last 13 games.
“The training here is unbelievable, which showed at the end of the season — the end of the season is when this kind of stuff shows up,” Benson said.
Rosendahl said the training setup with younger and more experienced players results in a two-fold benefit.
“When you’re a young kid, you don’t want to step on the older players’ toes,” Rosendahl said. “The young kids know they need to keep up to be in there. Also, the older kids take pride in knowing they’re paving the way. I absolutely think that’s a big thing.”
Not a bad home
The access to state-of-the-art amenities at the REA also helps.
“The facility is like an NHL rink,” said Moderer, who comes to the REA twice a day most of the time. “I come from Europe and it’s not every day you have access to ice year round. You can bike and run all you want, but it’s totally different on the ice.”
The aura of the REA isn’t lost on young players, either.
“When they’re here, there’s a certain mentality with what this place and program are about,” Rosendahl said. “There’s an amount of respect kids abide by when they’re here.”
The academy has its hands on nearly all of the youth players in Grand Forks. The Park District contracts the academy to work with all of its teams, from squirts to bantams.
They also occasionally work with players from Roseau, Warroad, Bismarck, Fargo and elsewhere.
The academy runs a number of midget tournaments, with a heavy Canadian influence. This will also be the first summer the academy has operated the hockey camp formerly run by UND hockey.
Last fall, Rosendahl established the THA Selects, a midget AAA preseason team.
“The guys who have played that are seeing the rewards,” he said. “That’s something we’re doing again this year. It’s a great complement to their high school seasons. It’s 25 more games. We’ll continue to build on that.”
With the academy offering year-round options, Rosendahl is aware coaches of other programs and sports might not be fully supportive of his group’s efforts.
Rosendahl said the academy, however, supports multi-sport athletes.
“We encourage kids to go play baseball,” he said. “If it’s your prerogative to be a three-sport athlete, that’s great. But if you’re a kid who wants to commit solely on hockey, I won’t fault you for that, either. I’ll help you do what you want to do.”
No matter the path, Rosendahl wants to make Grand Forks a hotbed for hockey prospects.
“Ten years ago, it was much rarer to play juniors or college if you’re from Grand Forks,” he said. “Now, if you have six or seven per year playing at that level, it’s not too unrealistic if you’re a young player. When you’re in eighth or ninth grade now, they see that if I go through the proper channels and dedicate myself, it’s not so unrealistic anymore.
“I don’t want it to be rare for Grand Forks to have a Division I hockey player. There are lots of kids capable. We want to get them to believe it and understand the process.”