In the hallways of the Shattuck-St. Mary's hockey arena, framed jerseys of notable alumni hang from the ceiling. This small boarding school in Faribault, Minn., boasts a list of alumni unlike any other high school.
One glance at the last names on the jerseys will tell you about the prestige of the school: Crosby. Toews. Parise. Okposo.
Yes, some of the NHL's best players came to Shattuck-St. Mary's to hone their craft before advancing to the next level. But what makes this southern Minnesota town and boarding school of about 400 students a popular destination for NHL hopefuls?
"It's an opportunity to have a high level of education and we like to think accelerated athletic experience all in the same place," said Tom Ward, SSM's Director of Hockey and the boy's prep coach. "We're not a high school hockey program. We're different. We're outside the box with regards to that. Our entire program is a little bit different."
Indeed, the difference between SSM and other high schools in Minnesota is part of the allure. The Sabres don't play in the Minnesota State High School League, meaning they can play more games in a season while also scheduling games against tougher competition across the country.
This year's boy's prep team, for example, will play nearly 60 games this season, including teams from Chicago, Colorado and Calgary. By comparison, most college teams play fewer than 40 in a year, and other high schools in Minnesota play less than 30.
With so many games played each season, players at SSM are constantly on the ice and around the rink -- one of the many reasons why many alumni end up skating at the next level.
From Faribault to the NHL
During a stretch in December, the Minnesota Wild hosted three teams in a row that are led by former Shattuck-St. Mary's players. First came the New Jersey Devils, whose captain, Zach Parise, played for SSM.
Parise's father, J.P., was instrumental in the growth of SSM's hockey program. He took over for Craig Norwich, who initially led the move for Shattuck to leave the MSHSL. J.P. Parise, who played for the Minnesota North Stars and several other NHL teams, took the reins and built the foundation for the future powerhouse.
"We're absolutely thankful for Craig Norwich to have the vision and the wherewithal to kind of start this thing. It was a unique idea, and it had never been done before," Ward said. "Craig stuck with it, and then J.P. Parise came and took over for Craig and kept the thing moving and passed it along to myself. We're just trying not to screw up what Craig and J.P. started."
Ward still keeps in touch with Zach Parise and made the 45-minute drive up to St. Paul to see him before the Devils took on the Wild. Parise is a free agent after this season, and there have been talks of him possibly ending up back in Minnesota with the Wild.
Ward sees it as a possibility.
"You never know. I would say that if he does not land back in New Jersey that Minnesota has a strong chance of getting him," Ward said. "I think the ownership of the Wild are interested in getting some big-name players here. (It's) even better (to get) a big-name local guy. I know Zach would be proud to come back here and play and help the Wild move on."
Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks were recently in town to play the Minnesota Wild. Ward wasn't able to make it up to see Toews due to his own team's hectic schedule, but Toews scored a goal in Chicago's 4-3 shootout win.
"Every time I come back here, I'm always hearing from some old friends in the Twin Cities," Toews, the Blackhawks' captain, said after the game. "Even though it's 45 minutes down the road, it does feel like home. (I have) a lot of great memories from living here in Minnesota."
Not long after Toews was in St. Paul, Kyle Okposo and the New York Islanders followed. After playing for SSM, Okposo went on to play for the University of Minnesota before leaving during his sophomore year.
On his homecoming, Okposo's Islanders beat the Wild 2-1 in mid-December. Before the game, he was asked about what makes SSM so special.
"It stems from the coaching there," Okposo said. "Tom Ward does a great job with the team down there and they've been able to get a lot of good players down there. It's a great experience there. You're boarding there, so it's almost like a college atmosphere. You create special bonds there. I was fortunate enough to be a part of that."
The success isn't just limited to the boy's teams. Some of the top female hockey players in the nation have skated at Shattuck-St. Mary's. That includes the Lamoureux sisters, Jocelyne and Monique, who both played for the United States in the 2010 Olympics. The Lamoureux twins currently skate for the University of North Dakota and are both among the top 12 in points per game in women's college hockey.
So, too, is Amanda Kessel, whose brother Phil is currently the second-leading scorer in the NHL. Amanda, a sophomore for the University of Minnesota, is seventh in the country in scoring. Brianna Decker, another SSM alum, is second in the nation in scoring as a forward for the University of Wisconsin.
The SSM girl's prep team is coached by Gordie Stafford, whose son, Drew, also played at Shattuck. Drew Stafford is in his sixth year with the Buffalo Sabres and is one of many examples of family ties at SSM.
Perhaps the biggest name to come out of Shattuck-St. Mary's is Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. While Crosby spent just one year at SSM, his last name lives on at the school. Sidney's younger sister, Taylor, is a sophomore at SSM and plays goalie for the U16 girl's team.
Sidney Crosby isn't the only star with a family member currently attending Shattuck-St. Mary's. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur has three sons enrolled in the school -- Anthony, a junior, and freshmen twins William and Jeremy.
But for those kids, the appeal of attending Shattuck-St. Mary's is that they can blend in with the rest of their peers and teammates in the hockey-rich community.
"They don't get treated like the Brodeur boys or Sidney's little sister," Ward said. "They're just Taylor Crosby and the three Brodeur boys and they're just part of who we are. They just go about their business like regular old Joe kids. I think they appreciate that, too. They just kind of do their own deal and make their own mark."
Even "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, sent his son, Ty, to SSM for a year. Former Penguins star Mario Lemieux's daughter, Stephanie, recently played for the Sabres. Derek Stepan, currently with the New York Rangers, graduated from Shattuck. His younger cousin, Zach, is one of the top players on the boy's prep team.
The hockey lineage runs deep at SSM, a testament to the program's prominence.
"I think it's a credit to this coaching staff and the environment that the school has that these people think it's a great place for their kids to spend their high school or secondary education years of their life," Ward said. "It's flattering for them to think that they believe it's a good place to send their children. It's definitely an honor. But I think the thing that's good for the kids is they're just like everybody else."
Of the 400 students at Shattuck-St. Mary's, around half of them play hockey. The school also boasts a growing soccer and figure skating program. But hockey remains the bread and butter of SSM, and the school takes great pride in its alumni.
So if a current Sabre some day puts on an NHL sweater, he'll no doubt have the entire support of the tight-knit community at Shattuck-St. Mary's
"It's fun for everybody. Being a boarding school and having these kids living in school in the unique environment that a boarding school is, all the people that work in the school get to know these kids in a unique way," Ward said. "Just to be able to sit down on the couch at night and watch these guys play at a national level and do well and have success, it never gets old."