The Kimberley Academy is expanding at an unprecedented rate.
In only its second year of operation, the program is set to transform from a 16 player girls hockey team into a multi-sport academy with 80 athletes in 2017-18.
In addition to expanding the hockey program up to 30 to 40 players, with a U-19 prep team for the top athletes, the Academy will also be branching out into soccer with a group of approximately 36 players for a new full immersion soccer academy.
According to the founders Brad Park and Shane Murray, the development of the Academy and their Nitro Xpress teams is very exciting for Kimberley and the entire East Kootenay region.
“We just kind of took a leap of faith and got the ball rolling [last year],” Park said. “Twenty months later, we have Hockey Canada Sports School status, we have a successful female hockey program [and we have] evolved into soccer.”
The Academy was informed on February 15 that they had been granted Hockey Canada Sports School status, which was a huge step for the Xpress. While the program will continue to have a partnership with School District 6 and have their athletes’ education handled by Selkirk High School, the status gives a level of prestige to attract top players from around the world.
Park is adamant, however, that it will be local athletes who benefit the most.
“It starts with East Kootenay kids first,” he said. “Having these programs and bringing in the expertise and the most elite level coaching [is not something that] everybody can afford, but every East Kootenay kid gets a benefit as a result of it.
“We have players from [elsewhere in] Canada, the U.S. [and] Europe paying more than what the local kids are paying. By having those kids from the other locations, that enables us to have the best level of coaching for the local kids.”
According to Park, the entire genesis of the program was to keep East Kootenay athletes at home and give them a chance to pay a more reasonable rate for their training. He believes that the recent expansion of the program will continue to fulfill that vision.
“Three years ago, when I was getting involved in female hockey, we lost 16 of the best 15 to 17-year-olds in the East Kootenays,” he explained. “[They] all left. So, there weren’t the numbers to support a female competitive program when [we had] that many girls leaving.
“And the girls that were leaving [were] going to these sports academies. Those sports academies are anywhere from $35,000 to $45,000.”
Noting that Kimberley had the infrastructure, the hockey expertise and the supportive community necessary to have an Academy of their own, they started the Nitros Xpress and heading into their second season believe that they have an increasingly attractive opportunity for local athletes.
“With our program, we got the number down to $6,900 per player with the elite level coaching,” Park said of the lowest possible Academy cost for local players. “Every East Kootenay kid has access to that opportunity for the baseline program.
“Kids that come in from outside of the East Kootenays are looking at a [different] price point. If they’re a BC kid, [it’s] about $29,000 [and] an International player [would be] approaching $40,000.”
Park said that this tiered model will be very beneficial to local kids.
“[Because of the high cost for players outside of the region], we can afford to hire [elite] coaches and develop the program that gives the local kids access to that coaching and training.”
There is also a scholarship program that is only available to those from the East Kootenays.
“If we believe there is an East Kootenay player who should play at that U19 top level and it’s not within mom and dad’s means, then we have a scholarship possibility for those players,” Murray said. “That is only available for East Kootenay kids. The criteria for that scholarship is that you are an East Kootenay player.”
While the Xpress looked into the possibility of joining the Junior Women’s Hockey League (JWHL) last season, they were forced to wait when they didn’t receive approval from BC Hockey in time and they will continue to operate independently again this season.
“We will still play the best teams from those two leagues in an exhibition schedule [but] we’re going to use this year to determine what is the best path forward for the program,” Park said. “We may choose to go forward as an independent program. Some of the best programs in North America are independents.
“Shattuck-Saint Mary’s, where [Sidney] Crosby went is an independent [and] we’ve been advised from very knowledgeable hockey people that [it] may be in our best interest to do that.”
As for the soccer academy, while it is coming to fruition faster than Park and Murray initially anticipated, it has always been part of their long-term vision.
“We always had soccer in our long term plan,” Park said. “[We] are poised to be announcing a full immersion soccer academy.
The Kimberley Academy Nitros Xpress Soccer program will start next year and mirror the already established hockey academy with a schedule that follows the school year from September to June.
The Xpress expect to have an indoor facility erected to allow training to continue during harsh Kootenay winters.
“We’re going to have to provide an indoor training facility,” Park said. “We’re in discussion [with the city] as to where that is going to be, but they’re fully supportive and behind us on that.
“The indoor facility is scheduled for completion November 1 of 2017 in Kimberley. [It will be] a fabric structure, with an aluminum and steel frame truss structure inside with fabric over top so they can be erected very quickly.”
The 2017-18 program will continue to be based around female hockey players, but the Academy has male athletes in their long-term vision and will take their first step in that direction next year by offering hockey skills academies for boys.
For now though, Park and Murray are in support of a new regional boys Bantam and Midget Tier 1 AAA program that they say will be coming next year.
“It’s all in the development stage [but] it has unanimous support of the East Kootenay board, so it’s going forward,” Park said of the East Kootenay Tier 1 team. “Kimberley was approved as the host community, so Kimberley is going to be providing the ice.
“All we’re going to offer is support to that program [though]. We’ll probably put forward one of our coaches as a candidate to coach, in addition to any players who want additional skills training, they can access that through our program.”
With the rapid acceleration of the Academy, Park and Murray believe that “the sky’s the limit” for the potential of the Kimberley Academy.
“Locally, the interest is skiing [so that] is on our radar [but] it’s not just sport,” Park said on the future of the Academy. “If we can branch into arts and culture, we will.
“We want the Kimberley Academy to be the umbrella and we’re very comfortable and confident in our model […] It potentially could work for piano. It could work for dance. We’re open to anything. Anything that higher level student athletes or student artists need that they can’t accrue in their own location.”
Park and Murray expect to have a number of athletes from everywhere, from South America to Europe to Asia starting next season, but maintain that their main focus is on East Kootenay kids and giving them a chance to stay in the community while pursuing their dream at the highest possible level.