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West Van Warriors elite high school hockey academy moving to North Shore Winter Club next season

Move means BC Hockey's high-level zone program for north Burnaby, the North Shore and Sea to Sky needs to find a new home
West Vancouver native Andrew (AJ) Lacroix skates with the West Van Warriors in the 2019-20 season. The Warriors academy program is set to move into the North Shore Winter Club starting next season. photo Two Point Photography

A major lineup shuffle is set to take place next season in the West Coast elite youth hockey world, with a high-level high school academy heading into the North Shore Winter Club, displacing another select program that draws players from the North Shore, north Burnaby, and up into Sea to Sky Country.

NSWC’s board recently informed members the club had inked a long-term deal with the Spartan Sport Group to host the elite high-school academy program currently known as the West Van Warriors. The Warriors academy fields teams in multiple divisions in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League, facing off against elite school-based teams from across Western Canada. The academy teams will train and play at the winter club starting next season, moving over from their current training home at Hollyburn Country Club. Spartan Sport Group will maintain ownership of the academy but will likely take on new branding to reflect their partnership with the North Shore Winter Club.

“We feel like this is an opportunity that will enhance our offerings at all levels, for all players,” said NSWC board president James Cronk. “The winter club has always been a strong hockey community and a strong hockey club. And we think that having our kids from Cookie Monsters to the highest level hockey, the academy level, is going to be a benefit for the club in the long term.”

The move, however, is not without its casualties. As the academy comes in, the winter club has made the corresponding move of ending their hosting agreement with the Vancouver North West Hawks, a zone program affiliated with BC Hockey that fields U18, U17 and U15 AAA boys teams in the British Columbia Elite Hockey League. The Hawks teams, formerly known as the Vancouver North West Giants, are made up of players from eight minor hockey associations in north Burnaby, North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler and the Sunshine Coast. The Hawks are now looking for new home ice for next season after spending the last four years training and playing out of the winter club.

“Obviously we’re disappointed in the decision that they made and I personally didn’t see this coming,” said Chris Shaw, general manager of the North West Hawks program. “At the end of the day it was a business decision that the club moved forward with, and we're going to have to adjust accordingly. … There's no hard feelings with it from our side, and we understand. North Shore Winter Club was a fantastic home for us and we had a great relationship with them.”

The Hawks are hoping to stay on the North Shore as it is centrally located in the zone and a number of players come from the four North Shore associations – North Van and West Van minor, Hollyburn and NSWC – but it is challenging to find ice on the North Shore, particularly now as Harry Jerome arena is going offline at the end of 2021 while the old rec centre is torn down and a new one built.

“We’d like to keep it on the North Shore,” said Shaw, adding that wherever they end up playing next year, he still expects the program to function at a high level. On the zone team’s alumni list are a number of current NHL players, including Sam Reinhart, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Colton Sissons.

“It is a tough pill to swallow right now, but I think as far as our North West zone hockey program goes, I’d like to consider it one of the best in Western Canada right now,” said Shaw.

As for the West Van Warriors academy, the move should provide stability after a tumultuous couple of years. The Warriors were originally associated with Sentinel Secondary as an educational partner, but the West Vancouver school district ended that relationship in early 2020. The academy then reached a tentative agreement with the North Vancouver school district to move into Seycove Secondary, but opposition from the school community paired with complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic benched those plans.

The program’s educational partnership is now with the North Shore Academy, a North Vancouver-based private school that offers a hybrid of in-class and e-learning instruction, while their new agreement with the Winter Club will give them a home for their hockey training and games.

The Warriors also boast some outstanding alumni, most notably North Vancouver’s Connor Bedard, the first-ever player granted exceptional status early entry in the Western Hockey League.

The academy currently fields a U18 team, a U16 team, and two U15 teams. Part of the agreement with the winter club is there will be a push to add academy programming for female players, said Cronk.

“We feel like this is an opportunity that will enhance our offerings at all levels, for all players,” he said. “One of the things that attracted us to the academy is their commitment to growing a female program. And that's been something that's been very important to us.”

One more factor at play at the elite level for youth hockey is the cost. Fees are high across the board, but the school academy program comes with a higher price tag for players than BC Hockey’s zone program. Zone program costs start at around $13,000 per player per season, but the academy costs reportedly can be up to double that.  

“There’s no doubt that families are willing to pay to have their kids get the highest level of development they possibly can,” said Cronk, adding that the NSWC board is satisfied with the switch being made.

“It was certainly a challenging decision to make,” he said. “But ultimately the ability for the winter club to be co-branded with an academy is a benefit for our hockey program and will attract those members that are looking for development for their kids at all levels.”

Spartan Sport Group did not immediately reply to requests for comment.