May 16, 2019 8:47 pm
Updated: May 16, 2019 8:50 pm

Brooks gains reputation as NCAA pipeline for hockey talent

WATCH ABOVE: One small Alberta city has become a big draw for young hockey players hoping to make their dreams come true. Cami Kepke reports.

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Just under two hours southeast of Calgary, you’ll find the small city of Brooks, Alta.

The normally quiet community is known for agriculture, oil and gas and food processing.

So why are teenage athletes from across North America lining up to move there? You can find the answer at the Centennial Regional Arena.

The Brooks Bandits are known as a powerhouse of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, thanks — in part — to the work of Ryan Papaioannou, the team’s general manager and head coach.

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READ MORE: Business is booming for Brooks, Bandits at Junior A hockey championship

In his 10 years leading the team, the Bandits have captured five league championships and one national title, putting memories of the franchise’s rocky start to rest.

“The first four years this organization existed, they were last place in the entire AJHL and didn’t make playoffs until year five in a league where only two teams miss playoffs,” Bandits business manager Tyler King recalled.

These days, if you’re a Junior A player, it’s the team you want to play for.

“[It’s the] the tradition of winning,” defenceman Luke Bast said. “That was really appealing to me. I want to win.

“Second of all, one of the trends Brooks has is sending players to the NCAA.”

About three years into Papaioannou’s tenure, more and more NCAA teams started snapping up Brooks alumni.

“Coach Paps,” as he’s known, and assistant coach Scott Cunningham, have taken several trips to New England schools to forge new contacts.

In the years since, Brooks has cemented its status as a pipeline to American University Hockey.

“I was really interested in going the NCAA route over the WHL,” said University of Wisconsin prospect Corson Ceulemans. “Brooks has a great history, so I knew they’d be good and help develop me.”

With alumni like Cale Makar making a splash in the NHL, that reputation is only growing.

READ MORE: Calgary playoffs: Makar shines in NHL debut, Avs beat Flames 6-2 for 2-1 lead

Eighteen players on the Bandits’ current roster have already committed to post-secondary teams — including Ivy League schools like Dartmouth and Brown and hockey heavyweights like North Dakota and Wisconsin.

“Brooks has to be one of the top [programs],” said Colgate University assistant coach Dana Borges. “We have three of their players on our team currently, and one more coming.”

READ MORE: Edmonton basketball player heading south to play NCAA ball

Borges visits Western Canada up to 10 times a season to scout new talent. He believes Junior A hockey is stronger than ever.

“Thirty-three per cent of the NHL is now coming from college hockey,” Borges noted. “Junior A is pumping kids into college hockey.

“It’s translating there and you’re seeing kids who are future stars of the game.”

Athletes across North America are heading to Brooks to attract scouts and lock down scholarships.

“Last year I played in a good league, but I wanted a scholarship,” said William Lemay, a native of Marieville, Que., and a prospect with the University of Vermont. “I looked at their roster at the end of last year and they had a lot of committed guys. I knew the national championship was coming here. That was a plus for sure.”

“My university actually recommended I come here,” said Nebraska-Omaha prospect Brandon Scanlin.

While most junior teams will have a few out-of-province players, 20 of the Bandits come from outside Alberta.

“At points in time, we were pretty organic, with mostly Alberta players,” Papaioannou said. “We’ve branched out with connections to schools, agents, advisers.

“We could care less where the players are from. We’re happy to put the best product on the ice as we can.”

 

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