Groundbreaking Hockey School set up in Swindon.

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In a ground breaking development in sports education in Britain, the Okanagan Hockey School Europe (OHSE), a division of the Okanagan Hockey School Ltd. (OHSL) in British Columbia, Canada, has opened a UK branch in Swindon.

It means for the first time that young British ice hockey players have the opportunity to hone their skills with professional coaching, without having to go abroad to Canada or Austria where Okanagan’s first European venture is located.

The first intake has attracted 15 youngsters aged 13 to 15 to Swindon. Two have arrived from Germany, one from Hungary, one from Scotland, and the other eleven from Swindon and the South of England.

Learning on ice for the Ice School pupils

All but two have started full time education at Lydiard Park Academy in Swindon where they are following the national curriculum through a timetable tailored to allow for early morning ice hockey training at the rink at nearby Link Centre. The two players who have not moved to Lydiard Park Academy are from Swindon and are continuing their studies at the schools they were established in.

The players from out of town are living with host families close to the school and the sports facilities. The squad trains on the ice between 8.15am and 9.30am and are then brought by mini-bus to Lydiard Park Academy ready to start school at 10.15am.

Okanagan Hockey Academy UK (OHAUK) is headed by Steve Nell, general manager of Swindon Wildcats ice hockey club, based at Swindon’s Link Centre.

Former Wildcats head coach Peter Russell is employed full-time to coach the academy squad who will play in the English South Division I, and Lydiard Park Academy sports co-ordinator Clive Harding acts as academic and pastoral mentor for the players, liaising between teachers, Okanagan Hockey Academy and parents to ensure that academic targets are maintained, including completion of homework on time.

School work in Lydiard Academy.

Okanagan Hockey Families are paying Okanagan Hockey Academy £16,500 in training and accommodation fees if players come from beyond Swindon, and £13,000 if a player lives in the town. European Union students can attend Lydiard Park Academy free of charge.

Lydiard Park Academy headteacher Clive Zimmerman said he was delighted that the players have at last arrived. “This is a very exciting opportunity for Lydiard Park Academy. Partnerships with sports clubs to develop the best talent are exactly what we have been aiming for. We have the physical capacity to accept more pupils and we’ve been able to create an academic timetable that accommodates the needs of the players. We already have experience in providing figure skaters and boxers with a flexible timetable which caters for training and competition, but this is the first time we have worked with a distinct group of sports specialists.

“I’m delighted the Lydiard Park Academy logo appears on the players ice hockey uniform to complement the badge on their school uniform. The boys are hard working individuals, highly motivated to achieve their potential in ice hockey, and also in their academic studies. Having seen their records, there are good scientists and linguists in the group who will add tremendously to the school.

Steve Nell said the young players are being given a huge opportunity to develop their talent. “The chance to train together intensively every morning, whilst attending a local school, is creating pathways for the boys – to play professional hockey in Britain and Europe or to attend college in North America. We are also closely involved with an expert who can advise families about applying for college scholarships which may in turn eventually lead to the National Hockey League, or other leagues in the USA and Canada.

“We have a very exciting partnership with Lydiard Park Academy and Swindon Borough Council who own the Link Centre. I’m not sure if there is another example like it in the UK.”

The Okanagan hockey players at Lydiard Park Academy with from left, Clive Zimmerman, headteacher, Christian Dobbs, head of sport, Clive Harding, academy sports coordinator, Alex Buchalik, sports teacher

Netminder Angus Laing from Scotland.

One family who has allowed their 13 year old son Angus follow his dream are the Laing family from Kilmarnock. Dad Scott said: “Angus has played ice hockey since he was seven and has set his heart on being a goal minder in the NHL. We heard that Okanagan were recruiting for the new academy and Angus was dead set on joining. The chance of training every morning, rather than once a week late at night, is ideal for him. Pete Russell is a top coach, hard to please, but he makes training fun and he’ll bring the best out of the youngsters. There’s nothing like the Okanagan set up; when you consider the amount of ice time coaching the players are getting, it’s good value for money.”

Mum Susan added: “It’s the first time Angus has been away from home for any length of time, other than hockey training camps. Joining Okanagan is absolutely what he wants to do and we’re happy and proud of this motivation, but I had a knot in my stomach to leave him in Swindon. But Angus has hit it off with the family he’s billeted with and his host mum will be giving him a cuddle when he needs it, and her son plays ice hockey too.”

Alexander Joselowitsch brought his son Arthur, 14, over from Berlin to join the hockey school. He said: “His older brother attended the Okanagan school in Austria and Arthur wanted to also gain a high level of coaching combined with the chance to improve his English. Swindon is easy to get to if we want to visit Arthur, and for him to travel home.”

Arthur agreed. “I want to speak English better and broaden my life experience. From my first few days here I’m enjoying the training and also the school work, but I find wearing a school uniform a bit strange.”

Andy Oakes, president of Okanagan Hockey School Ltd., is confident that the success of Okanagan Schools in Penticton, British Columbia and St. Polten in Austria will help the business model in Swindon. “Our primary objective is to develop character student athletes dedicated to bettering their communities through the company mission: ‘to encourage the achievement of each player’s full potential in Academics, Hockey, Sportsmanship and Citizenship through a stimulating and vigorous supportive environment.’”

Keith Williams, Swindon Council cabinet member for leisure services, said: “The Okanagan ice hockey academy is great news for Swindon. With the closure of the ice rink in Bristol we’re seeing more ice skaters coming to Swindon; providing the facilities to develop Britain’s future ice hockey talent gives us the opportunity to showcase the provision of leisure facilities in the town, for which we have a long and impressive history.

“I’m glad Link Centre is able to accommodate a wider range of users on the ice with minimum disruption during term time and I welcome this commercial venture which will reduce the subsidy from the council tax payer.”

• In this summer’s GCSE results 75 per cent of pupils at Lydiard Park Academy achieved 5 A to Cs, with 56 per cent gaining 5 A to Cs including English and Maths, the best ever in the school’s history.

Copy Swindon Link Magazine Pictures Calyx/Sportswindon