Five years ago, when Ice Hockey returned to Colorado Academy after more than a decade-long hiatus, hopes were high, but expectations were realistic—it would take time to rebuild this program. The 2017-2018 team played a sub-varsity schedule of 10 games, but by the next year, Ice Hockey had gone Varsity. With four years of experience playing for CA, Senior Assistant Captain Will Whalen remembers those early days.
“When we were Freshmen, we just kept saying to each other, ‘When we are Seniors, we are going to be so good!’” Will says. “And now we are here, and we are good!”
Will’s twin brother and fellow Assistant Captain Charlie offers a blunt assessment of the difference between then and now.
“When we were Freshmen, the philosophy was, ‘Well, let’s just try not to lose too badly,’” laughs Charlie. “We lost every game!”
This year, the team has a winning record (9 wins, 1 loss, as of 1/29/22). What’s made the difference? Five years of growth, practice, and experience have helped, but the Whalen brothers give a lot of credit to their new coach, Richie Nelson.
“Richie came with college coaching experience, and he brought a college mindset,” says Charlie. “He creates a fun atmosphere, but he also holds everyone accountable, and that elevates everyone’s game.”
“When Richie came in, he brought with him a culture of winning,” adds Will.
Senior Jack Pashel was one of those Freshmen who has played with the Varsity team since year one, but his experience on the ice goes back much further.
“My mom tells me that when I was two years old, I said, ‘I want to play hockey,’” Pashel says with a laugh. “She told me, ‘Well, you have to learn to skate first.’”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Now Captain of the CA team, Pashel has also played for multiple competitive club teams and traveled to compete around the United States and in Canada. He describes himself as “not very big and physical, but more of a skill player.” (No surprise that he admires Chicago Blackhawks player Patrick Kane.)
“Hockey is fast, and it challenges my mind,” he says. “To me it’s fun to make right decisions on the ice, and I really like the team aspect. We are a tight-knit group of solid, really good kids.”
Pashel says he never imagined the team would have the level of success it has experienced in just four years. He is grateful to Athletic Director Bill Hall and all the coaches, including Assistant Coach Christian Brown, a penalty kill specialist and elite skills coach who runs the defense, and Second Assistant Danielo Kozachuk, but he reserves special praise for Nelson. “I really want to win for him,” he says. “He and the assistant coaches are committed, and they love coaching. They have given us so much, so I try to repay them as much as possible.”
Like Pashel, the Whalen twins also started skating when they were still toddlers. As little kids, they played street hockey, and, as they remember it, lots of knee hockey on the basement carpet. They have also played club hockey, but now they play exclusively for CA.
“The plusses of playing for your school are that your teammates are also your buddies,” says Will. “You get to dress up on team days, and all your friends come to your games to cheer you on.”
“Hockey is my thing. I love it. If I could do it all day every day, I would.”
In the first sentence of a conversation, Richie Nelson tells you pretty much his whole story. But to understand why his players are devoted to him, you need to know more.
Nelson grew up in Champaign, Ill., not exactly a hotbed for this cold-weather sport. He played on the first Champaign team to compete in the Chicago league. After playing in college at Eastern Illinois University, he played semi-pro hockey. His coaching career includes public and private schools and colleges—most notably the University of Illinois, where he was mentored by Nick Fabbrini, who is the Head Coach of the Illini Hockey Club.
A hockey tournament brought him to Colorado for the first time. One look at the mountains and he said, “I am going to find a way to live here.”
He made the move, started coaching youth hockey around Denver, assumed the Assistant Coach position at CA last year, and moved up to Head Coach this year.
“After two practices with CA, I knew this is where I want to be,” he says. “This group of kids is special. They want to learn and be successful. CA creates an environment that promotes success for athletes and students.”
That environment is the product of Athletic Director Bill Hall’s hard work.
“I’m proud of the Ice Hockey program and how it has grown over the years,” Hall says. “I’m grateful for the student-athletes who play hockey at a high level who choose to attend CA and for the support the school gives the team. Coach Nelson is a tremendous teacher and leader, and we are lucky to have him.”
Nelson says he was “amazed” by the athletic resources and facilities at CA, including the Bansbach Strength & Conditioning Center. He immediately joined forces with Strength & Conditioning Coach Wes Kirk. Ice Hockey players have sessions three to four days a week with Kirk.
“Wes has done a phenomenal job of working with kids both before and after school,” Nelson says. “He is not just going through the motions. He really cares about these kids, and he has put together a program for them. To win, you have to take care of your body too.”
Nelson has 27 players on his roster this year. All are boys, but he looks forward to the day when he can add girls to the team. He can list 20 players for a Varsity game; less experienced players play a JV schedule but can earn the chance to move up to a Varsity game during the season. As Nelson puts it, “The names on the Varsity roster can change any given night.”
Nelson describes ice hockey as a “beautiful game” that has “taught him a lot of life lessons.”
He draws a straight line from lessons a player learns sitting in the penalty box to real life—do something wrong in life, he says, and there will be repercussions. That’s what you learn in hockey. He believes the game teaches players how to adhere to unwritten rules and etiquette. They learn sportsmanship, as demonstrated by the line of players shaking hands after the most hard-fought games.
“Even if things might not go your way, you show respect to your opponent,” Nelson says. “That’s a lesson athletes should carry with them into the real world.”
Talk to Jack Pashel, and you see how Nelson’s views have influenced his players.
“There is a lot of class in this sport,” Pashel says. “The way you carry yourself on the ice is the way you carry yourself in the classroom. We want to be viewed as a good group of young men who are respectful, work hard, and do the right thing on and off the ice.”