Gaining an edge

Northern Educate Academy in Eagan is bringing a new model of specialized education and training to young Minnesota hockey players


By Peter Knutson
Let’s Play Hockey

Look out Minnesota, there’s a new school in town. The Northern Educate Academy in Eagan is now in its second year of operation. When it first opened in 2011 at the Eagan Civic Center, there were seven kids enrolled. Today, there are over 90 kids in grades K-12 and over 200 on the waiting list to get in.

Why are there 200 kids waiting to get in? Because this is no ordinary school.


Dr. Shawn Black and Craig Woodcroft co-founded Northern Educate with the idea that kids should want to go to school. It shouldn’t be a place that they are forced to go. It should be a place where kids can learn at their own pace, develop into well-rounded people and play hockey.

Yes, you read that right, play hockey. At the Northern Educate Academy, students spend half of their day training for hockey, and half of their day in class, a truly unique experience.

The school is divided into three separate groups. The first two groups consist of kids ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade. Based on their age and skill, these students train in the morning if they are older or in the afternoon if they are younger. Younger students are more focused in the morning which helps facilitate learning in the classroom. The last group is the high school which operates under the name Achiever Academy. They operate as a different entity to avoid conflict between high school and youth regulations.

In the classroom, students are able to choose from a variety of curriculum. Students can choose curriculum similar to public, private or charter schools. While students are in class with their classmates, each individual student has a specific schedule, personalized to their abilities and interests.

“We have lots of students that are taking courses beyond their grade level,” Black said. “Our goal is to challenge these kids and help them learn to the best of their ability. If a kid has mastered basic math and can do calculus at the age of 10, we will teach him calculus. If a kid is behind in his learning, we will do everything we can to bring them up to speed and even exceed what is expected at their grade level. We all have different abilities and we want the kids to learn how to use them to their full potential.”

Northern Educate does not have any requirements to enroll; anyone is welcome. Students learn course material through a hybrid method of teaching. With a student-to-faculty ratio close to 4:1, Northern Educate offers a unique learning experience. Specialized teachers interact with students and teach them about their subject. Students learn the material through a variety of ways, including small group tutoring, one-on-one lessons and individual learning. With a 4:1 ratio, teachers are more often than not free to help each student individually, allowing each student to learn in a way that best suits them. In total, there are around 20 different teachers at the school, all of which have distinguished credentials.

Before starting the Northern Educate Academy, Black and Woodcroft had lots of experience in their fields. Black helped run an accredited online university, serving over 100,000 students and also served as the Dean of the School of Management at the same university. He also served in the Air Force where he was a highly skilled pilot and trainer. During his time at the Air Force, he learned the importance of hard work, responsibility and leadership which he brought to the school and hopes to instill in the students.

For the last 20 years, Woodcroft has owned and operated the Northern Edge hockey program. He has taught kids of all ages and has lots of experience playing hockey himself. He played college hockey at Colgate, was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks and played many years overseas in professional European leagues. Woodcroft is also heavily involved in the USHL as part of a new ownership group of the Sioux City Musketeers.

When the students aren’t in the classroom, they can be found on the ice or in one of their indoor training rooms. The Eagan Civic Center has two sheets of ice, heated training rooms, shooting areas and weight rooms for the students to use. On-ice practices are very rigorous.

The school has a three phase plan that they implement during the year. Phase one is during the fall when students are not playing for their youth organizations. During this phase, students are on ice for three hours a day and off ice for an hour. They focus on skill development and practice their individual skills.

During phase two, the players skate for two hours a day and have extra dryland time. This is during the winter as most of the young kids are also skating for their youth teams at night. Students at the school come from 32 different AAA programs and 18 different youth associations from 16 states ... and even Japan.

“Almost all of the out-of-state students move to Minnesota with their families,” Black said. “It really shows how committed the students and families are when they pack up everything and move here.” 

The last phase starts in the spring and continues on with skill development, but also includes an hour on game concepts. Kids are again on the ice for three hours a day, focusing on skills for two hours and game concepts for one.

On-ice trainings are very rigorous. During the course of the year, students are on the ice for 527 hours doing various drills and exercises. The coaches on the ice are some of the best around. Their skill level ranges from NHL experience to professional European league to juniors. The on-ice training program is led by head coach Steve Yurichuk who has over 18 years of coaching experience. The lead goalie coach is Steve Briere, who has been coaching at all levels including the NHL for many years.

“I love my job,” Yurichuk said. “It’s the best job in the world being able to coach these kids and make an impact in their lives.”

Everyday the students are doing something new. The coaches want to make well-rounded players that excel in every aspect, not just a few. Coaches regularly ask the kids what they want to work on and work it into the training sessions on Fridays. They also attend the kids’ association hockey games to watch the players and take note of anything they feel the kids need to work on. The schedule is constantly adapting to the needs of the players.

“Our coaches are very dedicated to the kids,” Black said. “We have over 10 coaches on the ice during each session. This allows us to utilize every bit of the ice. We can break up the kids into small groups of 3 or 4 and work on specific skills like shooting, stickhandling, skating or goaltending. This allows one-on-one interactions with the kids to prosper learning and the small groups reduce the wasted time spent waiting in line. One day we decided to count how many shots the average kid took during one day of training; it came out to be over 1,000.”

With its daily schedule of training and schooling, the Northern Educate Academy is truly a one-of-a-kind place. It has gained the attention of many hockey enthusiasts looking for a great education. Current Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher enrolled his son there, as did former Minnesota North Star Richard Zemlak.

“I was very impressed with the challenging academic curriculum and from a hockey prospective the skill development is outstanding,” Fletcher said.

Zemlak is also very impressed with what he has experienced at the Academy so far.

“I think the school is great for kids who are passionate and willing to exceed at what they want to do,” Zemlak said. “This school gives them an opportunity to strive for anything and take passion in what they do. My son is excited to go to school and can’t wait to get on the ice with his friends everyday.

“I have seen a very noticeable improvement in his hockey skills, but more importantly, I have seen an improvement in his academics. The school has taught him to be responsible and accountable for his actions. He takes his homework seriously and gets it done before doing other activities at night. They teach great fundamentals in hockey and in life at the Academy.”

During the lockout in the fall, Wild coach Mike Yeo and assistant coach Rick Wilson went to the Academy to observe.

“It is a new way of thinking and a new structure,” Wilson said. “There is a lot of merit to the Academy. I am very impressed with it as it puts kids in a situation with reps for skill development. You can have subtle skill reps without consequences.”

With lots of interest comes lots of people. This is the next challenge for Northern Educate. They are currently operating at full capacity at the Eagan Civic Center. With over 200 new kids wanting to enroll next year, one ice arena is not going to be enough.

“We are currently talking to other arenas trying to work out a deal,” Black said. “We are very close and excited for the upcoming year. Other states have also contacted us wanting to open a school in their state. People have also asked us about opening up training sessions for different sports like lacrosse. These are all things we are considering as we move forward.”

With its specialized education and specialized training, the Northern Educate Academy has found a unique niche. With more and more schools and colleges focusing on specialization, could this be where schools are headed? Are kids going to start at a young age, focusing on what interests them? Only time will tell if schools change to this specialization, but for now this is one school that is quickly rising in the hockey and education world.