TWO seasons with Shaftesbury's girls prep hockey team under his belt and head coach Eugene Kaminsky is still learning just how far the program can push its success.
In one way, the Titans' prowess is on display at the MTS Iceplex this week. The Titans went two-for-two to start the Female World Sport School Challenge, besting the reigning champion Edge School for Athletes team from Calgary 3-0, then routing the Banff Hockey Academy 10-0.
Their final match of the preliminary round was set for Friday night, a local battle against the Balmoral Hall Blazers, with a spot in today's semifinals on the line.
Shaftesbury went into that game in a good place, the only unbeaten team in their group and holding a big lead in the tiebreaking goals-for race.
The Titans made it to the semifinal last year in the tournament's debut. They finished the 2012-13 season a whopping 41-17-5.
But Kaminsky, who is also a Shaftesbury math teacher, measures his team's success by more than just what happens on the ice.
When he helped launch the program just last year, after more than a decade coaching the school's boys team, the objective was straightforward: Get public-school students a showcase for NCAA and CIS scouts. For a while, Kaminsky mused, some young Manitoba talent was being overlooked.
"Being in Winnipeg, it is difficult to get a lot of colleges to come out and see these girls," he said. "It's one thing to be a successful team -- which we are through wins and losses -- but you have to let coaches know what players you have available, and we've been able to do that. We've learned that through the last year."
Now, Shaftesbury is one of the only public schools in Canada to run a prep hockey program. Most of the others are run out of private schools, and tuition can be steep. The Edge School, visiting Iceplex this week, sets tuition at $15,000 a year besides the hockey costs. By contrast, it cost $12,000 this year to play for the Titans prep squad, to pay for equipment and a ton of travel to tournaments abroad. It's still a cost, of course. Just more bearable for some.
Another difference: While the Titans prep squad puts a high value on academics -- colleges want great students, Kaminsky reminds his players, not just strong athletes -- Shaftesbury is still a public school, so there are no entrance exams to write. For some students, that means a bridge to a better academic life.
"That was one of the key things for us -- to provide options," Kaminsky said. "We didn't realize how successful we were going to be at the start."
Just two seasons in, word has already spread. Girls have come to play prep-team hockey at Shaftesbury from Stonewall and from Swan River near Manitoba's western edge.
The players travel with an English teacher and Kaminsky helps them with math homework. The school has replied with support.
"The teachers are really engaged in the whole program, which really helps us a lot," Kaminsky said. "The girls feel that. They feel like they're a part of the school."
That approach, evidently, is meeting its goals. This fall, spitfire Titans forward Stephanie Grossi will head to Syracuse University in NCAA Division I. There, she will join a 2013 Shaftesbury prep-team alumna, blue-liner Larissa Martyniuk, who turned heads as the fifth-highest-scoring CHA defenceman in her rookie campaign.
Two other current Titans players have committed to the NCAA, three to the CIS, and two of the team's Grade 11s are close to making a commitment.
Between St. Mary's Academy, Balmoral Hall, and now the prep team at Shaftesbury, Kaminsky has seen how more college scouts are watching. Shaftesbury hosted its first tournament this year and more events are coming.
"There were always players who were brought out of Manitoba, and a lot of great female hockey players," he said. "Now (scouts) are seeing more and more of that, and that's exciting. The development is getting stronger."