The ice hockey program at Fairmont San Juan Capistrano is getting a lot of attention, with people from all over Southern California taking notice of its impressive rise during the two short years since its inception. We recently sat down with General Manager Dack Petersen to learn more about this up-and-coming program – from its origins to its current successes to plans for the future.
Q: When people think about high school athletics, they typically conjure up images of sports like football, soccer, basketball, and baseball. How did ice hockey get entered into this equation at Fairmont Schools?
A: This may come as a surprise to some people, but ice hockey is actually a pillar sport in Orange County. There are lots of serious players out there and I was looking for a way to create a program where they could get not only exceptional training but also an exceptional education. I was very familiar with Fairmont’s reputation for academic excellence. I also knew that they had some experience with street hockey and they were always on the cutting edge of introducing new opportunities to their students. It just seemed like my vision was well-aligned with Fairmont’s core tenets. I approached the school’s leadership and, thankfully, they agreed!
In 2019, we began putting a program together for Fairmont Preparatory Academy. But when the COVID lockdown hit in the spring of 2020, we decided to take a step back and take an additional year to ensure the program was rolled out properly. During this time, Fairmont purchased a campus in San Juan Capistrano. Leadership made the strategic decision that one of the groups they wanted to reach at SJC was elite scholar-athletes and they felt that having a hockey program would help accomplish that.
Q: So here we are in 2022. You’re basically just two years into the program – less if you count the time that was lost during the pandemic. What is the status of the program today?
A: We set a goal of having a strong JV team by the end of our second year. Not only did we meet that goal, but we exceeded it because that team was elevated to a Varsity D-3 level within the first month of our inaugural 2021-22 season. We have also added Varsity D-1 and Varsity D-2 teams since we started the program – something we didn’t expect to do until our fifth year.
And the kids are playing great! They’re competing at the levels you typically only see in much more established programs. As an example, our Varsity D-1 team is currently ranked #2 in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League (ADHSHL) – ahead of schools the caliber of Santa Margarita, which has won the USA Hockey Varsity School Championship three times over the past ten years. Our players are also getting the opportunity to compete outside of ADHSHL through age-classification tournaments and exhibition games against travel hockey teams.
I’m also thrilled with what I’m seeing in these athletes off the ice. They are reaping the academic rewards of Fairmont’s robust curriculum and outstanding teachers – getting in-person instruction as opposed to the remote teaching offered by other programs. And they are being mentored in a way that is helping them develop tremendous character and leadership qualities that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. This is the type of comprehensive program I had in mind all along.
Q: That’s really quite impressive. So how do you account for this type of success?
A: I think it’s a combination of things. One huge part is the partnership we entered into last year with West Coast Academy. Co-founders Kevin Bieksa and Dean Caban share the same priorities as we do – helping young athletes reach the highest levels in hockey and in life. To have them coaching our Varsity D-1 and D-2 teams is pretty incredible. Kevin played professionally for 15 years, including 13 in the NHL – three of which were with the Ducks. He’s also a well-known television broadcaster and analyst, which is something the kids think is pretty cool. And Dean has been coaching elite players from all over the world for almost two decades. He’s a student of both the science and art of hockey, so he understands the specific skills players need to skate their best. Both of these men have a passion for mentoring young athletes.
Another big component of our success is the outstanding off-ice training Fairmont affords our players with their hockey-specific strength & conditioning and speed & agility training. The kids benefit greatly from Fairmont’s partnership with The Treigning Lab, which leverages science and technology to optimize performance. Our athletes are tested for a variety of metabolic capacities and the data is used to help customize a unique training regimen for each individual athlete.
But, of course, none of this would have been possible without Fairmont’s willingness to make this a one-of-a-kind program. From Day 1, they have championed this effort, providing us with the resources and support we need to serve our elite hockey players – both on the ice and in the classroom. This includes creating a hybrid schedule where athletes spend part of their school day learning and part of it training. Four days a week, our high school players skate at Great Park Ice for their first period class before jumping on the bus to the campus for their academic and athletic training classes.
Q: Since you’ve already accomplished your five-year goal in just the first two years, what’s next for the program?
A: We added a middle school developmental program this year, modeled after what we do at the high school level, including incorporating on-ice training into the school day. A short-term goal is to bring more players into this program and set them up for success in high school.
The other area of growth we’re pursuing right now is with international hockey players. There’s a lot of interest from athletes outside of our country. We believe that tapping into this pool will not only benefit international athletes but also help prepare our domestic players for global competition.
We have some lofty goals as we move forward because we believe we have the makings of one of the premier high school hockey programs not just regionally, but nationally. But no matter what we set our sights on, we remain committed to staying true to Fairmont hockey’s four pillars of youth performance: Academics, Athletic Development, Character & Leadership, and Strength & Conditioning.
Catch a glimpse of our Warriors in action in this brief video.