Jaywalking: Kaz Sobieski goes from blueberries to the big time

  • South Deerfield’s Kaz Sobieski will be playing hockey at the Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn. this year, a school that has produced 62 NHL draft picks. Contributed photo

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Kaz Sobieski has always loved hockey.

As a child, the 14-year-old South Deerfield native used to sit at his parents’ restaurant — the Souper Bowl in Amherst — and would watch hockey games on television. When there were no games on, he would head out to the parking lot and fire pucks and tennis balls around with his hockey stick. On one occasion, the street hockey puck did not hit its intended target.

“I hit a guy’s car one time and he handcuffed me,” Sobieski joked. “He was just joking around, though.”

All that practice has paid off because the former Eaglebrook School defenseman was recently accepted to attend the Hockey Center of Excellence program at the Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn. Shattuck-St. Mary’s is not just any typical boarding school, but one of the most elite schools for aspiring hockey players in the entire country. It’s known as the “Hogwarts of Hockey,” which is a reference to the school of wizardry in “Harry Potter.” The list of hockey alumni reads like an all-star team’s starting lineup and includes Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise and Nathan MacKinnon. In the recent NHL draft, both the 11th overall pick (Oliver Wahlstrom) and the 89th overall pick (Logan Hutsko) were both Shattuck-St. Mary’s alums.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Sobieski said of getting accepted into the program. “I’ve never had any feeling similar to this. It’s probably the biggest thing to ever happen to me in my life.”

Shattuck-St. Mary’s School is known for its Centers of Excellence, a model the school turned to in the 1990s to create the highly competitive hockey program. That model was then used to create nine other Centers of Excellence, including BioScience, Boys’ Choir, Engineering, Blended Learning, Vocal Performance, Pre-Conservatory Music, Figure Skating, Golf and Soccer. The Hockey Center of Excellence has five boys’ teams — 14U, 15U, 16U, AAA and Prep — as well as two girls’ teams — a 16U and Prep.

The Sobieski’s learned about the school while on vacation in Minnesota to see family friends who moved away from western Mass. Because of Kaz’s love of hockey, the family decided to look into summer hockey camps for him to attend while in Minnesota.

“What better place for Kaz to experience summer hockey than in Minnesota,” his father John said.

That first year Kaz attended the Heartland Hockey Camp, which he loved. The next year, he attended both the Heartland Camp as well as another camp that his mother discovered at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

“At that point, we didn’t know about the school,” John Sobieski said. “It looked unique so we signed him up and he loved it there.”

At the end of the Shattuck camp, Kaz received an evaluation, which he scored highly on, and the following summer he did the camp for three weeks. His love of the sport led the family to inquire about the possibility of Kaz attending the boarding school. Because the school is so prestigious, the coaches do their due diligence when bringing on players. After the family inquires, the school researches the student athlete and then invites players for visits, which includes the players scrimmaging against players from existing teams. The coaches also had the added benefit of the evaluations of Kaz from previous camps.

“I really wasn’t too nervous,” Kaz said about the tryout. “I was excited and wanted to get to know everybody there. They made me feel very welcome there.”

Following the visit, Sobieski was informed that he had been accepted as a freshman at the school and will play on the 14U team beginning in the fall.

“It’s crazy, I can’t believe I’m going to the same school all those NHL players went to and will be skating on the same ice and playing for the same coaches and same teams,” Kaz said.

It’s a far cry from where Kaz got his start in the sport, which involved him learning to skate on the man-made pond used to irrigate his grandfather’s blueberry farm in Whately. When he was 6, one of Kaz’s friends from the Amherst Montessori School was playing hockey and Kaz asked his parents to take him. He went to Learn to Skate, but was polished enough to begin playing with the house team.

“The first time I stepped on the ice I loved it,” Kaz said. “I played it as much as I could. I just enjoy every moment that I’m playing and have fun when I’m doing it.”

He will get his fill at Shattuck St. Mary’s, where players undergo rigorous training. The season spans the course of seven months and averages 50-65 games, with tournaments throughout the United States and Canada. Players are on the ice five to seven days per week, and also take part in strength and conditioning programs.

“We definitely thought about burnout, but given his personality and love of the sport, it has never seemed to be too much,” John Sobieski said of the rigorous schedule. 

 The results have been Nine Tier I U18 USA Hockey National Championships, two Tier I U16 National titles, and two Tier I U14 National titles. A total of 62 players have been drafted from the school, including two No. 1 overall picks (MacKinnon and Crosby) and 11 first-round picks. Over 400 college and Junior level players have gone through the program, six olympians, including two gold medalists. Eleven IIHF World Junior champions, and one Hobey Baker Award winner.

Sobieski hopes he can continue to build his skills at the school. When starting out, Sobieski was a forward, but four years ago a coach suggested he switch to defense due to his ability to skate backwards well, and the fact that he was bigger than many of the other players. He is now a dominant, 5-foot-9, 145-pound right-shot defensemen.

“I hated defense at first. I didn’t want to play it at all,” Kaz recalled. “Now that I’ve soaked everything in, I like it. You also get to get on the ice a lot more because there are less defensemen than forwards.”

He will get plenty of time on the ice over the seven months with Shattuck-St. Mary’s. After this season, he will again tryout to return to the school. The hope is that one day he might play collegiate hockey, although who knows. He might be lining up to play against the likes of his favorite players, Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughtey. It may be a longshot, but this kid who got his start skating on a pond in a blueberry patch, is now playing for the same team that some of the top players in the sport have played for.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.