EDMONTON — Before departing for Edmonton for the Eastern Conference final, Lightning coach Jon Cooper and Islanders coach Barry Trotz bumped into each other at the gym inside the Toronto bubble and decided to take a selfie.
It’s not one that likely will be posted on their personal social media accounts, but it’s definitely a photo that will be hung proudly in the halls of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in the tiny village of Wilcox, Saskatchewan (population 264 in 2016).
The school — co-founded by Father Athol Murray, a Canadian Catholic priest and educator, and typically referred to as just Notre Dame by many across Canada — is a place where teenagers with big hockey dreams try to build their careers. But over its 93-year history, it has become so much more than that.
It has become a place where you’re more than a Hound, which is the school’s nickname. It’s a place that builds character and leaders, and two former Hounds — Cooper, 53, and Trotz, 58 — have become two of the best coaches in the NHL.
“Notre Dame is one of those places, I think you find out a lot about yourself. I always say you go in there a boy and leave a man,” said Cooper, who left his hometown, Prince George, British Columbia, in 1982 and spent his final three years of high school in the cold, vast prairies of southern Saskatchewan.
“You leave home for the first time at 15, it’s a hard thing to do. But from the lessons I learned, you know, it’s the first time you kind of get knocked down. You get cut from a team — and that was the first time that it happened to me in my life — and how are you going to deal with that?”
Nowadays, there are hockey prep schools all across Canada and the United States, but Notre Dame is one of the originals.
Wilcox has embraced the Hounds for nearly a century. You may not be from there, but once you step through the doors of the schools, you’re one of them.
“It was not just the athletic part, but with the school part of it and having to acclimate with new friends, new environment, but the school did such a good job at keeping you engaged and involved,” said Cooper. "Really, the school became your team. It wasn’t just the hockey players who played on your team, but the 300 kids that went there. That was your team.
“I remember we’d go to football games and the whole school would go, and big hockey games, the whole school would go. … I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences there, and it’s fun when you run into other Hounds. Everybody has a lot of common stories. It’s just that common bond you have when you go there.”
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There are currently 17 Notre Dame alumni playing in the NHL and three head coaches. The folks in Wilcox still have plenty of former Hounds to cheer for in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Joining Cooper and Trotz are Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn and backup goalie Curtis McElhinney; Islanders forward Jordan Eberle; and Golden Knights rugged defenseman Brayden McNabb.
“It’s a community,” Trotz said. “A lot of the things that Father Murray believed in are still talked about and used today. There’s a lot of pride and understanding. One of the blessings of Notre Dame is where it’s at. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but you become part of the community. It’s a lifestyle, and it has a code, and that code teaches young men and women responsibility and leadership.”
There have been over 220 hockey players drafted by NHL teams over the school’s history, but it doesn’t matter how many times an alumnus gets to the NHL or is able to win the Stanley Cup. A great deal of pride comes from the village that doesn’t even have a stop light.
“We have tremendous pride. I think what we get the most pride from is when you have guys like Jon and Barry speak about the pride they have about being part of our program,” said Jeremy Mylymok, Notre Dame’s director of hockey, who graduated from there in 1990.
“It’s amazing how many kids move on to leadership roles and captains of their teams, whether it’s on teams in major junior in Canada, the NCAA or in the pro ranks. So many of the kids come here for hockey, but they’ve left understanding what Notre Dame is all about. When you leave Notre Dame, you start to realize the values in life.”