January 25, 2011

From NEHJ: Atlanta transplant finds home at Cushing

Cushing Academy junior goalie Chad Hardy had worked with former NHL goalie Dan Bouchard since he was 10. (photo: Courtesy of Cushing Academy)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Before Chad Hardy established himself as a standout goalie at Cushing Academy, drawing raves for his ability and elbowing his way onto NHL draft watch lists, he was the unwitting butt of geographical jokes.

“A couple of my buddies were kind of razzing me,” said Cushing coach Rob Gagnon (South Windsor, Conn.). “The joke was, if anything, you should go above the Canadian border for goalies, not below the Mason-Dixon line.”

Nobody’s laughing now.

Hardy, a 17-year-old junior from Atlanta, may have grown up in a non-traditional hockey locale, but his career track has merged with the mainstream and picked up some nice speed along the way.

It’s a story not just about hard work and good timing, but of the changing face of North American hockey development — all set in two locales, Atlanta and Ashburnham, Mass., that have very little in common beyond the first letter of their names.

One’s well within the establishment. The other? Well, a generation ago, hockey and the South didn’t go much beyond “Slap Shot” defenseman Mo Wanchuk’s cryptic comment about underwater specialists on his “southern tour.”

When Steve Jacobs retired after 22 years and a pair of New England championships as Cushing’s coach in 2007, he was pointed south to the Atlanta area, where his son, Steve Jr., was director of hockey at The Cooler, a two-rink complex in nearby Alpharetta. Steve Sr., who was hired as director of hockey operations, was well aware of the changing face of hockey development in the United States.

“By the year 2000 (at Cushing), we had started going out to California at Thanksgiving, and I kind of witnessed the explosion of kids from out there,” Jacobs said. “You think, anywhere there’s athletes, there’s going to be good players.”

Hardy and Gagnon, who succeeded Jacobs at Cushing, first crossed paths two years ago, when the Penguins, Hebron Academy and Lawrence Academy staged a joint trip to Atlanta over Thanksgiving. They set up admissions fairs to promote their schools and took the ice at The Cooler for a series of exhibition games again a local Atlanta Fire team that played out of the rink. The Fire featured Hardy, who’d been playing since the age of 5 or 6 and working with former longtime NHL backstop Dan Bouchard since he was 10.

“I believe I’ve been around hockey long enough to know what I like,” said Gagnon, who was an assistant at Avon Old Farms when L.A. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.) was developing there. “And I liked his size and athletic ability.”

The impression was advanced when Hardy played well as a USA Hockey evaluation camp at Alabama-Huntsville the following spring. He and Jacobs, who’d taken on the role of mentor, discussed coming north to attend prep school. In the end, it was Jacobs’ old school that won out over Pomfret.

“I had no clue about college hockey or anything until Coach Jacobs came in and pretty much explained it to me,” Hardy said. “I never saw myself going outside Atlanta when I was younger.”

This year, he finds himself on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary draft watch list as a ‘C’ player — a player with the potential to be a late-round selection. He’s also benefited from working with a pair of top-notch instructors: Bouchard at The Cooler, and Brian Daccord, the former Bruins goaltending coach who works with Cushing’s goalies.

Predictably, there was some culture shock last year when he entered Cushing as a sophomore. Not just the weather — “I’d never lived in the snow before,” he said — but the academics, which were far different than what he’d absorbed during three years of home-schooling.

With two seniors ahead of him in the pecking order, Hardy initially set his sights on becoming the No. 2. When he was given a chance, during a holiday tournament, he shined and won the starting job. He and his teammates lost just three times the rest of the way, advancing to the New England semifinals before losing to Berkshire.

“He was too good in practice that we had to put him in,” Gagnon said, “and when we put him in he was awesome.”

Hardy finished the season with a record of 15-3 and a save percentage of .911.

At 6-foot-4, he fills out most of the net and is still growing.

“It’s a lot harder to move on your knees; that’s what I’ve found out,” he said. “The smaller goalies have it a bit easier. But the size helps.”

Gagnon says he sees similarities to the 6-foot-1 Quick (see Page 50). Duplicating the success Quick has enjoyed, first at UMass and now in the NHL, where he was 18-7-1 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .933 save percentage at press time, may be asking a lot of Hardy, but everyone agrees his ceiling is a high one.

“I have the ability to compare the two as sophomores,” Gagnon said. “Very similar in terms of athletic ability and stopping pucks, but also that they both needed work with technique.”

The Atlanta-to-New England pipeline has expanded during Jacobs’ tenure. Danny Palumbo is a captain at Pomfret. Ty Leddy has the same role at St. Mark’s. Adam Patel at Choate, Jeremy Griffin at Lawrence, Hardy’s Cushing teammate Jake Butler … and the list goes on.

But Hardy may be the one who takes it the furthest.

“Chad’s a pretty special goaltender,” Jacobs said. “He’s not only huge and still growing, and very athletic, but he has incredible passion for the game, to train and try to get better.

“Bouchard loves him. He thinks he’s going to be a pro.”

Plenty to do before that, though. Cushing stood 5-1 as the holidays approached, with the only loss a competitive 3-2 one at The Gunnery. With games after New Year’s still on tap against schools such as Kimball Union and Phillips Andover, he’ll have plenty of chances to showcase himself.

“My dreams are to play professional hockey,” Hardy said. “Hopefully, I can play at a top Division 1 school and go from there.”

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com