Monday, December 17, 2018 - Updated: 12:46 pm
Hockey is a big part of high school sophomore Justin Gibson’s life. So is his family and his faith. The Excel Hockey Academy meets all three priorities and may one day help him follow his brother to the NHL.
A partnership between North Catholic High School and the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex — the practice and training facility of the Pittsburgh Penguins — the academy prepares student athletes like Gibson for success in higher education while improving their hockey skills, speed and strength.
Classes are held at North Catholic until early afternoon, then players head to the nearby sports complex Monday through Thursday. Many are on teams that compete regionally and in Canada.
“I’d like to play for a Division I college or in a junior league,” said Gibson, a defenseman. “Right now I’m getting a good education and developing as a player.”
A member of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Parish in Whitehall, Gibson appreciates that his education includes religion class and attending Mass.
Away from school and the rink, he keeps close watch on his brother’s hockey career.
“John is definitely a role model and is always there for me if I need advice,” he said. “It’s been a hard journey for him at times.”
The starting goaltender for the Anaheim Ducks of the National Hockey League, John Gibson was once cut from his high school team, but didn’t get discouraged. There was no local program like Excel, so he left Pittsburgh for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
He played major junior hockey in Canada, went to the American Hockey League and made his NHL debut before his 21st birthday. Overcoming injuries, the older Gibson is now an All-Star goalie.
The Excel Hockey Academy is attracting national and international attention. Now in its second year, 54 student athletes participate, including three girls.
“We want to continue to grow North Catholic High School, offer a top academic program and help students excel,” said Dr. Glenn Buterbaugh, chairman of the school’s board of directors. His conversation with Penguins President David Morehouse helped to launch the academy.
North Catholic freshman Zach Hixon loves the experience, practicing alongside his older brother, Owen.
“It’s a really good learning opportunity, not only for the education and hockey, but also for skills like time management,” Zach said. “This is a really close group of kids, and everyone has a lot of fun together.”
“Many aspiring players in the Pittsburgh area were relocating to other parts of the country,” said Rich Hixon, Zach’s father, who is a member of the North Catholic board and vice president of facilities for the Penguins.
“Other players were home-schooled or in a cyber school,” he said. “This provides them with a traditional high school experience while getting ready for higher-level hockey if their skills continue to progress.”
Nearly two dozen players have moved to the Pittsburgh area to attend the academy, including sophomore Colby Saganiuk. He dreams of playing pro hockey like his grandfather, Rocky Saganiuk, a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Penguins from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s.
“We have some of the top coaches in the country,” Colby said. “I’m also getting a great education and meeting new friends outside of hockey.”
“We educate the entire person — their academic, social and emotional development,” said North Catholic Principal Luke Crawford. “We’re getting really positive feedback.”
Founded in 1939 in Pittsburgh’s Troy Hill neighborhood by Bishop Hugh Boyle and the Marianists, North Catholic High School is now in its fifth academic year in a state-of-the-art building in Cranberry Township. Enrollment has risen to 575 students, up from 199 in its final year in Pittsburgh. The current freshman class of 166 is its largest in more than two decades.
Rich Hixon reflected on the value of the hockey academy from his perspective as a father.
“It’s shaping them to be good students in a faith-based setting that helps to instill values,” he said. “They’re being prepared for life.”