ACES Hockey Academy is a full-time, traditional school providing skill development to athletes balanced with rigorous academics, character development and community service. All photos courtesy of Aces Hockey Academy
For any child who has never skated or competed in organized hockey, jumping into the sport can be a challenge, especially if others his or her age have been participating for multiple years.
That’s what ACES Hockey Academy aims to change.
Opened in 2018, Littleton-based ACES provides a place for hockey players — from beginners to those with years of experience — to hone their skills. What makes ACES unique is when it offers the opportunity for those players to practice: during the school day. Beginning this school year, the academy added an academic option for hockey players, making it a full-time, traditional school striving to develop athletes balanced with rigorous academics, character development and community service. In fact, the name ACES is an acronym standing for Athletics, Character, Education and Service.
ACES Academy also differentiates itself from other hockey programs in Colorado with its focus on individual skill development.
“We provide a safe environment to develop (hockey skills) without the pressure of having to be on a team,” said Brooke Wilfley, the director of ACES Academy. “We cater to the beginners and to the elite athlete who can work on different things and be challenged outside of club hockey.”
Brooke Wilfley, one of the founders of ACES Hockey Academy. She is also the president and the head of the school.
It’s a concept Wilfley, a mother of five hockey-playing children, started working on with Mountain High Hockey years ago. Her goal was to make hockey more affordable and create an academy that combined schooling and hockey training.
Wilfley began searching for similar models as a template for her dream.
“We started looking at different models around North America,” Wilfley said.
It wasn’t long before the idea for ACES Academy was born. It became a reality thanks to partnerships with Denver-area schools, such as Aspen Academy.
Wilfley’s idea was to allow students at those partner schools to participate in ACES Academy training as an alternative to their regular physical education classes. They would fulfill their PE credit by attending ACES sessions at the Ice Ranch in Littleton, where they would participate in hockey skill development.
At the start, interest in the ACES program was mostly from middle school students who were beginners in the sport. But that didn’t alter the academy’s plan.
“There was really no program for that,” said Wilfley, who added that the goal for those first participants was to develop the skills needed to play high school hockey.
ACES Hockey Academy began by offering middle and high schoolers daytime skill-training opportunities that were substitutes for the students' physical education requirements.
Eventually ACES began partnering with high school hockey programs, providing the opportunity for those individual prep players to work on skill development during the school day.
Last season’s participants included some of the state’s more prominent high school programs, such as Cherry Creek and Regis Jesuit.
Having training in the daytime, when ice time is less expensive, helped keep ACES affordable, a fact not lost on Wilfley, who said she has received positive feedback from parents regarding the cost of attending the school and its training programs. (Contact with ACES Academy for program costs.)
With ACES’ skill development program attracting participants, Wilfley turned her attention toward creating the academy’s academic component. But it wasn’t going to be easy. Wilfley did not have the experience needed to run a school, so she leaned on Shaye Patterson to assist with opening ACES for the 2020-21 school year.
ACES Academy Director of Education Shaye Patterson.
The timing was key for Patterson, who has a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood and Primary Education from Ball State University and was a teacher for 10 years, according to ACES website.
While the COVID-19 pandemic had forced students in the public education system to attend school, either full time or part time, virtually, ACES allowed kids to learn in person. It was an idea that Patterson believed would be successful.
“My husband (Craig) and I had this idea proposed to us about what (ACES is) doing,” said Patterson, who is the academy’s director of education. “We believed in what hockey could do...and thought this would be a great option coming off of COVID.
“We took the bull by the horn and ran with it,” Patterson added.
When ACES Academy opened its doors this fall for its first academic year, 27 students walked in to begin school. They range from third graders to seventh graders.
“We knew there would be a lot of families that would benefit from (school) being in person,” Wilfley said. “We provided a chance (for kids) to go to school and develop their skills while giving kids a chance to try this sport.”
ACES Hockey Academy begin its first year of academic programming this fall with in-person learning for third through seventh graders. Class sizes are capped at nine, and students and staff adhere to strict COVID-19 safety guidelines.
ACES is committed to keeping its students safe from COVID-19 while attending classes, including scheduling times for students to wash their hands and conducting a deep clean of the facility every night, Patterson said.
Capping class sizes at nine students, which follows state guidelines, is another strategy for keeping students safe, but it also aligns with ACES Academy’s philosophy that smaller class sizes are better for the students. Fewer students means it takes less time to complete the academic day. Thus, students spend half the day doing schoolwork and the other half on hockey skill and personal development.
The hockey portion includes on- and off-ice training, as well as other electives, while personal development focuses on leadership and service.
The service component is generally done on Fridays. This fall, the academy elected to donate ice time to three adaptive sports programs in the state. The students will volunteer their time by helping run practices in October for a blind hockey team, a sled hockey team and a Halloween event put on by Special Olympics.
“We try to be consistent with our character traits throughout everything we do here,” Patterson said. “It simplifies what we do. Everything here is done across the curriculum.”
Despite still being in its infancy, ACES Academy has plans to grow, and interest in the academy has been so high that there is now a waiting list for students wanting to enroll. But that won’t change the academy’s goal, Wilfley said.
“Our vision is to keep our heads down and keep going,” Wilfley said. “We want to keep providing and catering to those who need help. We want to make sure we contribute to the overall growth of Colorado hockey.”
Aces Academy students spend half their day completing their schoolwork and the other half on hockey skill and personal development.
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