Sitting by his locker, Jim Popa tugs at the bill of a Culver Military Academy baseball cap. Stitched neatly across the back of the cap, in gold block letters, are the words CORNFIELD HOCKEY. It is a phrase the folks at this Indiana prep school have learned to embrace. "We're definitely not your typical hometown Hoosiers," says Popa, a senior from Massillon, Ohio. "When people hear about hockey being played out in the middle of a pasture somewhere, they're not sure what to expect."
What they should expect is a brand of hockey that's as competitive as any found in the traditional U.S. hockey hotbeds of New England or Minnesota. After beginning its program in 1975—at the urging of wealthy alum Jim Henderson, who wanted his sons to play the sport—Culver won so many state titles (seven) that the Eagles' A team was politely hip-checked out of the Indiana high school tournament in 1987. No matter. The B team took over and has won the last three state championships. In fact, Culver has so many talented hockey players that the only instate team its A squad plays is its B team. The rest of the A team's schedule features junior college, college jayvee and top prep school teams from across the country. As of March 5, the Eagles were 30-5-3 against such competition. That record includes victories at three holiday tournaments—the Ridley College, in Ontario, Canada; the Flood-Marr, in Massachusetts; and the Pepsi Puck, in Minneapolis.
"Culver is the best high school hockey team I've ever seen," says Skip Howey, coach of Trenton High, a perennial state title contender in Michigan. "We don't even play those guys anymore."
Initially hockey was not a popular idea in this hoops heartland. "Indiana is certainly a basketball state," says Culver coach Al Clark, who also chairs the school's mathematics department. "Basketball is part of the conversation at local breakfast spots. People here at school thought we could be putting the money to better use."
But winning and the celebrity it has brought to Culver seem to have soothed the skeptics, especially considering that before its hockey accomplishments the academy was best known as the alma mater of George Steinbrenner. Now hockey is the school's most popular sport, with 62 of the 392 male cadets participating this season on the A, B and jayvee teams. This season there were 25 Culver alums playing in major college programs and 12 Culver grads have been drafted by the NHL, most notably 1985-86 Rookie of the Year Gary Suter.
The Eagles' success is due in large part to Clark. A former University of New Hampshire left wing who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Clark was teaching math in Peterborough, Ont., when his old college coach, Charlie Holt, recommended him for the Culver job in 1975. "Initially it was tough," says Clark, 42. "Very few of the kids had any experience. We even had a few Latin Americans on that first team who had never seen ice before. We took them up to South Bend, bought them ice skates, and they learned to skate by clinging to the boards."
For the first couple of years Culver's rink was outdoors, so when the weather was warm, Clark would bus the boys to an indoor rink nearby. In colder weather, players often had to shovel snow off the ice so they could skate.
Clark believes the Eagles' program turned the corner in the late 1970s, when Skeeter Moore, a blue-chip prospect from Appleton, Wis., with family connections to Culver, enrolled. "Skeeter had a reputation around the Midwest," says Clark. "When quality players found out he was coming here, they began to show interest."
Today, most of Culver's players hail from within a two-line pass between Ohio and Missouri. If you want to play high-level high school hockey in the Midwest and receive a top-notch education, Culver's the answer. "It's no secret that for these boys hockey is the draw," says David Burkons, who drives 5½ hours each way from Shaker Heights, Ohio, on weekends to watch his 16-year-old son, Michael, play. "But it's the academics that sell the parents."
Among the toughest opponents Culver players must confront are all the stereotypes about them. To Easterners they're hicks; to Midwesterners, spoiled preppies; and to the rest of the world, military brats. During games the woofing can be downright creative, ranging from calls for a cadet to stand at attention while he readies for a face-off to demands that the players go home and plant crops.
To be sure, Culver, situated on 1,500 acres along the banks of Lake Maxinkuckee, 45 miles south of South Bend, is hardly John Mellencamp's vision of rural, working-class Indiana. For $16,200 a year, students can take advantage of a curriculum that includes courses in aviation (Culver has two private runways), equitation (the school's cavalry, the largest active unit in the U.S., has performed at every presidential inauguration since 1957) and sailing. The stone and brick facades make Culver more closely resemble a college campus than a military installation.
The coed student body (girls were first admitted in 1971) must wear uniforms and adhere to a daily regimen that begins with a cannon boom to signal reveille at 6:30 a.m. "When we're at airports, people think we're postal service workers or a male cheerleading squad," says assistant captain Ty Blakeborough. "But the uniform sure makes it easy getting dressed in the morning. You always know what you're going to wear."
Despite a softening that came when Culver severed ties with the armed forces last year to focus more of its energies on preparing its 648 students for college, student pet peeves still revolve around the school's "little rules" and the ensuing penalties that befall those who don't comply with them. Punishment can include an extra hour of study hall if you forget to open your curtains in the morning, an hour of marching if you fail to empty your trash can, or washing windows if you're caught in a dread PDA. For the uninitiated, that's Public Display of Affection.
Gathered around an oak table in the school's cavernous cafeteria, several hockey team members sip hot chocolate as black-and-white cardboard bovines are being tacked to the walls. Students are preparing for this evening's dance, one with a farm theme. Someone standing on a nearby balcony tests the sound system, turning up the volume on Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, an arrogant anthem to youth that expresses the essence of the Culver hockey team. "We're the gods on this campus," says senior captain Jason Helbing.
If so, then Helbing is Zeus. A slick-skating forward bound for his coach's alma mater, Helbing is third on the Eagles in scoring (19 goals and 30 assists) and first in PDA penalty minutes. "Last month I had to march for an hour with a rifle in a basement," says Helbing.
Not surprisingly, the mere mortals in the school sometimes have trouble relating to its gods. "Individually they're cool," says freshman Towne Redington. "But together, they can be a bunch of cocky pucks."
No doubt the team's private lexicon—in which pucks are referred to as biscuits, the net is an oven and sticks are lumber—contributes to the players' arrogant reputation. "Hair is salad," says junior forward Nick Lamia, he of the Luke Perry-styled greens.
The Culver administration continually attempts to dispel the notion that hockey players receive preferential treatment, but the A team's busy travel schedule—including a European junket every other year—and the attention its success brings make that position a hard sell. In his soil-spoken way, Clark has done his best to deflate some of the larger egos. Before an away game last season, when several of the Eagles' best players were only a few feet from the bus, Clark ordered the doors closed because the boys were two minutes late. "Coach Clark combines an incredible knowledge of the game with the ability to work well with people," says assistant coach Rich Holdeman, who graduated from Culver in '85. "He commands fantastic respect without ever having to raise his voice."
Like most good coaches, Clark realizes that these are kids and that hockey is only a game. He never lets things get too serious. Between periods of a recent game against the College of DuPage (Ill.), with Culver leading 1-0, Clark addressed his charges. "My advice to you guys is to score more goals," he said, with all the emotion of, well, a mathematics teacher.
Although Clark doesn't have enough time to coach all three teams, he does attend the B and jayvee games. "We've got a line out there on the jayvee team that our president refers to as our tripod line, because the players on it have to have three points touching the ice to stay up," says Clark. "But what's important is that they're out there trying."
With Clark preaching his hustling, clean-skating style of play, the Eagles should continue their winning ways. And those doubters? "We'll go on playing cornfield hockey, and people can call us farm boys or whatever they want," says Lamia. "We'll just win."
That won't be difficult as long as Culver keeps filling the oven with biscuits.