Alexander Hester, a sixteen year-old hockey player from Waskaganish, is off to a fast start this season. But that fast start has not only been on the ice, it has also been in the classroom. Hester is one of over 1200 young hockey players who are part of the Quebec Ministry of Education’s Sport-études Program.

The Sport-études Program is designed to assist student-athletes continue their athletic development at an elite level while continuing to achieve at a high level in the high school classroom. While Sport-études programs are available for student-athletes in a number of sports, the largest group of athletes participating is hockey players.

The Sport-études Program works as a partnership between sports federations, local school boards and the Quebec Ministry of Education. In the case of hockey, the athlete is first required to try out and make the team. Once the player makes the team, the hockey club, with the assistance of the local hockey federation and Hockey Quebec, works with an area school to develop a curriculum and timetable for the student. The tailored curriculum and timetable enables the student-athlete to participate in a rigorous training, practice and game schedule while still leaving sufficient free time for the student to continue being a teenager.

For young Alexander Hester, this has meant leaving his home and family in Waskaganish to spend the school year in Amos, Quebec, where he attends school at the Polyvalent de la Forêt, while playing Midget AAA hockey with the Amos Forestiers.

“To play Midget AAA, you need to be going to school,” said Gilles Beaumier, General Manager of the Amos Forestiers. “The players have a rigorous program. Each week, the team plays two games and take part in about twenty hours of practice. The rest of the time, the players are in school and if you do not have passing grades in school, you cannot practice.”

Because Sport-études programs are often suited to meet the individual needs of the student-athlete, the programs are only available in schools where the necessary resources are available and then only when there is a sufficient number of student participants to make the program financially viable.

“Typically, the minimum number of student-athletes required for a Sport-études program to be started is twenty-five,” said Jacques Blouin, a Sport-études program administrator with Hockey Quebec. “Every student in the program has tutors and teachers available to them to help them with everyday school work. In the case of First Nation students, language issues can arise if their French is not strong. In those cases, it is important for language tutors to be available so that the student can keep up.”

Alexander’s father, Charles Hester agrees.

“Sport-études is an excellent program. But it requires a big commitment by the student,” said Charles Hester, Director of Recreation in Waskaganish and father of six children, three of whom have been involved in the Sport-études Program. “For many Cree kids, French is their third language. There are a lot of advantages to learning a third language, but when you go to a French high school for the first time, it can be very hard.”

“Alex Hester is not the first Cree player we have seen,” said Beaumier. “His brother Brett played with us and we had two other Cree kids in the Sport-études program last year. It is a good chance for the kids. We speak French on the ice and when the kids make the effort in French we see big changes.”

Sport-études, a unique concept in Canadian education, has proven to be successful with 92% of program participants passing their classroom courses last season; 22% above the provincial average.

“It is the best academic option for young hockey players to succeed. The workload is heavy but it is also designed so that the student can have a social life. There are no practices at night, so students can study or spend time with their family or friends or even have a girlfriend,” added Blouin jokingly.

While Sport-études programs are available in regions across Quebec, there are currently no programs available in any Cree communities. The biggest obstacle to the development of such programs in Cree communities is the absence of elite level hockey teams and other sports organizations. In addition, most Cree schools do not currently have the resources required to run a program.

“One of the big adjustments for Alexander going to Amos was adjusting to the big school,” explained Charles. “When the school in Amos has more students than the whole population of Waskaganish, that can have an impact on a kid who has not spent much time away from home.”

But that has not stopped efforts to develop a Cree-made Sport-études style program. Charles Hester, who has a strong track record of developing sports-oriented youth programs, including a hockey camp this past July that featured member of the Boston Bruins, is working on a concept called Sports Academy.

“We are talking with the school in Waskaganish about developing a program that marries sport with studies,” explained Charles. “The idea is to use something that kids love to inspire them to do more school work.”

In the case of Waskaganish, the launch of Sports Academy would coincide with the opening of the town’s new hockey arena, scheduled in late 2012. The arena will enable young athletes to train and play at a number of sports.

“The new arena is a big investment, “ said Charles. “We will be fortunate to have such a facility but we need to come up with creative ways to use the facility instead of letting it sit empty every afternoon.”

Planning for the Sports Academy is still in the early stages and has not yet been presented to the Cree School Board for approval. However, if Charles Hester’s experience guiding his sons through their Sport-études programs and with the support of School boards and nearby hockey federations, the Sports Academy may one day represent a sports/study model that school boards and sports federations across the country will seek to emulate.