A Leap of Faith Led To Top-Level Hockey Program
Two months into the hockey season there is an unlikely candidate knocking on the door of the top 10 of the ultra competitive 18UAAA My Hockey Rankings.
Glancing down the list you see the usual cast of characters who have made residence in the top 10 an annual thing. However, get to No. 11 and you’ll find the upstart NorthStar Christian Academy (NCA), which also happens to be the only undefeated 18U AAA team in the country.
NCA’s 25-0 record and No. 11 national ranking are almost as unlikely as the story of how it came to exist. The roots of the Knights program lie with a U.S. Military Academy graduate and former Ranger named Rick Randazzo, his wife Shannan, their five kids and a huge leap of faith.
A multi-million-dollar facility built in windswept, west central Minnesota, where Christian student-athletes – or at least those interested and willing to give that lifestyle a try – is not a recipe that had been previously attempted in the building of a high-level hockey program.
One doesn’t have to be around Randazzo very long to understand that grass will never grow under his feet. He views obstacles only as opportunities. A high-tempo personality, Randazzo played college hockey for USMA from 1989-93, after which he completed his six-year hitch as an active duty officer.
Once out of the Army, he and Shannan settled into a standard family process. Rick was a sales executive for a technology company but kept his hand in the sport as head coach of the U.S. Naval Academy’s club team for eight years.
At one point, when the Naval Academy was seriously considering a jump to NCAA Division I ice hockey, Randazzo figured that might be his next career path. “My hope was my software company would sell, and as Navy went to NCAA Division I I would have a buyout and make the jump to full-time Division I hockey coach.”
As most hockey followers know, Navy ended up not elevating ice hockey to a varsity sport but opportunity came knocking from another direction.
By 2008 Randazzo had left coaching and moved his young-and-growing family to Raleigh, N.C. “Someone called me from Kansas City (from the national headquarters of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and said they would love to talk to me about starting FCA Hockey,” said Randazzo. “I had done some FCA stuff when coaching at Navy and when I played at Army so I had experience with (FCA).”
With the urging and support of his wife, Randazzo agreed to start FCA Hockey. “They said we have no money, no logo, no resources. We just have your name,” he said. “They offered me the opportunity to start the ministry and take it where it needs to go. I had a clean slate. We had been praying about what’s next. We thought we wanted to stay involved in hockey and do something to impact lives. This presented itself as an amazing opportunity. I accepted in May of 2008 and we started doing clinics that summer at the Naval Academy, Chicago, Fargo … we just starting right in.”
The “no money” part of the equation led to some additional sleuthing by this reporter, given Randazzo’s growing family. “By that time my company had been bought out (by a bigger company) and I got a buyout. The funding (of FCA Hockey) was solely put on us so I was able to use my (free) time and some of the buyout money to self-fund. That’s how we were able to the free camps and clinics. That allowed me to do the ministry and meet people without having to ask everyone for funding right away.”
At the time FCA had about 12 sport-specific ministries including lacrosse, golf, baseball, softball, wrestling, cheerleading, skateboarding and surfing. FCA had been around since 1954 and built its ministry on four pillars according to Randazzo -- camps, campus, community and coaches. “Basically, what I did was say, ‘How can we do all of these?’ Then set out to build the program by that (roadmap).”
After two years Randazzo had the momentum going in the right direction and he was able and willing to start funding the FCA Hockey programs from sources outside of his own pocket. He did such a good job he was asked to interview for a vice-president role at the national level. Initially he resisted but eventually he went to Kansas City for the interview.
“I walked out of that interview (in early 2010) and was told that it was one of the best they had. They told me, 'Tell Shannan to get the house ready to sell,'” said Randazzo. He went home and prepped for the move and a new career path, but the phone didn't ring for a long time, and when it did he had been rejected for the position.
A couple days after the call, Shannan – despite having a primary role of caring for and home-schooling four children – wrote out a new game plan for FCA Hockey. “She was the one who came up with the 50-state tour. We were to start in Maine in August 2011.” The tour involved the Randazzo family packing up themselves and spending a month in all 50 states teaching hockey and bringing ministry to the hockey community.
Doing the math, that’s committing to a little more than four years of packing up your family and moving every month, in addition to planning and executing the camps, clinics and other ministry-related activities along the way. And again, the fundraising process that goes with all of it.
As an added bonus, Rick and Shannan welcomed a fifth child into the world in 2011, so instead of a traveling party of six it became a party of seven including a newborn (see earlier paragraph regarding obstacles being viewed as opportunities).
“It was crazy and it was hard,” said Randazzo. “Some months we had to move multiple times because housing fell through. It was such a step of faith. As we continued state to state it was survival. There wasn’t a whole lot of looking out to the future.”
At some point during the 50-state tour the NCA became an idea. In typical Randazzo fashion it didn’t take long for it to become an opportunity. “We had inquiries about setting up an academy,” said Randazzo. “I remember meeting with Cliff Benson (then-COO of Buffalo Sabres) when they were building the HarborCenter. They were in the market of looking for tenants, for people to come there and be part of their program.”
A few years into the 50-state tour, while doing a camp in Alexandria, Minn., Randazzo met with a couple families who were interested in starting a Christian school. They asked if FCA Hockey would be interested in having a part of the school. “They saw the impact we were having,” said Randazzo. “At that point we started talking more seriously about what we were going to do when the (50-state tour) ended.”
As the tour wound down a couple more potential academy host sites jumped into the mix and there was a formal bid process that ultimately settled on Alexandria. The first thing the Northstar Christian Academy Board of Directors did was purchase 40 acres of land next to the new Alexandria public high school.
A partnership with the public high school didn’t materialize, so Randazzo and company moved quickly to the next phase – building a 70,000 square foot sports complex with an indoor sheet of ice, an indoor field house, a shooting bay, off-ice training facilities and more.
“It was an incredible one-year project,” said Randazzo. “It was designed, funded and built that quickly and we are so blown away how well it turned out. The majority (of the cost) was raised through a small group of Christian businessmen and families, then it branched out to other community members. It was an awesome experience.”
By September of 2018 the inaugural NCA team was assembled and ready to hit the classroom the ice. The competitive product was about what Randazzo expected. “I knew we’d be competitive because during the summers we would always take players to Boston for the Chowder Cup and play in Minnesota tournaments and our teams were pretty good. We got some really high-end players to play with us and they said it would be great if we had a team. I never thought about having a nationally ranked team with players who are drafted into the USHL, NAHL or NHL as a goal. Our goal is to create an environment where a player can grow hockey wise and spiritually, and be a really special place for them to grow as young men.”
While not winning games, the students are all enrolled with online learning institutions during their time at NSA. They are helped through their studies by two full-time proctors who offer individual attention. The players also have chapel each morning at 7:00 in addition to three hours of ice each day split between morning and afternoon ice slots. Like other 18U AAA programs they have extensive travel and tournament play, including membership in the North American Prospects Hockey League. They were just moved into the Tier I division of the NAPHL from the Prep division because of their on-ice success.
Like other programs, the recruiting trail is a year-round thing but with the added twist of ensuring the religious lifestyle will be a match. It’s not a requirement to be a Christian, according to Randazzo. “We’ll get emails from a player saying, ‘I’m a Christian and I’d love to come and grow my faith’ and others say ‘I’m not really a Christian but I’d love to hear more about it.’ We have players who are very open about their faith walk but they don’t have to be. Our faith component is a third of what we have here. It’s also 1/3 academics and 1/3 athletics.
The final pillar of the NCA program – coaches – is a real home run for any level, much less 18U AAA. Longtime professional head coach and general manager John Olver is a former University of Michigan player who is approaching his 40th year as a Junior and professional head coach. Tim Jackman is North Dakota native who played in the USHL, collegiately for Minnesota State-Mankato and donned a NHL jersey for 483 of his 912 professional games. Gary Steffes is a Michigan native who played four years at Miami University (Ohio) before embarking on a 482-game career in the minor professional ranks. They also welcomed Bobby Robins, a former UMass-Lowell player who played 9 years of professional hockey around the world, including a brief stint with the Boston Bruins.
The staff is bolstered as they are adding a 16UAAA team next year. Despite their backgrounds, Randazzo is aware that a big component of any academy program is recruiting. “Just because they are pros doesn’t mean they can recruit,” he said.
In the meantime, the Knights will continue to roll though the season and Randazzo and his staff will continue to move the program forward one step at a time. Just don't be surprised when the steps are really big.
Jeff Nygaard is the editor of The Junior Hockey Podcast. He covers Junior and college-bound hockey as a traditional “beat,” in addition to breaking news stories during the course of the year
He has a vast amount of experience on the business and organizational side of the sport as a former owner-operator of two Junior organizations two youth clubs and having served as executive director or commissioner of the Eastern Hockey League and the United States Premier Hockey League.
A Fergus Falls, Minn., native, Nygaard grew up playing for the Fergus Falls Youth Hockey Association, Fergus Falls High School, Fergus Falls Community College and North Dakota State University programs. He can be reached at email@example.com for questions, story ideas and anonymous tips.