The second thing you notice is the ATM machine.
First, though, there is the shock of setting. Head out the Trans-Canada Highway toward the Alberta Foothills, turn right at Tractorland Inc., pass by a field of lassoing early-winter snow and behold:
This is where hockey now lives.
This is Edge School for Athletes, a 170,000 square-foot structure that includes two NHL-size rinks, two NBA-size basketball courts, dance studios, golf centre, sprint track, soccer fields, elite coaches in multiple disciplines, certified teachers, a resident sports psychologist and a full-time physiotherapist in the sports medicine section, a regular visit from the chiropractor and a cafeteria where the Pepsi machines glow brightly but hold nothing even remotely to do with debatable dietary habits.
This year, there are 315 youngsters registered at Edge School, which began in 1999 with only seven students, and today operates out of a new facility which has been assessed at $43-million. Two hundred of the students are in the hockey program, with dance being next most popular for the Grades 5 to 12 curriculum the school says revolves around the triple themes of academic, athletic and character.
Tuition costs $15,000, with additional costs for, say, the hockey program raising that annual fee up to $22,500 and as high as $27,500.
Even so, parents are disappointed when their youngster fails to be granted acceptance. Inquiries come in from around the country and even the world, to a point where the school hopes within three years to build a residence, bringing the cost of sending a youngster to Grade 5 roughly in line with having him or her attend an Ivy League college in the United States.
Edge School makes no apologies for the cost and claims one out of every five of its students gets some form of financial assistance.
"This," chief executive officer Cam Hodgson says, "is a major focus of the fundraising."
Hodgson, a former University of Calgary football player who had brief stays in the CFL and who ran Calgary's National Sports School prior to coming to Edge, concedes the cost of playing hockey has risen profoundly since Gordie Howe was given a pair of second-hand skates in Floral, Sask., and significantly since Wayne Gretzky skated on Walter's backyard rink in Brantford, Ont.
"Hockey is expensive," Hodgson says. "Is it too expensive? The last place that I worked with a lot of alpine skiers whose families were paying $25,000 a year for them to ski race before they had purchased equipment. Elite divers? The cost of pool time and elite coaching and travel – you're probably looking at over $20,000. Same in gymnastics and synchronized swimming.
"Sports is expensive."
It is also increasingly exclusive. Howe could have been a baseball star. Gretzky played lacrosse and ball. There is next-to-no cross-sport played at Edge, with the exception of some of the hockey players also liking golf.
"Go back even 20 years," Hodgson says, "and the number of kids involved in a wide variety of sports seems to have evolved into just one."
While he personally believes in the advantages a variety of games bring to each other, he says, in today's world, where on-ice training is only part of the regimen, "it's a challenge to fit that in while you're training in whatever sport you're dedicated to.
"In every sport now you get channelled at a young age. If you're a soccer player and you're showing promise, you're also playing indoor soccer through the winter. That's a family decision you have to make."
Because many of the children are so young, it is family who make most of the decisions concerning their time at Edge School. Hodgson says he encounters parents who want their child dedicated to one thing only, becoming an elite player, but "we try to bring balance."
There is the resident sports psychologist, and teacher mentoring groups exist to deal with issues beyond the playing field.
"The majority of parents want that balance," Hodgson says. "One of the statistics behind that is, 'How many are ever going to make the NHL?' What we're doing here is trying to have that education in place because every junior player is one injury or one concussion away from not playing. That's what we ask: 'What is Plan B?' We don't see ourselves as 'Plan B,' but as the preferred plan."
On concussions, the school is particularly careful. It does base-line testing with all players prior to the season, and the school is part of a larger concussion study with the University of Calgary. It also offers programs to other minor-hockey organizations but, Hodgson says, "It's not something a lot of people have taken us up on."
Despite such careful management of such injuries, Hodgson says, "We get a lot of push back from parents" who want their child back in the lineup as soon as possible."
Their fear, he says, is once a child "is off the treadmill he won't be able to get back on." The other youngsters will have moved on in skill. One of the hardest tasks, he says, is to "manage expectations" of parents.
Hockey director Andrew Boutilier, a Cape Breton native who joined Edge School earlier this year from Fort McMurray, Alta., where he was executive director of the junior Oil Barons hockey club, agrees with Hodgson that dealing with the parents who are paying such enormous fees can prove tricky. "Parents get it into their heads that if their kid isn't playing, their kid is losing stride."
Coming from a long family history of coal miners, Boutilier is only too aware of the exceptional costs of many of today's hockey programs.
"I don't think you can change the way it's gone," he says. "We certainly see it in the evolution of spring hockey. A parent gets it into their head that if they don't get into more hockey in spring, then the kid is likely losing strides and can't make it up. I think on those things you have an effect of kind of pricing yourself out of the game."
Boutilier prides himself on a "coach-to-develop" philosophy rather than a "coach-to-win" approach. He wants every player, girl and boy, to experience pressure situations rather than have specified players handle the high-pressure moments of power plays or penalty kills. Sometimes this, too, can cause push back from parents who not only see their child as the go-to player, but feel they are paying for it.
"As much as you coach kids, these days you have to coach parents," Boutilier says.
"You'll always have that in hockey. When you sign up and you pay for your membership there's a certain 'entitlement' that comes with that. And certainly a lot of expectation – especially in this environment. So you want to make sure that every kid is given an equal opportunity to have the highest training. I don't think that's an unfair expectation by any parent."
The thing is, it works, at least in this situation. The Edge School teams, boys and girls, are strong and competitive, and many of the students play at the highest levels for their age in area hockey associations.
Boutilier boasts his school can take a bantam house-league player and make him into a bantam AAA player.
"Absolutely," he says. "We've done it."
But, he cautions, it isn't automatic: "The kid still has to do the work. It can't be a drop-off and pick-up program. We're not in the game of selling hope."
Hodgson says the rise of "hockey academies" in Canada should be no surprise, as they have long enjoyed success in the United States. There, hockey registration is up, whereas in Canada in recent years, it has fallen.
There is a reason for that, the school's head believes.
"A lot of the thought behind that is that it is because hockey is tied to education in the United States," he says. "There are different outlets for a child to get in with and there's a bigger outlook at the end of it where it is still tied to education. You might get a [college] scholarship in that sport. And that's what we are trying to supply here with our students, an opportunity where, when they're done with us, eventually most of our kids, and particularly our girls, are heading into postsecondary education."
Not far from the fitness centre and the nutritious cafeteria and the striking ATM machine there is a wall filled with names of former students who have moved on from the Edge School program.
It is an intriguing parallel to the bronze plaque that sits proudly on the main street running through Kirkland Lake, the small northern Ontario town once renowned for sending its players on the NHL.
The Kirkland names – many of them legendary, such as Ted Lindsay and Dick Duff – petered out as the decades moved closer to the 21st century. Today, there are less youngsters playing organized hockey in all of Kirkland Lake than there are at the Edge School in Calgary.
In Kirkland, they pay $470 a year and parents can do volunteer work to get much of it back. Ice time is restricted and goes out in April. Those running the program – dedicated volunteers all – tell the parents none of the kids is likely to reach the NHL, but all can still enjoy the game.
At Edge School, where the ice is endless and forever, and where it costs the price of a college education to start Grade 5, the school's "Wall of Fame" is fast filling up with the names of those who have moved on to the NHL (Tyler Myers of Buffalo Sabres, Joe Colborne of the Toronto Maple Leafs system), major-junior hockey and, for both men and women, U.S. NCAA and other college teams.
As Andrew Boutilier says: "It works."
It is also the reality of elite minor hockey today.