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 5� 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.