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Prep Watch: Last line of defense

Matt Mahalak guards the net for the Culver Military Academy Eagles.

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Matt Mahalak guards the net for the Culver Military Academy Eagles.

As one of the top goalies available for this year’s Ontario League draft, Michigan native Matt Mahalak will be put under a lot of scrutiny by scouts. Will those inspections be tougher than the ones the netminder faces every day before most people have woken up? Not likely.

Mahalak currently attends the Culver Military Academy, a preparatory school in Indiana that has also produced NHL defensemen Ryan Suter and John-Michael Liles. And while the netminder isn’t training to become a soldier, he does have the regiment down.

“We do march,” he said. “There are inspections every day, we have a set uniform…we know the rules and we have to follow them.”

And one of those rules is getting up at 6:30 a.m. Fortunately for students, there’s no need for an alarm clock – the school has a cannon fired every morning instead. The ritual is repeated before dinner, as well.

“They shoot the cannon off at 6:30 a.m. and 6:15 p.m.,” Mahalak noted. “It’s a sign of respect. If you’re outside at the time, you stand at attention.”

The Michigander has quite a few options for his hockey future, one that will include some combination of Culver, the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP), the OHL or NCAA. But starting the journey at Culver was very important for a kid who wasn’t being challenged at his previous high school. Mahalak had already accelerated a grade and kept a 4.0 grade-point average.

“I never even did my homework,” he admitted.

With that in mind, Mahalak and his family scouted out Culver, which, for the promising goalkeeper, gave him the level of academics he needed, plus the opportunity to play a high level of hockey for the Eagles.

“What I like first is he’s a great kid,” said Culver coach Al Clark. On top of that, Mahalak gives the Eagles a strong presence in net.

“He squares up extremely well, challenges shooters and controls the puck,” Clark added. “He always seems to be in position.”

Technical aspects aside, what’s most intriguing about Mahalak is his demeanor. As has been thoroughly pointed out through the years, the personality of a goalie is very important, since the position requires so much of a mental edge and the ability to recover after a bad goal. In that sense, Mahalak seems quite prepared for the future.

“I’m a technical guy, but I don’t get rattled,” he said. “You can’t win every night, you can’t stop every shot, so I don’t worry about it. I just go with the flow.”

Mahalak still has a checklist of things to work on, though.

“Every single day I work on getting quicker, more flexible,” he said, adding watching game tape helps iron out flaws. “Whenever I make a mistake, I try to correct it.”

So far, it’s working. Culver plays a tough schedule, involving top Midwest schools such as Minnesota’s Academy of Holy Angels, tournaments hosted by Team Illinois and the Madison Capitols, not to mention their arch-rivals; prep school powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

“In my mind, it’s winning the series against Shattuck,” said Mahalak when asked which games he thinks will most be in the spotlight this season.

In the end, Mahalak’s future will likely be tied to a balance of education and hockey, the very reason he came to Culver in the first place.

“My goal is to make the NTDP, but I could stay at Culver for my senior year,” he pointed out before looking ahead to the year after that. “I enjoy working in the classroom, so college would be the best route, but I don’t want to close any doors.”

That’s an act he reserves for enemy shooters.

Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every Thursday, only on thehockeynews.com.

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