College hockey – the secret’s out

IIHF.com examines the academic path to the pros

30.11.2012
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In recent years the NCAA has produced NHL stars such as (clockwise from top left) Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Miller and Mike Cammalleri. Photos: Mika Kylmaniemi, Matthew Manor, Jeff Vinnick, Jani Rajamaki / HHOF-IIHF Images

ZURICH – Around the world, the next generation of pro talent is busy taking to the ice. While most of these players are cutting their teeth in Canadian junior or European leagues, U.S. collegiate hockey is making a bigger impact on the talent pool than ever before. IIHF.com checks into the collegiate game in a series of stories.

To Europeans, the NCAA is not a very common path to pro hockey. From a global perspective, collegiate hockey is still somewhat of a well-kept secret, although more and more international prospects are being made aware of this option.

But as more NHL players are being drawn from the college ranks, playing hockey in an environment where the emphasis is as much on being a student as being an athlete has become an attractive option.

In fact, college hockey has become one of the biggest suppliers of talent to the NHL, surpassing all of Europe. Not bad for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, once seen as a rather obscure source for hockey talent, home to only a handful of players that could be picked out by dedicated scouting.

But today’s NHL boasts former NCAA players like Mike Cammalleri, Hall Gill, Andy McDonald, Ryan Miller, Zach Parise, James Van Riemsdyk, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews. Miller, Parise, Toews and the now-retired Brian Rafalski were named to the 2010 Olympic All-Star Team.

More and more collegians returned to the old continent to pursue careers in some of the European pro leagues, if they didn’t make it to the NHL. Slovak Peter Sejna, now playing in the Swiss league, was awarded the Hobey Baker Award in 2003 (as the top collegiate player of the year).  

The numbers don’t lie. There were 301 former college players in the NHL in 2011-12, just over 30 per cent of the league. This is an increase of 34 per cent from ten years ago. The number of Europeans playing in the 2011-12 NHL season was 222.

There are certain prerequisites to playing for a college team, most notably academic. Prospective recruits must have graduated from high school and met a minimum score in standardized tests and GPA (Grade Point Average). This is of course one of the main reasons why college hockey has not been easily accessible to the masses, especially not Europeans as you have to study and do your exams in a foreign language.

But, if you are academically inclined, the benefits are huge, especially when it comes to life after hockey. College hockey offers players the unique opportunity to pursue a professional hockey career at the highest levels, while earning a college degree.

More than 85 per cent of college hockey players graduate with a college degree, which provides flexibility in a career that can oftentimes be very short, with few NHL players playing past their mid-30s.

College hockey is also played primarily on weekends to maximize class and study time. NCAA teams are allowed to play 34 games during the regular season, not including conference post-season tournaments and the NCAA tournament.

In essence, the major junior and college routes to the NHL offer different paths to the same goal. While the number of games is about half as much as in the CHL, this does allow players to train both on and off the ice through the season and build up their frame.

For a young player, the benefits of continued increases in strength, power and explosiveness year to year can help ease the transition to the NHL and cut short the amount of time he has to stay on farm teams.

"When you play college hockey, you build yourself up all week in practice, getting pumped up for the two games on the weekend, and by the end of the week you're a cannonball waiting to explode out of the gun,” said Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek, who played in college for Michigan.

The NHL might be out of business going into the New Year, and the labour conflict has already forced a cancellation of the popular Winter Classic (originally scheduled to take place at the University of Michigan stadium) , but fans will be able to get their hockey fix with a few NCAA games that illustrate the college game’s rising popularity among US hockey fans.

On Feb. 17, 2013, Soldier Field will play host to the inaugural Hockey City Classic – a doubleheader featuring Notre Dame vs. Miami (Ohio) and Minnesota vs. Wisconsin. The NCAA Frozen Four, Division I collegiate ice hockey’s championship semi-finals and final, will take place at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh in April.

"It [the consistent increase of NCAA graduates in the NHL] is a reflection of college hockey in general being so much stronger,” said NHLer and former Harvard player Dominic Moore. “The quality of players has gotten better and the powers that be are not afraid to give these players a chance.”

IIHF.com's college hockey series continues with two stories on how international players took the NCAA path:

Saturday: Sweden’s Viktor Stålberg: “College was my only real option”
Monday: Coach Peter Elander: “It’s the NHL of women’s hockey”

With files courtesy of collegehockeyinc.

ADAM STEISS


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