Championing College Hockey

If you watched the 2003 NHL All-Star game, you couldn’t help but notice 22-year-old Dany Heatley flying up and down the ice, outperforming the field en route to a four-goal night and MVP honors. This dazzling show, along with his 89 points through 77 games, pushed journalists and fans alike to herald him as one of the most dynamic and thrilling players to touch steel to ice in recent years.

It may surprise you, then, to discover that this Atlanta Thrasher did not rise out of the dominant Canadian junior hockey clubs, nor was he trained in the quickly growing European leagues. Rather, the University of Wisconsin and NCAA boast Heatley as the latest sign that college hockey is more than capable of producing the sport’s finest athletes year in and year out.

The names are familiar by now: Tony Amonte (Boston University), Ed Belfour (North Dakota), John LeClair (Vermont), Brian Leetch (Boston College), Joe Nieuwendyk (Cornell), Doug Weight (Lake Superior). The list of great college products goes on, extending to every NHL team and encompassing more than 15 percent of active rosters.

But there’s key role players too, like Brian Gionta, John Madden and Jay Pandolfo, who just contributed to the New Jersey Devils’ Stanley Cup. Players that most organizations felt would not make it for various reasons.

It may seem like preaching to the converted, but in the crowded market for amateur hockey players, it’s worth remembering the benefits of college hockey.

“I watched [Steve] Sullivan out there, and he flies around at 100 miles an hour and pushes the pace hard,” said Mighty Ducks head coach Mike Babcock as he assessed the night’s competition. “That’s what [Colgate graduate] Andy McDonald does for us. I’m not trying to compare the two as far as overall skill level, because one guy’s been in the league a lot longer. But that kind of push is what Andy gives us. Andy sets the work ethic and the tone for our team.”

While McDonald continues to improve and impress in only his third year at the NHL level, Blackhawk Steve Poapst, another Colgate product, is just beginning to make a name for himself after spending nearly a decade in the minor leagues. The 34-year-old defenseman received a nomination for the 2003 Bill Masterson Trophey, an award granted to a player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

“It’s great,” said Chicago’s leader in average time on ice. “It’s for perseverance, and I guess I’m fit for that role. People here believe in the job that I can do. I’ve proved that I can do what I was brought here for, and that’s just continued on throughout the season.”

The fact remains that a majority of players arrive on the NHL scene from Canadian junior leagues such as the Western and Ontario Hockey Leagues. Players there quickly thrust themselves into a heavy schedule of competition that exposes them to the pressures of playing four games a week and provides them with a smoother transition to the stylistically similar professional level.

NCAA alumni recognize this whole-heartedly, and often admit that the transition from college to the pros is more difficult.

“It was hard for me during the first year or two to play twice as many games,” weighed in Anaheim’s Jason Krog as he cooled down following the team’s morning skate. “I was playing four games a week instead of two, and there was a lot more travel than I was used to. That’s one instance where juniors probably prepares you better for the pro game, but you learn to adjust.”

“It was a big jump,” added McDonald. “In college you practice all week and play on the weekend. In the NHL you’re increasing your schedule, and the talent pool that you’re playing against goes up dramatically. For me it took a year and a half of playing in the minors, getting called up, and being exposed to pro-level hockey before I made the adjustment.”

Yet, even while admitting the deficiencies associated with having a shorter schedule, players emerging from the college level believe that such a setup actually holds hidden benefits.

“The only disadvantage of college hockey is that you’re only playing forty or so games a year,” said former Maine defenseman Keith Carney. “But on the other hand you’re practicing every day. You’re still getting that quality time on the ice that you need to develop your game.”

“There are less games and less travel,” followed Ducks’ superstar and fellow Black Bear Paul Kariya, “so you are more able to work on your skills and in my case work on weight-lifting and getting stronger. I think in general when college athletes get to the NHL they are more physically prepared and they have a better training background.”

Colgate head coach Don Vaughan expounded upon this secret advantage to the weekend-based schedule inherent in NCAA hockey. In a quickly changing league where dancing with the puck often leaves you plastered against Plexiglas, players cannot fully develop stickhandling and a variety of other skills simply through game play.

“Just by the nature of our system, we’re practicing five days a week and playing two games,” said the Raiders coach. “If you look at our counterparts in Canada it’s probably the opposite of that. Most players develop in practice. Some of the best players in the NHL only possess the puck for seconds in a game. You’re not developing your skills if you only have the puck on your stick for a couple of seconds. So we’re developing our players in practice and, because of the nature of our system, it’s beneficial for them.”

The term ‘development’ lights up the eyes of any college graduate, and hockey players and coaches are no different. Many players who commit to competing at a university plan to spend all four years improving their game to a level they hope reaches the caliber needed in the NHL. College development, therefore, comes primarily and most notably in physical strength and a honing of skills.

“For me it was great, because I kind of matured late,” explained Blackhawk Mike Eastwood. “It got me stronger, better, and more prepared. When I went to college, I was only hopeful for a professional career. I wasn’t banking on it.”

The Western Michigan alum added, “It gives you the opportunity to develop. In this game a lot of things can go south on you in a hurry. So it’s a chance to get better over four years, without having to do it immediately. If you’re not getting better immediately when you’re 18 or 19 years old in juniors, it’s all over.”

Teammate and locker neighbor Poapst agreed.

“Some players aren’t ready to play juniors, and when they come out of juniors they’re not ready to play in the pros. So that little extra time to develop, especially physically, is important.”

McDonald, a Hobey Baker finalist in 2000 when he recorded 58 points and led Colgate to its first NCAA Tournament bid in 10 years, expressed his gratitude for the assets gained through four years at the college level.

“College gave me four years to develop, practice and get stronger,” explained the 5-foot-10 center. “Getting stronger and putting on weight was a big key. In college you can focus on skill development, and that’s a key for guys who go there.”

What assists college players in the future the most, however, and what undeniably stands as NCAA hockey’s biggest draw on young, aspiring athletes, rests with the education and character-building opportunities that a college or university provides.

“It’s a totally different lifestyle,” said Krog, a Hobey Baker winner himself and graduate of New Hampshire. “You have to deal with going to class four or five hours a day and fitting homework into your schedule. You learn a lot about time management, dealing with a hectic schedule, and setting your priorities. During the week you try to get your rest for games on the weekend, and you pick your times to go out and have fun.”

The education provided for student athletes gives them more than a conceptual background of Freud and Shakespeare. Maintaining focus both on scholastic and athletic goals enhances the maturation process and better prepares most of the young players for real world problems that lie ahead.

“You have to manage your time between going to school, practicing, and obviously studying,” said Carney, a 12-year veteran. “That time management goes a long way after your college career and into your years as a professional.”

“A lot of the guys coming out of college hockey have had a whole lot on their plate for four years,” explained Vaughan, who plays the role of both coach and educator every day. “In a lot of cases they’re more mature coming out as 22 or 23 as opposed to being 18. All that college provides is beneficial to stepping into the pro environment. With all the money that’s on the table now, I just think that our guys are better prepared to handle that lifestyle. As a result I think it helps you play better. You’re able to compartmentalize your life and know how to manage your day.”

Kariya added an entirely different spin, addressing the fact that making the NHL is no easy task and nothing in life is guaranteed.

“Having the education is important,” said the Ducks’ leading scorer, who in 1993 won the Hobey Baker award by amassing an astounding 100 points in just 39 games. “You’re not going to be playing hockey forever, and for some guys they can use those degrees to get jobs if their career kicks the can.”

So while the fast track to the big bucks of professional ice hockey may lie in Canadian or European junior leagues, the NCAA provides a benefit that the others cannot: security. The safety of a degree in one’s back pocket does not come at the price of quality hockey, either, as evidenced by the amazing talent consistently flowing from college teams across the nation.

“There are a lot of guys that are taking the college route now,” added Carney. “It’s very competitive, and there are a lot of good teams out there that help their kids grow. I would definitely lean towards the college route, because you can get an education and you’re able to get quality years of getting older and more mature.”

“For me it was a no-brainer,” Kariya concluded when asked why he opted to attend Maine. “I always wanted to go to college. College hockey is growing, hockey in general is growing, and I think it’s only going to get better.”