The Road Not Taken

If Scotty Bowman gave you career advice, would you take it?

The winningest coach in NHL history told one young man from Buffalo, N.Y., to play college hockey, but Patrick Kane — favored to be the top pick in the opening round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft — had other plans. With Boston University and the University of Michigan vying for the future pro star, Kane chose a third option.

Shooting a round of golf with Bowman in 2006 — “My dad’s cousin is good friends with him, and they golf at the same country club” — Kane said that Bowman extolled the benefits of higher education.

“I was in the decision process of where I was going to play this year,” said Kane, “and he offered me some advice, and I decided to go the other way.”

It takes a lot of chutzpah — or perhaps, just the right amount of talent — to ignore the advice of an NHL legend, but for Kane it came down to playing time. Kane had 62 goals and 83 assists for 145 points in 58 games for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in the 2006-07 season.

“Going to London, you can play regular-season playoffs, exhibition, World Juniors. I think I played up to 90 games this year,” said Kane. “That was a big reason I came.

“Also London is a Grade-A organization. So many stars come out of that organization, and they seem to be excelling today, so I thought that that was the right move for me.”

The number of games played and the idea that the OHL is the fast track to the NHL is the reason why American players opt for major junior hockey rather than the NCAA. Jeremy Smith, the top North American goaltender in this year’s draft and a native of Dearborn, Mich., who played 35 games for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers in 2006-07, said that playing in the OHL means quicker development for goalies.

“The OHL, I think it fits certain people,” said Smith. “As a goalie, I prefer to play 70-plus games instead of a 30-game season. Especially if you’re a freshman coming in, you never know when you’re going to play. You never if it’s going to be three years, or two years, or if you come in [as a] starter.”

But E.J. Maguire, the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting, said that when American players choose the OHL over the NCAA, the decision can hinge on more than just the potential of playing time.

“There are some kids who aren’t that good of a student,” said Maguire. “There are academic programs where you don’t have to be a premed student, so there’s a misconception out there that you’ve got to be a nuclear physicist [to play college hockey]. There are programs for everyone.”

Maguire, a SUNY Brockport alum, would like to see more young players give college a go, at either the Division I or the Division III levels. “It’s wonderfully competitive hockey, Division III, not only the elite Division III schools like the Middleburys and Colbys. I love it. I think our sport needs that. I think our sport needs the SUNYAC and conferences like it.

“I’m biased and prejudiced toward a good hockey program, a great experience with our great sport, and getting a teaching degree, getting a this and a that.”

Maguire said that while the Draft focuses on the more “elite” young players, he points to what he calls the “late bloomers,” the kids who may not be drafted but who have the choice between major juniors and NCAA hockey and opt for the latter, a decision that becomes key to their long-term success.

“God bless these [NCAA] coaches, because they would probably prefer to have a great 19-year-old than a great 18-year-old,” said Maguire. “There’s less of the immaturity problems. With the USHL and Canadian Provincial Hockey — where [first-rounder and future Badger] Kyle Turris played this year — with them becoming so good and so competitive, they’re getting just as good a player and a year more mature at 19 or even 20.”

One such player is Dartmouth goaltender Mike Divine, also from the Buffalo area. Divine played for the Buffalo Lightning of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League before attending an Ivy League college.

“He earned his way on to the starting goaltender. I’ll be self-deprecating about our sport a little bit. His business opportunities, for him to make it in hockey, he’ll probably have to start with an ECHL team and work his way up. But you know what? With a Dartmouth degree, if you’re single and can get by on $20,000 a year and having fun playing hockey, why not? The degree, when you’re 24, will be there.”

Some players, of course, aren’t courted by NCAA schools. Such was the case with Smith, who grew up in the Wolverines’ and Spartans’ back yards.

“Growing up in Detroit, you have so many great colleges — Michigan, Michigan State, Ferris State, Lake Superior. I mean, all of those are great colleges,” said Smith. “Growing up, not a lot of them showed interest in myself. I might have flown under the radar.”

Smith earned a silver medal with Team USA in the 2006 Under 18 Junior World Cup, was named USA Hockey’s 2007 Dave Peterson Goalie of the Year, and had a .923 save percentage for the 2006-07 OHL champion Whalers.

The colleges may not have come knocking, said Smith, but “the Whalers approached me and showed interest. They’ve given me an opportunity of a lifetime, to stay at home, to attend college — they’ve actually given me a school package. Next year, I’ll be attending U. of M. Dearborn.

“Actually, that will make me a Wolverine. I’m a Wolverine fan, and a Whaler at heart. I’ve been to Yost.”

Been to Yost. A Wolverine fan. But not a Wolverine. Not in any sense that it counts for the NCAA.