You can practically smell the money during the NHL Entry Draft weekend. A premier event for the league second only to the Stanley Cup finals, there is no bigger reminder that this sport is nothing but big business, no matter how hockey purists — especially college hockey fans — like to wax poetic about how this sport, our sport, is different from the other Big Leagues.
Sure, there were 19 collegians, future collegians, and soon-to-be-ex-collegians chosen in the first and second rounds, and it was thrilling to see incoming freshmen picked Nos. 2 and 3.
So amidst all the jaded, cynical musings of journalists, agents, “friends of family,” and others in and about the game, Luca Cunti was a refreshing surprise.
The left winger from Zurich, Switzerland, picked No. 75 by Tampa Bay in the third round, told reporters, “I know I will come for sure to North America next year, but I am not sure yet where.”
When pressed, he said, “Perhaps college.”
Yes, this six-footer who had three goals and an assist for Team Switzerland in the World Junior Under-18 Championship this year, may be coming to a league near you.
“I need some education,” said Cunti. “I am talking to St. Cloud and Clarkson and a few others, but these two are now the most important. I just want to have some school, so I am thinking of school now.”
He said that we’ll know whether he goes pro or goes to school in “one or two weeks.” “It depends on what [Tampa Bay] will offer me, and then I will make a decision.”
Cunti said that college “was always” part of the plan. “Everything was open.”
Aside from the educational aspect of an NCAA commitment, Cunti said college hockey holds another appeal.
“In the Canadian league … it’s more games, but more games is also very difficult for me as a Swiss guy [who plays] only 30 or 40 games a year. It’s also harder because if you get injured, I won’t go to the NHL, and I don’t want to have [an] injury.”
When young hockey players are faced with the choice between college and major junior hockey, some are certain that the latter is the better place for them because of the perception that leagues like the Ontario Hockey League are the alleged fast track to the NHL, and some like the idea of simply playing more games per season than they can in the NCAA.
The first pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, American-born Patrick Kane, bucked Scotty Bowman’s advice and headed for the pros instead of college. But other first-rounders were always committed to the college path.
James vanRiemsdyk, chosen second overall by Philadelphia, is an incoming freshman for New Hampshire. “I pretty much had my mind set on going to college. I thought it would be the better route for me because it gives me time to get bigger and stronger.
“At a place like UNH, I was pretty confident in the coaching staff there to help me develop as a player. It was pretty much an easy decision in the end.”
Wisconsin-bound defenseman Ryan McDonagh, picked No. 12 overall by the Montreal Canadians, sees college as the means to two ends. “In the olden days you had to go to major junior if you wanted to get to the NHL. But now the college level is just as competitive if not more competitive, so as a player you can stay close to home and get an education as well.”
Draftee after draftee had similar feelings about the college route. “I had the option of going to the OHL, but I wanted to get an education for after hockey, something to fall back on,” said second-rounder Ted Ruth, a defenseman bound for Notre Dame.
“I’m an American kid and I’ve always liked the idea of college,” said Colby Cohen, who’s headed to Boston University after being selected in the second round by Colorado. “My mom went to Boston [University], so it’s just the perfect fit. I’m going to head there with the Avalanche first-round pick Kevin Shattenkirk. We’re rooming together, playing together.”
E.J. Maguire, head of the NHL’s Central Scouting, said that he sees college becoming even more of a feeder for the NHL than it is now. “The NCAA game benefits from that older, more mature player. The NHL teams, once they draft them, now have four years to watch a player play. They have those four years to not to have to extend a contract. If they pick a major junior player, the two-year clock starts ticking, and you have to tender a person a contract after two years.”
Peter McNab, assistant general manager of the Anaheim Ducks, has a slightly different take on the relationship between the NHL and the NCAA. McNab acknowledged that college can provide time for a young player to develop, but said that when it comes to top prospects, the NHL doesn’t always have the luxury of time.
“It’s just the way the system is now. When you have 27-year-olds [in] unrestricted free agency, if you let a kid stay in there until he’s 22 or 23, you may only own him for three or four years. It’s really hard. While NHL teams would like to keep the kids in college, the system now doesn’t allow them to keep them in college.”
McNab also said the idea that the NCAA has recently become more fertile ground for NHL organizations may be as much of a misconception that the OHL is the guaranteed faster track.
“I think it’s a situation where a lot of good players go to college hockey, so I don’t think the NHL is turning to college hockey as much as there are just a lot of good players in college hockey. The NHL goes to where the players are.
“I personally — maybe I’m against the norm — but I don’t think that all of a sudden they [NHL organizations] think the game is quicker or they think the game is any certain way.
“The [collegiate] coaching is better, the programs are better, the schools do a better job [of recruiting], and I think that they get a lot of good players.”
The battle with the pros is one that some colleges are losing with increasing frequency. Michigan head coach Red Berenson, in many ways a victim of his own success, has been a very vocal opponent of players leaving early to pursue professional careers.
Matt Rust, a defenseman heading to Michigan after being chosen by the Florida Panthers in the fourth round, sent his new coach a reassuring message. “I’m just excited to be playing for Michigan. I don’t have any future plans for leaving early.”
Maybe Luca Cunti can make George Roll or Bob Motzko as happy as Rust and incoming Michigan rookie draftees Louie Caporusso, Tristin Llewellyn, Max Pacioretty, Aaron Paushaj and Ben Winnett may eventually make Berenson … should they all remain in college.
To paraphrase Colby Cohen, going the NCAA route is as American as is making money.
And after all, Cunti — who plans on majoring in sports management or psychology — was born on the Fourth of July.