This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 7, 2010

Happy Golden New Year!

What a week this has been for hockey in the United States, and what a way to kick off 2010. Congratulations to Team USA for a thrilling overtime gold-medal victory over Canada Jan. 5. What a game. What a tournament. What a bright glimpse into the future of American hockey.

Congratulations to all the U.S. collegians on the team: Matt Donovan (DU), Jerry D’Amigo (RPI), Jake Gardiner (UW), Chris Kreider (BC), Danny Kristo (UND), Mike Lee (SCSU), Kyle Palmieri (ND), John Ramage (UW), Jordan Schroeder (Minnesota), Derek Stepan (UW) and David Warsofsky (BU).

Congratulations also to the coaching staff of Dean Blais, Joe Exter, Mark Osiecki and Tom Ward. It’s thrilling that a current CCHA head coach was the driving force behind the team that broke Canada’s five-year stranglehold on the gold medal. Exter is the former Merrimack goaltender who overcame a fractured skull to return to hockey as a player and coach. Osiecki is an assistant at Wisconsin; Ward the director of hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota.

It just doesn’t get any more American than that.

Congratulations, too, to the U.S. U-17 team, which also captured gold this week by defeating Canada-Ontario.

Not Even Close to a Silver Lining

There were several players on both the U.S. and Canadian teams who were impossible not to watch. D’Amigo was one of them, as was Kristo. I liked Palmieri’s contributions — solid and often understated — and not just because I’m a CCHA homer.

The one player, however, who impressed me the most was 17-year-old Jack Campbell, the goaltender from Port Huron, Mich., who was in net when John Carlson scored the game-winner at 4:31 in OT. Campbell was excellent in Team USA’s first game against Canada, which resulted in Canada’s shootout victory, and he was superb in relief of Lee, who allowed the first three goals of the gold-medal game.

Campbell was also the goaltender who earned a shutout in the gold medal game of the 2009 U-18 tournament, when the U.S. beat Russia, 5-0.

Campbell, a product of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, was also the guy who was supposed to join Michigan in the 2010-11 season.

It became clear last fall that something was afoot with Campbell. When the rest of the UM recruits signed their letters of intent, Campbell did not. Then in late November, the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) announced that Campbell decided to forgo his college education — he had been offered a full ride at UM — by signing with the Spitfires.

Instead of playing for the Maize and Blue next season, he’ll be playing for the green — or rather, the loonies and twonies — 75 kilometers to the east.

In the Spitfires’ release dated Nov. 25, Campbell said the decision was a difficult one. I hate to think of a young kid exaggerating the truth, but how difficult could the decision have been with coaching from current Spitfires Cam Fowler and Kenny Ryan?

Fowler is the defenseman that had committed to Notre Dame as a scholarship player when he was just 15 years old. In mid-November 2009, Fowler told the Irish that the deal was off. The Farmington Hills, Mich., native said that he listened to his family and “advisors” to make his decision. He’s expected to be a first-round pick in this year’s NHL entry draft.

Ryan, a second-round pick of Toronto in 2009, walked away from Boston College Oct. 15, 2009, less than a month after his rookie season had begun. Ryan’s departure took BC coach Jerry York completely by surprise and prompted Spitfires vice president Warren Rychel to comment to The Windsor Star that the situation was “interesting” and that the Spitfires had “no comment.”

(In 24 games this season, Ryan has six goals and 10 assists, requiring no comment whatsoever.)

What Campbell, Fowler and Ryan have in common — aside from a lack of life experience, expectations of ease and entitlement currently endemic among young Americans and an excess of advisors — is an alarming proximity to the OHL. Campbell’s hometown of Port Huron is literally across the river from Ontario and 65 miles from Windsor. Fowler’s hometown of Farmington Hills is a suburb of Detroit and 26 miles from Windsor; Ryan is from Franklin, a stone’s throw from Farmington and 23 miles from all that Windsor apparently has to offer.

It’s fairly certain that Austin Czarnik, a forward from Washington, Mich. (distance to Windsor: 37 miles), will go from high school to no school soon enough. Czarnik, who plays with the NTDP, had committed to Michigan State for 2011-12 but withdrew that commitment in the fall of 2009. He was drafted by the Spitfires, by the way.

Of course, Wolverine fans know the pain of losing players early, as the success of that program does draw a lot of attention. Robbie Czarnik, Austin’s cousin, left UM this season for another OHL team, the Plymouth Whalers. Plymouth’s location — 38 miles west of Czarnik’s hometown of Roseville, Mich. — is far more convenient for his family and advisors, who don’t need to cross an international boundary to reap the benefits of his decision.

These are just a few of the examples of the excellent talent U.S. colleges are losing in battle to the OHL. Oh, yes, it’s a U.S.-Canadian border war. The OHL fired the first shots and has been waging an active campaign ever since. And we are losing so many that it’s hard to keep up.

The OHL is actively targeting and aggressively pursuing top U.S. (and Canadian) players who have committed to NCAA teams or who are likely to do so. In this war, the OHL is promising what it calls “The Best of Both Worlds,” an allegedly faster track to the NHL and the opportunity to go to college, paid. After all, why should young men with talent be bothered with the requirement to go to college while playing hockey when money can be had for an education in the abstract of the future? The OHL commits to providing one year of post-secondary education for every year a player plays in its league, in theory. The players live the hockey life now and return to school later. In theory.

It’s nice, in theory. The problem is that it doesn’t always work this way. According to Jeff Hicks’ Dec. 17, 2009, article in The, an Ontario-based online newspaper, the OHL is having to pay out for players’ education at a rate of about 18 percent, and Hicks writes that many players never will be able to take advantage of “The Best of Both Worlds” because of injury and many eligibility requirements in their contracts.

Hicks also asserts — rightly so — that the OHL is counting on star players like Fowler to abstain from tapping into the education package, which theoretically could cost the league and various NHL teams many millions of dollars should every eligible player take advantage of the promised funds.

Not surprisingly, Joe Birch, the OHL’s director of recruitment and education services, disputes Hicks’ findings; however, he did concede to Hicks that “very, very few” current OHL players are enrolled in college.

Last November, the NCAA hired Paul Kelly, a 1977 BC grad and the former executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, to serve as the executive director of College Hockey, Inc., an entity designed to engage in battle directly with the Canadian major junior leagues for NCAA-eligible players. Wednesday, former Brown player, Kevin Lovitt (1977-1981), joined College Hockey, Inc., as its senior director of business affairs.

In an article by Roy MacGregor this week in the online version of The Globe and Mail, the former head of the Canada Safety Council Emile Therien, who played hockey for St. Lawrence from 1964 to 1966, was quoted as saying that young men would benefit more by playing hockey for NCAA schools than they would by going the Canadian major junior route.

Obviously, Team USA’s gold medal victory over Canada has triggered a debate that has been too long quiet on this side of the border. While I’m happy for all of the players on Team USA, I would have liked to have been able to congratulate collegians A.J. Jenks, Jeremy Morin, Philip McRae as well. I can’t because all three opted for the OHL, all before they were old enough to vote. Morin and McRae are veterans of the NTDP.

Jenks committed to Michigan but instead went to the Plymouth Whalers. He’s in his fourth season with the Whalers, where he’s been since 2006-07. That’s some fast track.

At least he’s closer to home in Plymouth. Jenks is from Wolverine Lake, Mich., a mere 20 miles from Plymouth. Sure beats the 38-mile trip from Wolverine Lake to Ann Arbor.

New Year, New Season

I love how hockey players and coaches sometimes refer to the second half of the college season as a new season. I love it because they do the same of the playoffs.

This kind of optimism, this unwavering faith in the potential, is addictive. After hearing Red Berenson profess his faith in junior goaltender Bryan Hogan after Michigan’s 5-3 victory over Michigan Tech in that tournament’s consolation game Dec. 30, I too became a believer. After all, the days do get longer in January, and we in Michigan haven’t yet tired of the snow.

What I mean to say is that, well, it isn’t March yet.

With this dizzying optimism, many people make resolutions at the beginning of the year, and sports writers are fond of providing resolutions for the teams they cover. Instead of making resolutions — so boring, so predictable, so unattainable — I thought this week would be a good time to look at a few things that holiday hockey taught us.

Red Berenson Is a Loyal Man

I admire Berenson for his public loyalty to his players he perceives as working hard. He’s the first to call a guy out when said guy is slacking, but he’s also the last to stand by a man who needs a little support. Such is the case with Hogan, whose current numbers (2.35 goals-against average, .898 save percentage) and inconsistency are not going to get Michigan to Joe Louis Arena in March, let alone the NCAA tournament.

“Hoagy’s our goalie, and he’s good,” said Berenson, shooting a look at certain members of the press after UM’s 5-3 win over Michigan Tech in the GLI consolation game.

I don’t dispute that he can be. Toward the end of the first half of the season, Hogan stopped fighting the puck so much and began to possess his space better. He stopped leaving so much real estate between himself and the net when he played the puck. His concentration seemed better.

In UM’s 4-3 loss to Rensselaer in its first game at the GLI, Hogan fought the puck, showed a lot of real estate, seemed to have trouble concentrating. He gave up three goals on nine shots before being replaced by Shawn Hunwick, who stopped one of the four shots he faced in his first action since the 2008-09 season.

The next night was better for Hogan, who stopped 20 of 23 in the win. The Wolverines outshot opponents 91-36 in the GLI.

The Quantum Bulldog Theory of Badger Showdown, Busted

In 2003-04, the Ferris State Bulldogs went 15-20-3 overall. Two of their wins came in the Badger Showdown, where they beat the hosts to win the title.

In 2004-05, with a record of 13-22-4, the Bulldogs did it again.

Imagine my giddiness when I learned that the Bulldogs would participate in this year’s Showdown as well, what would (sadly) turn out to be the last holiday tournament hosted by Wisconsin.

Imagine my dismay, then, when FSU let me down, losing 6-1 to Yale in the opening round, allowing four third-period goals in the process.

It was Denny Kearney’s power-play goal early in the third, when the Bulldogs were down 2-1, that changed the game, said Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels, who said he was “disappointed” in FSU’s “response to that goal.” Three goals later, I can see why.

That FSU went on to beat Merrimack 5-1 the following day is no consolation.

Fire Rick Comley!

OK, I’m kidding. It’s funny because I received so many e-mails from MSU fans early in Comley’s tenure in East Lansing, demanding his demise. Then a win in April 2007 silenced his detractors.

Until last season. Sure, the 2008-09 Michigan State season was painful — literally. (It’s officially called “The Year of the Glass Shoulder” now in MSU hockey yearbooks. You should look it up.)

Last season, the Spartans managed all of 62 total goals. MSU surpassed that total en route to the GLI championship, a two-game series in which 13 different Spartans scored a total of 16 goals.

That’s four more goals than MSU scored in the entire month of November 2008.

And the Spartans were the first team in the country to reach 14 wins this season. I guess that means that last year was the anomaly, and we can keep Comley for a while.

Under the Radar

Lake Superior State has quietly put together a pretty good first half. With two wins over Robert Morris last weekend, the Lakers extended their win streak to six and their unbeaten streak to eight.

They are fifth in the CCHA right now, but their second-half schedule includes Miami, Michigan State, Ferris State and Alaska — the four teams ahead of LSSU.

Some Things Are Obvious

Western Michigan needs something to break — offensively speaking. The Broncos’ scoring offense is No. 54 in the country, averaging 2.10 goals per game.

In three of their last four games, however, the Broncos would have loved those two little goals. After being shut out at home twice by Bemidji State last weekend — an 0-0 OT tie and a 3-0 loss — the Broncos have now scored three goals in their last four contests dating back to Dec. 11, when they were blanked 3-0 by Ferris State. WMU has been shut out four times this season.

A Second-Half Team?

Northern Michigan has a very interesting relationship with the second half of the season. Much of that — and this is just a theory, mind you — is tied to senior goaltender Brian Stewart, who comes alive in the home stretch.

Last weekend, the Wildcats captured the Dodge Holiday Classic in Minneapolis, beating Clarkson 4-0 and Minnesota 4-2. NMU ended the first half of the season with a 2-1 win over Michigan Tech. In those three games (obviously), the ‘Cats allowed just three goals. Stewart was in net for all three wins.

In their two-game series against LSSU to end the first half of the season, the Wildcats allowed 11 goals. Six of those belonged to Stewart, two to Reid Ellingson in relief of Stewart in the second game and three were empty-netters.

Last season, NMU had four wins at the midseason break and ended up with a 19-17-5 record. In 2007-08, the Wildcats had seven wins after the first half and were 20-20-4 at the end of it all.

Before this season’s break, Northern Michigan had seven wins and it now rides a three-game win streak into Tuesday’s game against Michigan Tech.

I’m not sure what’s at work here other than Stewart. I’m just saying that it will be interesting to watch.

Not Exactly the Rodney Dangerfields of College Hockey, but …

In the last poll before the break, Notre Dame was ranked No. 20. In the Shillelagh Tournament, the Irish beat Colgate 5-2 Jan. 2 and the following night tied then-No. 6 North Dakota before beating the Sioux in a shootout for the tournament title.

This week, NoDak moves up to No. 5 and Notre Dame is out of the poll.

After a 4-1 loss to Michigan Dec. 11, Irish coach Jeff Jackson talked to me about his injured defense and the slow start for his team’s offense this year. Then he told me that Notre Dame will be back — not next season, but this one.

While I’m having a difficult time imagining Jackson as The Terminator — a name lovingly bestowed upon yours truly by one of her writing classes last winter, by the way — I do believe Jackson when he says that the sixth-place Fighting Irish will somehow emerge and surge before the end of this campaign.

It is January, after all.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here