Between the Lines
College Hockey Hamstrung in Major Junior Battle
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Between the Lines is back. It's time to stop letting our great, cracked staff of bloggers have all the fun.
And so another player has defected from college hockey to major junior, and done so mid-season.
Another misguided soul.
That is not a polyanna statement on the value of an education — although, that's a good thing too. Rather, that is a commentary on his future as a hockey player.
And that's what these guys don't seem to get.
Cam Reid left St. Cloud State to go to the Western Hockey League, where he was told he'd be a first-line center. What was he at St. Cloud, chopped liver?
This follows Charlie Coyle's departure from Boston University for the Quebec League.
These two departed under somewhat different circumstances, but the overall issue is similar. College hockey — while still, it should not be forgotten, containing a wealth of good players — continues to bleed talent to major junior. There are many different types of ways this happens, though, some worse than others.
- a player commits, then changes his mind before ever arriving. Just today, North Dakota lost a recruit from the U.S. Under-18 team that had previously "committed," for what that's worth
- a player comes to college, finds he isn't getting much playing time yet, and bolts ... sometimes mid-season, sometimes not
- a good player leaves college mid-season, enticed by whatever part of the moon the junior team is offering, and/or, such as in Coyle's case, coinciding with a waning lack of interest in attending classes.
In the first case — the ones who bail out of commitments — these guys are the supposed "blue chippers" who become convinced by the never-ending propaganda war. These situations are distasteful, but 20 years ago, college hockey never got these guys anyway. It's just that more and more of them are being produced in the U.S.
In the other two cases, these guys are enticed by increased playing time and the myth that more games will make them more "NHL ready." But those players don't really develop like they think they will, playing against younger players. Had they stayed in school, they would've learned some lessons, matured, become leaders, become stronger, and become better players.
The only difference between the two is the intensity of the sales pitch given by major junior teams. For the really good college players leaving school to go to major junior, this is a particularly distasteful thing. And it's now happened twice this season, albeit for different reasons.
In this case, players like Reid and Coyle are hounded incessantly by the major junior teams that hold their rights. This happens not just during the recruiting process, but continuing while the player is in school. These teams have unfettered access to these players, and they call and call, and text and text, sometimes a dozen times per week. Yes, this happens. Repeatedly and relentlessly.
Not only do these major junior teams hound these guys, but they also offer them enticements. We don't know for sure that anything like this happened with Reid or Coyle (and academic issues were at least a factor too), but it's a fairly well-established fact in hockey circles that at least some major junior teams offer six-figures of under-the-table cash to players to go there. This is not allowed by the rules of the CHL (the governing body of Canada's three Major Junior leagues), but the CHL home office, and its lesser teams, look the other way because it's just another notch in the war with U.S. colleges.
So, while the conventional wisdom holds that players are leaving the U.S. for major junior because the major junior system provides a "better development path" to the NHL, that line of reasonsing leaves out one major factor:
In other words, the advantages of the CHL are difficult enough for NCAA teams to overcome — the propaganda war, the ability of CHL teams to get in the player's ear at an earlier age than NCAA teams can, the lingering perception that major junior hockey is a better development path — but now you've got oodles of cash to overcome.
But the players are certainly no angels either. As distasteful as it is that CHL teams find nothing wrong with wooing the other guy's girlfriend, so is bailing out on a commitment by the player.
It goes beyond that, though. Like we said earlier, we don't know what happened in Reid's case. Let's assume money was not a factor. From his comments, it sounded like he genuinely agonized over the decision, and felt it was best for his hockey career.
But it isn't.
Bailing out is not helpful to your hockey career. Being told you'll play first line — something that can change — is not helpful to your hockey career. Cam Reid is 20 years old, the maximum CHL age. Of course he'll play top line. So what.
Recent history is littered with players who left college for major junior never to be heard from again. Even those that are heard from, there is no evidence to suggest that going to Major Junior benefited their career beyond what college hockey would've done. Nada. Zilch. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.
Grand Forks Herald writer Brad Schlossman published a blog post last summer breaking down the NHL stats between North Dakota alums and players who came through the supposed elite system of the OHL's Plymouth Whalers (who had just poached incoming UND recruit J.T. Miller). It showed that North Dakota was producing better NHL players.
Unfortunately, it's preaching to the converted to suggest that the CHL is not better than NCAA, and that's frustrating. Frustrating for fans, coaches, and for College Hockey Inc.'s Paul Kelly.
It should be noted that the beauty of hockey is that — unlike basketball and football — players have options. If you are not cut out for college, go to junior hockey. Better than being a fake student. But that decision should be made without propaganda and on a level playing field. It's a shame this has become a "war."
The solutions that have been kicked around are very difficult to implement. So this will continue to be a sad lament.
The Hobey Race is starting to shape up. Nick Bjugstad was an early contender, with Minnesota's hot start, but the Gophers have cooled. Same goes for Minnesota goalie Kent Patterson. Anders Lee also cooled off after a hot start for Notre Dame. Both are still studs, though, and could easily heat up again, though Lee could wind up splitting a vote with teammate T.J. Tynan.
Jack Connolly, who many figured would see his numbers tail off without linemates Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine, has seen nothing of the sort. The Minnesota-Duluth senior is current leading the nation in points with Austin Smith of Colgate and Spencer Abbott of Maine.
Smith is having a phenomenal year for Colgate, and his 20 goals are tops, but unless his numbers just go even crazier he'll get hurt by the fact that he plays for Colgate, fairly or not.
Perhaps the best of all, however, is Wisconsin junior defenseman Justin Schultz. Talk about a guy benefiting from playing in college, and not jumping ship to major junior. He's one point back in the points race, and he does it from the backline. Maybe he'll be hurt by Wisconsin's .500 record, but he's pretty tough to overlook.
The NCHC has named its commissioner, and he comes from outside hockey circles — former USOC and USA Wrestling chief Jim Scherr, a one-time U.S. Olympian himself. It's good to have such a prominent figure in amateur athletics on board, but also a little upsetting that he isn't a "hockey guy." Those numbers are dwindling among the commissioner's group, with the Big Ten and NCHC now on board. Whether it matters or not, who's to say. But the tight-knit "hockey guy" nature of the commissioner's group seemed more helpful than not over the years.
Hopefully, though, Scherr can begin doing something about the NCHC's public image, which hasn't been great from the get go, and has gotten worse with some PR missteps so far this season — like sending out news releases about their schools when the conference isn't even playing yet.
This month, there are outdoor games galore. On the heels of all that went on in Philadelphia — the NHL game, of course, the AHL game, an exhibition game between Penn State and D-III Neumann — there were a pair of "Frozen Fenway" games this past weekend. Fenway was a cool, unique thing a couple of years ago when BC and BU squared off, but now, to spread the love, Hockey East got four other teams to play there this past weekend. And, just because there's already ice there, the ballpark added a BC-Northeastern game and Union-Harvard game for this weekend. Sure, why not?
To top it all off, Michigan — which has already played in three of these things — will play Ohio State at Cleveland's Progressive Field.
As jaded as we might sound about this, you know what? It's still pretty cool. Maybe not awe-inspiring and unique like the first few, but still cool, and still special to those involved. After all, it's new to most, if not all, of them. So just enjoy them.