On Feuds and Rainbows
College Hockey Will Survive and Thrive Despite Challenges
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Remember simpler days of yore? Ancient times like, say, 20 years ago? When the feud between college hockey and Canadian major junior hockey didn't exist?
Today, we know the bickering, finger-pointing and angst surrounding the "war for players" between the two entities. And for good reason. Anyone associated with college hockey isn't happy about the loss of high-end talent to Major Junior, particularly Americans.
But 20 years ago, there was no feud.
The parties didn't love each other so much as they were from completely different universes. A) There weren't as many good American players being produced that had to face that kind of choice; and B) It was simply a given that high-end players would go to Major Junior.
The concept behind such a feud was completely preposterous. It would've been like suggesting there was a feud for players between AHL teams and NHL teams.
College hockey ought to be thankful such a feud is even plausible.
It began to change, of course, with the 1980 U.S. Olympic win, but really became more pronounced after the success of Team USA in the 1996 World Cup. But more than anything, it was just the steady evolution of hockey in the United States, and the gradual changing of minds among NHL personnel, scouts and agents — and, thus, the hockey-playing families coming up — thanks to the obvious incremental advances in the quality of NCAA players coming into the pros.
Today — for various well-chronicled reasons — players are more often than not selecting the Major Junior route.
I recently got into a conversation with a former long-time scout who thought college hockey was going down the drain because of losing so many elite players. He asked me if I would still be as excited about college hockey if all those players weren't coming in.
That answer has two parts.
First off, I don't believe college hockey is losing all of the elite players, nor that it ever will. I don't believe it's going back to the "stone ages." The days when Joe Bertagna was a part-time commissioner/PR guy for the ECAC, mailing out rudimentary photocopies of his newsletter, ain't happening again. The time when you had to call Edda Olson in Hancock, Mich. — god bless her — to get the scores of the games from that night, ain't happening again.
But the other answer is that, college hockey was just fine 20 to 30 years ago. Were fans any less passionate about their favorite programs than now? Heck no. In many cases, they were more passionate. Was the Beanpot, Great Lakes Invitational, ECAC Tournament or Final Five any less thrilling 20-30 years ago? Again, a resounding no.
North Dakota won a national championship in 1997 with Jason Blake and no one else that played any more than six NHL games — which just so happened to be the same year Michigan and Boston University played an epic Frozen Four game loaded with future NHL stars. Maine won a national title in 1999 with no one who was any more than a role player in the NHL for a few years.
Call me a communist, but does "growth" always have to be the goal?
College Hockey was a great thing 30 years ago and it will continue to be, no matter what the ratings are, no matter how many elite players do or do not come.
Absolutely we all love if college hockey grows, becomes more popular, and everyone else knows what we already know — that college hockey is great. We all take immense pride in the college hockey alums who excel in the NHL. I hope the powers that be figure out some solutions.
But if the public at large doesn't latch on, or if the crowds that started selling out the Frozen Four in the last 15 years start jumping off the bandwagon, is that really so damaging?
In all of the hand wringing, I've yet to hear one proposal that would actually do any good, or have a realistic chance of being enacted. For better or worse, by and large, this is the way it is and the way it will be. Doesn't mean we stop arguing for the cause, and it doesn't mean the world is all lollipops and rainbows. But we don't have to tilt at windmills either.
So as we sit here ready for the start of the most frantic, thrilling and grueling weekend of each college hockey season, it's worth remembering — put the doom and gloom away. This is a great game, and always will be.