Hockey is the ultimate game and when it comes to developing players to reach the top of their profession, the United States Hockey League and College Hockey, Inc., have formed a winning partnership that benefits elite American players.
More Americans are playing the game at the highest levels, thanks in large part to the current development system that continues to produce some of the game’s best young talent.
USA Hockey Magazine sat down with two of the most influential people in the American development system, Skip Prince, commissioner of the USHL, and Paul Kelly, head of College Hockey, Inc., to get their thoughts on the successes, challenges and total team effort needed to continue to produce some of the finest players in the game today.
What is the mission of your respective organizations?
Skip Prince: The United States Hockey League’s mission is to establish the best Junior hockey league in the world, which means that elite players recognize that the USHL is the place to start their career path to college and the National Hockey League with an equal emphasis on both.
Paul Kelly: We have several objectives at College Hockey, Inc. The first is to provide education and information to elite young players and their families about the benefits of playing college hockey, pursing an NCAA college hockey path as opposed to playing Major Junior hockey.
We can do many things that the college coaches cannot do directly. We can reach down and address younger kids and families that they are prohibited from speaking to because of NCAA rules.
Second, there’s a business component to help promote the college game, assist them with special events, marketing, Web sites, television and other new ideas.
Lastly, we talk with colleges and universities that may play club hockey that might consider stepping up to Division I, not unlike Penn State recently decided to do. That’s what we’re all about.
How do your organizations work together to create opportunities for American players?
Prince: Fundamentally, we’re doing a lot of the same things. We are one of the significant deliverers of players to the college ranks, but not the only one.
Our numbers show that 35 percent of the kids wearing a Div. I sweater are USHL alumni. That means that colleges have to find that other 65 percent, but we fundamentally believe that we are the path that gives you the best chance to play in college. If you play in the USHL you will get a commitment from a Div. I school. We’ve gotten to the point where we can say we’re that good, but we’ve always recognized that there are others out there who are providing that talent.
Kelly: From the college perspective, clearly, the National Team Development Program and the USHL are the No. 1 producers of Division I college players. Kids also come from the Minnesota high schools, elite prep schools and occasionally other public high schools and sometimes the British Columbia and Alberta Junior hockey leagues, but for the most part for American kids the preferred path would be to play in the USHL and then earn a scholarship to play at the Division I level, and hopefully if you’re good enough to go on and play in the National Hockey League.
What are your benchmarks for success and how do you feel you are reaching those goals?
Kelly: What will be the benchmarks for our success? Fewer elite American players leaving the country, keeping the top-end American kids playing and developing as hopefully future NHL stars in American college institutions.
It will take some time for us to see the results of our efforts. I think it will take two or even three years to really see it, but you will see it.
Prince: It’s only in the last year or so that the USHL took its player development and scouting in house and recognized the communication need that was out there. There was a sense that once Tier I hockey and the USHL were created that the elite players would simply find us, and they don’t.
I think within our league there was a sense of surprise that the level of sophistication at the player base is really just a question of who talks to them most often and most regularly. We weren’t out there enough. We had a reputation of being a good and growing league, but I don’t think the players recognized what we were doing, what colleges were doing and what the NHL role plays in all of that.
In a perfect world players would come find you and you’d be working simply on the quality of the on-ice play, but it’s not the way the world works.
Is that exposure for these kids something that you're most proud of?
Prince: It's certainly one of the things that we focused on the most. I don't know if we're proud of it but we certainly recognize how fundamental the commitment needs to be. Being at showcases and talking to players at a younger age than ever before, again working them on a one-on-one basis and answering their questions. In a perfect world they would come find you and you'd be working simply on the quality of the on-ice play but it's not the way the world works now.
What do you think about the American Development Model and how do your respective organizations fit in with that?
Kelly: We work and communicate a great deal with USA Hockey, not just in Ann Arbor but also in Colorado Springs, and we work with the guys who run the ADM in diferent regions of the country. As a former youth coach and high school hockey coach in my earlier life, I think that what the ADM is doing, particularly at the younger levels, is terrific.
Getting kids to enjoy the sport and stay in the sport and to keep that philosophy of making it fun for the kids to come to the rink is what it's all about. We've all seen the numbers up until the formation of the ADM of how we are losing a really high percentage of kids who are leaving the game by the time they were 11 or 12 years of age and that directly impacts the USHL, the Div. I colleges, so it's critically important for my constituents that the ADM model is successful, that we keep kids playing the game and we attract more young kids into the game at the grass-roots level.
The extent to which the college coaching community can help bring an energy and enthusiasm and coaching to that process, that works in harmony with the guys who are out there in the trenches, so that's a positive. We're all about growing the game. I think the ADM is a step in the right direction and the colleges support it in a very strong manner.
Prince: From our standpoint, we're the top of the pyramid and if the base of the pyramid isn't that strong it very quickly becomes irrelevant. We have that long-term interest in it but also almost all of our member clubs are directly involved or support financially youth hockey in their areas. It's part of the infrastructure of the USHL. The fact that we see new faces there who are future players and future fans, it gives us someone to show the future to. It's not just there to watch it.
We focus on our players doing that talking. Every one of our players does a lot of charitable or volunteer work and that's almost always at the coaching or teaching level. For them, the ADM is a new way of learning the as well so we've become particularly involved in the game and we have seven or eight of our clubs lead their state.
What are the biggest challenges your organizations face, collectively and individually?
Kelly: There are a few things. One is the economics. To be successful and do the things that we have planned we need revenue and support for that. We are trying to accomplish a lot with fairly limited resources.
We work closely with the NHL and think there’s a great synergy between Division I college hockey and the NHL. With that said, over the last 10 years NHL teams have been pulling out college players before they’ve finished their time in school. We’re losing some players after one year, two years, or even three years. That does im-pact college programs, so we’re trying to find the right balance there.
We’re also the only sport where our coaches are recruiting players against a professional league, namely the Canadian Hockey League to the north. And since we’re all after that same elite group of talent, our coaches have a number of challenges in recruiting those kids who are being recruited by a well-financed professional league.
I think we’re making strides, and I’m optimistic over the next two or three years we’re going to see some real breakthroughs in terms of our abilities to keep our top kids and attract kids from elsewhere as well.
Prince: Our challenges are a version of the same answer. The American system is not an easy elevated pitch system to explain. The model doesn’t follow the high school to college to pro format that many other sports follow so introducing and explaining our format is hard.
Parents and young players have to stick handle through a myriad of different problems to play. It’s a facility driven sport. Once they’re there it’s clear how important it is to communicate and guide them through the system because on their own it’s very difficult for a parent and a player to be able to figure out how to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Would you like to see a single development track for elite players, and is that even feasible?
Prince: I’m not sure that the USHL would want to replicate or replace prep hockey. What we’re doing is trying to set the standard that other versions of the system will have to sustain in order to provide the very best for the players.
We’re not going to replace Minnesota high school hockey, and as long as Minnesota high schools are producing players of the caliber that they are that’s great.
We don’t believe that it’s our place to effectively replace the other elements, but we do think we are standard setters though. Our strength is to grow where hockey isn’t being taught and developed at our level because if we’re not there these young men will go play another sport and we won’t see them have the opportunity to play hockey.
Kelly: Speaking as a former public high school hockey coach outside of Boston, not a lot of kids make it to the National Hockey League who start in public high schools, other than in Minnesota. There are exceptions to that and there are still families who believe in their kids playing public high school hockey.
There will always be a place for quality public high school hockey, quality prep school and some of the other Junior leagues to exist on the east coast and the west coast. We’re going to need those leagues because we want more kids coming into the sport and we want more options for those kids to play.
I think you do need a development track for the truly elite player, and I think we’ve established that now with the NTDP and the USHL. You need to pull the best of the best out of those different areas and bring them together so you can put together a group of kids that has the ability to compete internationally on behalf of the country and then go on to play in the NHL.
What is the relationship between
the USHL and the National Team
Development Program? It appears that your respective programs are competing for the same player while the NTDP teams play against USHL teams as part of the schedule. Is that a healthy thing?
Prince: One of the primary goals when I came to the league was to reintegrate the USHL and the NTDP. They’ve lived separate lives for a long time. The reintegration of the two programs continues.
We have a fundamentally different training methodology. We take the college model in terms of we have different ages competing together and hopefully growing through that. The NTDP has built itself on the single-aged model.
It’s a menu that some people choose one thing and some people choose another.
Why is it so important to keep elite American players playing in the United States?
Kelly: If we lose 100 skilled Americans every year to Junior programs outside the country, that diminishes the quality and the level of play across all of Division I hockey, and that’s harmful to the sport.
We’d like to keep all of those kids in country, but that’s not possible. There’s a freedom of movement there, and we respect that. There are some kids, who for a host of personal reasons, college hockey isn’t for them. It could be an academic issue. It could be an economic or a cultural issue.
We think too many kids foreclose their options early on; jumping at things that were promised to them by Junior teams outside the country that entice those kids to leave.
There’s a ripple effect in play here. We need to keep the best kids to keep college hockey strong, college hockey needs to stay strong because the NHL, frankly, needs quality players.
You’re seeing a reduction in the number of Russians and Europeans coming into the National Hockey League. Fifty percent of your players are coming from Canada, roughly 30 percent are coming from the United States, and that number will increase in the coming years. It will grow to 35 and maybe even 40 percent.
The NHL understands that it’s important that our college programs continue to attract the very best talent and continue to develop that talent.
Prince: Families want to watch their young player, male or female, come through the system. The asterisk to this is that if you’re good enough you’re going to get to a point where you’re going to have to leave to get better; that fundamentally is a negative in the whole development process. We continue to believe that we have substantially for all players the better system.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard an athlete express his regret for having gone to college on a scholarship and having the opportunity to play college hockey.
We have more Americans playing on NHL rosters than ever before. What are your organizations’ respective roles in helping to get those numbers up?
Kelly: Last year there were 268 guys who played NCAA hockey playing in the NHL. The NHL has roughly 720 players, so 268 players is a good number. If you go back 20 to 25 years I think we had maybe 25 players, so that number has increased tenfold.
It shows that our Junior programs and our colleges are doing a good job of developing players who can compete at that level. Some of the biggest stars in the NHL game today played college hockey. They came out of the NTDP, came out of the USHL, played college hockey and are not just players in the NHL – they are the most recognizable, most productive players in the game.
It’s important for the NHL that we continue to produce players, and it’s important for the colleges that we continue to produce players. The more guys that go from college to the NHL the easier it is for those colleges to attract young talent, future NHL stars to follow that path to be developed.
We have more Americans playing on NHL rosters than ever before. What are your organizations' respective roles in helping to get those numbers up?
Kelly: Last year there were 268 guys who played NCAA hockey playing in the NHL. The NHL has roughly 720 players, so 268 players is a good number. If you go back 20 to 25 years I think we had maybe 25 players, so that number has incraesed tenfold.
It shows that our Junior programs and our colleges are doing a good job of developing players who can compete at that level. Some of the biggest stars in the NHL game today played college hockey. They came out of the NTDP, came out of the USHL, played college hockey and are not just player in the NHL--they are the most recognizable, most productive players in the game.
It's important for the NHL that we continue to produce players, and it's important for the colleges that we continue to produce players. The more guys that go from college to the NHL the easier it is for those colleges to attract young talent, future NHL stars to follow that path to be developed.
It's important because they've lived it, they understand it, they recognize the benefits of it. Guys like Lou Lamoriello and Ray Shero and Brian Burke and Dean Lombardi. The list goes on, are real supporters of the college game.
We tell a lot of young kids that one of the benefits of the college track is that while you're developing as a player you're also receiving an education and a foundation for life. And if you want to stay in the game when your playing days are over in a management or an executive position, your chances of doing so are certainly enhanced if you have a college degree and you have that educational background.
These guys are living, breathing examples of the kind of career track that a young player can pursue if he decides to go to college.
What role, if any, do your organizations have or would want to have in the next collective bargaining agreement? And what types of things woudl you like to see changed?
Kelly: We've already begun to have a role in that. College Hockey, Inc., represents all 58 programs. We're a good clearinghouse to hear from our colelges, and again our colleges come from different areas of the country, different sizes, some of them are Div.I in all sports, some of them are Div. III in some sports and Div. I in hockey, so there are different characteristics. We can bring together the views and different issues and challenges from all of our colleges and universities across the country.
As a former head of the NHL Players Association, I probably have a better understanding and appreciation of the current CBA than most people around the college game. I've lived with it, I've worked with it, I've read the document muliple times.
We had a very positive meeting in Toronto in late Novemember with five or six NHL GMs and Gary Bettman and Bill Daly and Colin Campbell, along with seven of our Div. I coaches and we talked about some issues. We've had a follow up conference call that was also very constructive. We have future meetings planned, so we've gotten ourselves engaged in dialogue where we can have some influence on the next document. I think we've taken the right steps and hoepfully there will eventually be an agreement reached that helps college hockey and keeps it strong.
Prince: Amateur hockey is lucky to have someone of Paul's expertise and familiarity having led the players' association. Having been at the league for 10 years and having been involved in the collective bargaining in terms of business ramifications, even if I wasn't involved in direct negotiations, I think one of the things that this allows fundamentally for the NHL to understand is just how tied the rest of hockey is to what happens in that next CBA. Consequences work down through the college level down to the Junior level, how young players get recruited, where they get taken, how soon they have to make their decesion, how they get trained at younger levels than they've ever been trainged before, and what the net effect there is on teams and leagues moving forward.
I think the fact the NHL is seeing itself as fundamentaly developing the entire future of hockey and what it does in this CBA and how it effects us is critical and we appreciate being a part of it.
How beneficial is it that 11 general managers in the NHL are either American or have ties to American college system?
Kelly: It’s important because they’ve lived it, they understand it, they recognize the benefits of it. Guys like Lou Lamoriello and Ray Shero and Brian Burke and Dean Lombardi and the list goes on, are real supporters of the college game.
We tell a lot of young kids that one of the benefits of the college track is that while you’re developing as a player you’re also receiving an education and a foundation for life. And if you want to stay in the game when your playing days are over in a management or an executive position, your chances of doing so are certainly enhanced if you have a college degree and you have that educational background.
These guys are living, breathing examples of the kind of career track that a young player can pursue if he decides to go to college.
How concerned are you that players are leaving college early to play in the NHL, especially those who are leaving in midseason?
Kelly: The midseason problem is a significant one because coaches are unable to fill that role when they lose the scholarship it’s impossible to get somebody to step in there. It’s an issue that needs to be avoided if possible.
However, there are instances and unique circumstances where sometimes it makes sense. There may be family reasons, there may be academic eligibility reasons, there may be reasons why the departure of a young man midseason makes sense not only for him but for the program. But for the most part we don’t want to see kids leaving midseason.
We hope that those kids who do leave early recognize the value of having a degree or a diploma and follow the path of a guy like Jack Johnson, who left Michigan after two years but has been faithfully going back to campus every summer to work on his degree and he is committed to getting his diploma in the next year or so. It’s a credit to him.
That’s the optimal thing. Because by the time you’re 36 or 40 years of age you’re not playing for an NHL team and you have a whole lot of life to live.
Prince: When the NHL makes a move the consequences move down through the college ranks to the top Junior leagues. When we make a move somewhere a Midget or Junior B team is feeling the same consequence. Fortunately those ramifications are being better understood because of the coherent relationship we’re trying to build from the bottom to the top.
You mention the news of Penn State becoming a Div. I program. What are the chances of other non-varsity powerhouses such as University of Washington, USC, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State following suit, and how would that benefit hockey in the United States?
Kelly: I think the fact that Penn State made the move is a good thing in the sense that it will trigger other major institutions to think about it and do the analysis of whether it makes sense. Hockey has really developed in some of the non-traditional areas because of the NHL having franchises in places like Dallas, Denver, Anaheim and Nashville and down in the southern states. So if you're USC or Stanford adn you decided to add a Div. I college hockey program, there are an abundance of highly talented young kids who would welcome the chance to stay in state and play for your program. Those schools, if they decided to start a Div. I program, woudl have an exciting product to put on the ice, almost instantly, and in my view would be nation champion competitors very quickly.
If you wanted to start a college football program, it may take you 20 years to make an impact on the national scene. If you started a Div. I colelge hockey program in certain parts of the country you would be an impact player on the college hcokey landscape almost immediately.
I expect Penn State within three or four years to have one of the top teams because there will be a local attraction. In the mid-Atlantic states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey there are a lot of kids who would love to stay home and play for a place like Penn State. I'm hoping that there are other schools who will look at it.
The economy has been challenging over the past few years, that's an issue. Hockey can be an expensive sport, although there is a way to make ends meet. Penn State was obviously aided by the charity of Mr. Pegula donating a substantial amount of money to build the arena there. It helps to have a benefactor like that. Not all schools have them. But I think it's great for college hockey and I'd like to see more schools enter the fray. The one concern we all have is we don't want the arrival of new programs to do damage to the small schools that have had college hockey programs for many, many years. We want all of our Division I programs to survive and remain strong. The challenge for us moving forward is to make sure that we don't leave somebody without a conference or a competitive schedule, but all of it is a positive in my viewpoint.
How does the USHL work with other American Junior hockey leagues to keep this development system moving forward and providing additional opportunities for kids of all skill levels and ages to continue to improve and play the game?
Prince: We only have 375 positions, and we maintain affiliate lists of players who are competing at the Tier II and Tier III level. Only now are we looking to work with them to create standards that will reflect our standards.
We’ve reached out to the Tier II and Tier III affiliates at the Junior level, and we’ve also reached out to youth hockey. We’re working with the [USA Hockey] Youth Council more than we ever have before. Wherever we go with our showcases we regularly let folks know that if you’re not USHL capable yet, and still think you can be then these are the places that you need to go.
Paul and I agree that when we came to the scene there were an awful lot of people who were on separate islands in the hockey world and building the bridges has been a challenge, but so far it’s been a very rewarding experience for us.
Is there any talk about the champion of the Clark Cup ever taking on the champion of the Memorial Cup in Canada? Would that be good for hockey and is that something we coudl see somewhere down the road?
Prince: I think it would be interesting. We've played games against CHL teams and we did some exhibitions against teams in the Q[JMHL] several years ago. It's a little bit of a trick question though, because the very best USHL players are freshman and sophomores in college, opposed to teh way the CHL works with its three-year commitment of players.
Even given all the restraints with college committments etc., moving forward we still think that maybe we could start with some exhibition games. Because while we have very different systems, ultimately we have to recognize that it is hockey and it's a fraternity. Sometimes it's a fraternity where people roll around in the dust but it's still a fraternity.
And finally, can you talk about what your organizations are doing to address the issue of concussions?
Prince: Any time there's a player i our league that has been diagnosed with the symptoms of a concussion we fully support the system that he's been checked before he ever gets back on the ice. We changed our rules to adapt to that. There's a much more strict enforecment of hits that three or four years ago would have been legal, the head hunting hits for sure, but we've told players that if a kid coming through the middle of the ice with his head down, for years and years the notion has been that he's fair game to get caught.
Now we've said that no matter what you think about it or what your dad says, even if he played in the NHL, that this area is off limits.
Checking from behind, which is a source of concussions, has been a big deal for us. It's been strictly enforced for the first time. WE have referees sending kids off the ice for the first time and penalizing them if their strap is not properly affized because if the helmet flies off, it doesn't matter how safe it was when it was on, it doesn't do much good anymore off.
So far we're tracking [concussions] and we haven't had a serious concussion this year. We've had a couple of minor ones and every one that we've had we have taken serious. When a kid is lying on the ice, everything that we stand for has been violated. We're a development league. We're supposed to be delivering this kid to an NCAA scholarship and the NHL, and anything that we can do to sop that moment from happening, we're going to do.
Kelly: This is an issue when I was with the NHL Players Association that I took significant interest in. Early on in my tenure I thought there were too many of our members who were going down with concussions. The first couple of weeks that I got on the job, Patrice Bergeron [Boston Bruins] was crunched against the boards in a game in Boston and literally was out for about hte next 14 months. I watched him and communicated with him and watched him work through the effects of that concussion. It made it clear to me what a significant problem this is in our sport.
Since I came to College Hockey, Inc., I've continued to be concerned about this issue. I think in college we've done a pretty good job of protecting our players. Our officials are mindful of that and call the game in a manner that is designed to better protect a player without removing the physical element of the game.
One particular issue that I've taken particular interest in is the question of facial protection. I've talked to Dr. Stuart and Dr. Comper from the Toronto Rehab Hospital about this and I've made presentations to the NCAA on this issue, but I think our players would be safer and better protected if we put them in the half visors [instead of full cages as now in the NCAA], which would improve their ability to see the ice and the hits coming. It would also have an effect on psyche of players who paly at the level in full cages and have a feeling of invincibility and playe in a certain way with a certain degree of recklessness that I think increases the potential for not only concussions, but other types of disabling injuries. I think it would be positive for us to follow the path that has been adopted by the USHL and most of the other international federations like the CHL, that would allow the NCAA players the option of wearing the half visor. I think that would be a safety measure. It sounds kind of counter intuitive, but if you understand the sport and what goes into it, I think it would better protect our players.
How far down the road would you be looking at passing such a piece of legislation?
Kelly: The rules committee has overwhelmingly passed our recomendation and endorsed it. It's now in the hands of the competitive safeguards committee and undergoing further study. I think it's at least anohter year away before they seriously take it up and vote on it. A lot of the memebers of the competitive saefguards committee are not from hockey schools, they're from southern schools. I believe 19 of the 20 members on the committe come from colleges and universities that do not play hockey, so there's an education process there and they need to understand what we're talking about and what these impacts are all about.
I do think we should look at the available data, we shoudl look at the history of hte NHL and hte history of the USHL and the CHL in terms of the use of visors. When we polled all the college coaches, they voted unanimously and without exception across the board that we should go away from the full cage to the half visor, the one that bolts to the helmet. So the people who know it the best, who are closest to the players and the closest to the action and care most about the well being of their players are fully supportive of us moving to half visors. I'm hopeful that the competitive safeguards committe will see the wisdom of this position and adopt to it.
Prince: We're the only league that I'm aware of [with the option of visors] because we have players who are 18 and over and 18 and under in the same league. While it's not a perfect lab experiment, we have opened oourselves up to the group that's studying this to see if there's a way to directly proving what Paul and many experts are saying now, which is that the half visors are as safe or safer from a concussion standpoint [as the full cage is]. It's an odd scenario that you have a kid that is 18 years old hwo is able to wear a half visor and then goes to college and has to put the cage back on. We lose players in the American system, not just because the NHL allows half visors, but it gives them better vision and they feel that it's a better.