Ahead Of The Class

College Hockey Players Are Discovering That The Paths To Academic And Pro Success Both Cut Through Campus
By: 
Jess Myers

The on-campus coffee shop is abuzz with energy as Ohio State University associate head coach Brett Larson sits down to talk hockey. He is surrounded by students sipping their dark roasts on this sun-drenched Friday afternoon as they excitedly discuss weekend plans along with the many other facets of college life.  

When Larson and hundreds of college coaches sell their programs to prospective recruits, that slice of vibrant campus life is one of the things they’re encouraging 18-year-olds to experience. It’s just one area where college hockey compares favorably to major junior hockey and other routes to The Show.  

“We joke that during your down time you can either go play video games at an arcade in a mall in Saskatchewan, or you can have 30,000 girls with you on campus and go to a football game,” Larson says with a broad smile, wearing a pullover with the Buckeyes’ instantly-recognizable block ‘O’ on it. “The college experience and the life on campus is something you can’t duplicate.”  

Larson played college hockey at the University of Minnesota Duluth and helped coach the Bulldogs to a NCAA title in 2011 before moving to one of the half-dozen Big Ten hockey programs. Today he’s one of those on the front lines of a serious battle to develop the next wave of American hockey stars, as college hockey and major junior advocates both tout their programs as the best way to get to the National Hockey League.  

There to assist the coaches in their advocacy for the on-campus route is College Hockey, Inc., which was started in 2009 with help from the NHL and USA Hockey. Mike Snee, CHI’s executive director, staffs one of the group’s three offices – in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan. As one might expect from a booster of the college route, he lists education as the primary goal.  

“The core of what we do is to educate young players, their parents, and other hockey influencers – coaches, family advisors and people involved in the decision-making process – to ensure that these people know exactly how good college hockey is, and that their perceptions of college hockey are accurate,” Snee points out.

One way they educate is with numbers, which show that last season more than 30 percent of NHLers – 305 players – were NCAA student-athletes at one point in their career.  

As well as promoting the campus life and all that comes with it, college hockey recruiters tout both the ability to get a degree, which can be a valuable tool when the competitive skates are hung up, along with the ability to grow both on and off the ice. While some young players may be ready for the grind of the 80-game seasons in major junior hockey, others thrive in a college environment that affords them the opportunity to develop at their own pace.  

“Going to college, you get more time to develop and get stronger,” says Zach Redmond, now manning the blue line for the Colorado Avalanche after four years at Ferris State University. “For some guys, going major junior and getting to the NHL at 18 was the route, but I wasn’t one of those guys.”  

While there are plenty of sure-fire NHL stars who cut their hockey teeth on campus for a year or two, some feel that the real success stories are the many examples of those who went to college and grew into NHL players over the course of three or four years.

“It’s easy for us to point to Jack Eichel (Boston University), Zach Parise (University of North Dakota), David Backes (Minnesota State University, Mankato), Ryan McDonagh (University of Wisconsin) and Chris Kreider (Boston College),” Snee said. “But it’s just as exciting to point to players that are doing many other wonderful things as a college student-athlete.”

Johnny Gaudreau, used his time at Boston College to jumpstart his NHL career.Johnny Gaudreau, used his time at Boston College to jumpstart his NHL career.

He cites Danny DeKeyser as an example. The Detroit-area native was passed over by all 30 NHL teams when he was a draft-eligible defenseman, so he went to Western Michigan University where he played three seasons, growing as a person and a player while working toward a degree. At the end of his junior season, DeKeyser was a highly sought-after defenseman, and literally had his pick of offers. He signed with his childhood heroes, the Red Wings, and is making better than $2 million a season.

“There are Danny DeKeysers out there you might not be aware of who might never play NHL hockey, but they’re having the time of their life on campus, and getting a college degree,” Snee says.  

To be sure, there are a small group of players who are ready for the rigors of pro hockey when they’re 18. College hockey advocates like to tout a weekly ratio of four practices to every two games as a better schedule for development.  

“There are studies now showing the importance of the amount of practice and the amount of time you can spend in the weight room at this age,” Larson adds. “You have that 18-to-22 window where you can really increase your strength and speed, so the amount of training you can do in college hockey is different.

“In major junior you’re playing more games, but you don’t have the ability to train as much as in college hockey. So you can hit that window that allows you to get stronger, faster and do all those things that help you reach the next level.”  

For many NHL players who today rely on speed and skating more than size, the physical development they experienced during their time in college has been critical to their success as a professional.  

“I needed to get stronger,” says the Minnesota Wild speedy forward Jason Zucker, who chose the University of Denver when he was 18. “I needed to take a few years and develop. And for me it was developing as a person as well, overall getting more mental maturity and playing with a great coach. Having the rigors of class and practice and all that makes you mentally tougher, and I was able to work out two or three times a week and get stronger.”  

While he left college after two seasons to sign with the Wild, Zucker notes that he’s well on the way to a college degree, and plans to finish it at some point.

“I was a major in psychology and that really interests me – the whole mental aspect of sports and life in general – so I can definitely see myself going back,” said the Las Vegas native. “I got most of my core classes done by the end of my sophomore year, so when I go back I’ll be able to focus on the good stuff.” 

That’s a common refrain as well, with NHL stars like Backes, Florida Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad (University of Minnesota) and Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller (Michigan State University) having completed their college degrees already. (See story, Page 23) And they also got the experience of being part of something bigger.  

“There’s something very special about playing for your school,” says Backes, the St. Louis Blues captain. The Minneapolis native played three seasons at Minnesota State, and after the final home game of his junior season the Mavericks fans gave him a standing ovation, chanting “One more year! One more year!” in hopes that he’d stick around for another campaign in southern Minnesota.

“Knowing it’s something that’s been there long before you, and knowing it’s something that will be there long after you’ve moved on, and you’re playing a role in building the organization. That’s something I’m very prideful of from my time in college hockey.”  

In his four years at Wisconsin, Rob Andringa earned not only degree in political science, but also a national championship ring and a network of connections that helped him to a successful post-hockey career as a wealth management professional. He works for and alongside three of his Badgers teammates, when he’s not heading to a college rink somewhere to broadcast weekend games for the Big Ten Network.

Andringa values the education he received and the lasting friendships he made as much as her on-ice success.  

“There are lots of unique communities that bond you together, making connections with guys you may have played with or against. You don’t realize it at the time, but it’s an important part of who you become when hockey is done,” Andringa says while prepping to broadcast an outdoor doubleheader at Soldier Field in Chicago featuring Miami (Ohio) vs. Western Michigan and Michigan vs. Michigan State.

“College athletics is something that can’t be duplicated. It’s not generated or manufactured. The whole atmosphere is amazing.”  

Some still feel that it’s an “either/or” proposition – that an 18-year-old has to choose athletic development or academic growth on their road to what all hope will be a long and rewarding hockey career. The message from college hockey advocates is that on campus, you can do it all.  

“We call it the total package,” Larson says. “Look at the number of players that are going from college hockey to the NHL. In the old days you would have to pick an academic path or a pro path. Now you can have both and accomplish the same goal.”

Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.

 

Issue: 
2015-03

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