At just 15, 16, 17 years old, the most talented high school hockey players must make a decision that will forever define their hockey careers. Some choose the college route, like Jonathan Toews, now a two-time Stanley Cup champion and captain of the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite being drafted with the top overall pick in the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft by the Tri-City Americans, Toews decided to play midget AAA hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, allowing him to retain his NCAA eligibility. He then went off to the University of North Dakota to test the college ranks. After playing two seasons at North Dakota, Toews had caught the eye of countless NHL scouts, and was drafted third overall in the 2006 draft by the Blackhawks.
When asked about his decision to play college over juniors, Toews said in an interview with ESPN, “North Dakota seemed perfect to me. It was close to home, the arena was unbelievable, and I got chills when I watched my first game there. It felt like it was my calling. It just felt right.”
Toews is just one of the trendsetters for the increase in college hockey representation in the NHL.
“10 or 15 years ago, you had kids who wanted to be Michael Jordan. Now, they want to be Jonathan Toews,” said Mike Snee, the executive director of College Hockey Inc.
It will always be a face-off between college recruitment and major junior league recruitment.
“The path is different for everyone and it’s really a combination of things as young players and their families with the help of advisors make these tough decisions at pretty young ages,” said Jack O’Callahan, a former college hockey player at Boston University and a member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team.
Although nothing is a guaranteed path to the NHL, young athletes will model what they see. If kids see successful hockey stars who went through the college experience, it is only natural that they will want to follow that same path. That explains why college hockey players now comprise 31 percent of NHL rosters now, a 10 percent spike from just a decade before.
One reason for the spike in college hockey players in the NHL is the benefits of the entire college experience. The major junior leagues structure their schedules to model the rigor and grind of an NHL season as a way to get players more exposure. Whereas colleges structure their schedules to focus on player development, both physical and emotional. From a hockey standpoint, the lesser amount of games allow for more time in the weight room, more effective practices, individual skill work. That is the physical development. However, as a student in college, the player will also mature emotionally. Instead of the constant hockey lifestyle of major juniors, they are put in a diverse setting where they can develop both as a hockey player and as a student, said O’Callahan. Different players are better suited for different developmental styles, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems.
“There is no right or wrong answer as long as they are informed,” said Kirk Lamb, president of the Canadian Junior Hockey League and a former college, junior, and professional hockey player.
NHL general managers and amateur scouts no doubt have paid more attention to college hockey players in the last decade than ever before, but this has not just been a recent trend. This has been a trend on the rise ever since the 1980 Miracle team upset the powerful and veteran Soviet Union team. That team was comprised of all college hockey players.
“1980 forced the hockey world to expand globally with a deeper respect for talent outside of Canada. It would have happened at some point anyway, but the 1980 Olympics proved to be a huge catalyst in that adjustment and by the end of the 80’s, Americans and Europeans were starting to populate NHL rosters,” said O’Callahan.
No other Olympic event in the history of the competition has touched a country more than that hockey game did.
“It’s the most transcending moment in the history of our sport in this country. For people who were born between 1945 and 1955, they know where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the moon, and when the USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid,” said Dave Ogrean in an interview with ESPN. Ogrean is an executive director for USA Hockey.
Before 1980, there were few collegiate players entering the NHL that were considered blue-chip prospects. In fact, the first American-born collegiate hockey player to be drafted in the first round was Mike Ramsey in 1979. The Miracle team inspired millions of children to pursue dreams in hockey.
“I think prior to 1980 Americans as well as college players were not given the opportunity that they have today and I think we started that,” said Mike Eruzione, captain of the Miracle team.
The traditional model for American-born kids is college, so it is logical that after seeing these college kids do incredible things on the ice, they would want to follow suit, said Snee. The lasting effects of 1980 on the college hockey world continue today, where this sharp increase in college presence in the NHL makes it the fastest growing developmental path in sports.
One possibility as to why players have veered away from juniors is because in juniors, there is a sense of desperation.
“In juniors, you put all your eggs in one basket,” said Tom Newton, an assistant coach for the men’s hockey team at Michigan State University.
The notion becomes that you have to make it to the pros. Sure there are developmental stipends that some players get for being a junior team, unlike in college athletes who compete unpaid, but those stipends are miniscule considering the standard of competition in junior leagues. If a player does not make it out of juniors, there is no fallback option.
On the other side, if a player fails to make it out of college, they can always refer back to their degree and still have a career ahead of them. That is one concept that colleges have going for them. They promote the slogan, “There are over 400,000 NCAA Student-Athletes, and just about all of us will be going pro, in something other than sports.”
Also, a greater number of NHL general managers and amateur scouts have college hockey backgrounds. They will draft a player who has gone through the same experiences as they have.
“Scouts with college backgrounds may tend to favor college guys and guys with major backgrounds may lean slightly towards that side of the argument,” said O’Callahan. “The lines have become blurred meaning that scouts care less about the nationality of kids and much more about the skill sets, the attitudes, the competitiveness, the ability to handle adversity, leadership skills, that give a kid a chance to be a successful pro and help your team and organization win hockey games.”
High school hockey players will continue to choose whichever option gives them the optimum chance to reach the next level. However, there is no question that the NHL has put more faith in college players and for good reason too, because they have proven them right over and over again with a balance of talent and character.