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College: Hockey’s New Cool

When Pittsburgh hosts the NCAA Frozen Four April 11-13, fans in attendance will be able to scout an ever-growing talent pool for the NHL.

“There was sort of a prejudice against college hockey players when I first got in the league back in the 80’s,” said Penguins play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald. “They had to work a little bit harder to earn their respect. I think it’s changed dramatically since those days.”

Steigerwald’s perception is backed up by hard facts.

So far this year, almost 250 former college players have appeared in the NHL. In 2011-12, 301 former collegiate players—30 percent of the league—appeared in the NHL. That was an increase of 43 percent over nine years. In 2010-11, 47 different hockey programs were represented in the NHL with 294 former players suiting up for different teams – an increase of 35 perent in 10 years. That prompted USA Today hockey columnist Kevin Allen to make this bold statement back in 2010.

“The NHL… could soon reach the point where one of three players has an NCAA background.”

In that 2010 article, Allen credits a loss of Russian talent to the KHL as one of the reasons why the number of collegiate hockey players in the NHL has increased. Steigerwald has some other ideas.

“The perception now is that college players come in, and they are really well-coached, they’ve trained really hard, they’re well-rounded people because they’ve gone to college and had to go through that whole experience while they played,” he said “So there’s a lot that has changed in the perception of the player since I came into the league.”

Canadian Juniors is still the biggest supplier of NHL players, but not all Canadians choose that route. Penguins forward Tanner Glass, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan, counts himself as a supporter of college hockey.

“I think it’s a great way to get to the NHL,” said Glass, who played two seasons in the BCHL before being drafted and going to Dartmouth. “It allows kids a little bit longer road and maybe a chance to develop more physically. In major juniors, you’ve got to be ready at 20 years old to turn pro, whereas in college you might be 22 or 23, so I think it’s a great route and one that I highly recommend.”

Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, who will coach in his first Frozen Four this week, agrees.

“One of the nice things about college hockey is we get these kids for four years,” Pecknold said. “And unlike major junior where you can trade kids and dump kids and cut kids, we have them for four years. We can develop them.”

Pecknold noted that extra time to develop was especially helpful for Quinnipiac’s star goaltender, Eric Hartzell.

“Major junior route, 21 years old, you have to turn pro,” he said. “Hartzy probably wasn’t ready to do that at 21, and now he’s had the extra two years.  Now at 23 he’s NHL ready. And that was my comment that time about I just think college is the best route to develop these kids because we’ll be patient with them, have them for four years and let them be a little bit older.”

It’s a route that more and more players are taking and the Penguins are following a league-wide trend when it comes to an influx of NCAA talent on their roster. Including Glass, 10 Penguins, all of whom represent different schools, regularly crack the lineup in Pittsburgh. Craig Adams (Harvard), Joe Vitale (Northeastern), Mark Eaton (Notre Dame), Beau Bennett (Denver), Chris Kunitz (Ferris State), Matt Niskanen (Minnesota Deluth), Paul Martin (University of Minnesota), Brooks Orpik (Boston College) and Doug Murray (Cornell) are all major contributors to the Eastern Conference leading Pens. Dylan Reese, a Harvard alum, also appeared in three games for the Penguins this year. In addition to their college-educated players, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant Todd Reirden both played for Bowling Green University, while assistant coach Tony Granato played for the University of Wisconsin-MadisPSR Frozen Fouron.

Kunitz, a Hobey Baker finalist, explained why he chose the college route.

“I played tier-two junior to go get a scholarship,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of interest to play major junior. To play out in western Canada, if you’re not one of the kids that’s picked 14th or 15th or so, you can just fall by the wayside. Definitely in the U.S. (it’s become a more viable option that it once was). You see a lot of the kids in the USHL going and leaving to go to college.”

Kunitz also noted that a player doesn’t have to be a Golden Gopher or an Eagle, like Martin and Oprik, respectively, to get noticed.

“Something like 50 different programs in the U.S. have put kids in the NHL,” he said. “So it’s a viable option even if you’re not going to one of the big time schools or one of the top Hockey East schools, you can still work your way to the NHL and get scouted anywhere.”

Adams also noted how players are increasingly scouted from non-traditional hockey markets.

“Certainly you can see, whether it’s kids from the Pittsburgh area being drafted in the first round or Beau (Bennett) and other California kids or something,” he said. “I think it’s great for hockey and it’s great for hockey in the U.S. It’s just going to get stronger and stronger because you’ve got kids playing in different areas. It’s not just the kids from Boston and Minnesota and Michigan anymore.”

For an area known as the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” Western Pennsylvania is quietly becoming a great supplier for USA Hockey. But aside from nurturing four players that helped the Americans win gold at the World Junior Championships this year, the area may soon be home to a college program that produces NHL-caliber talent.

No former Robert Morris hockey player has played in the NHL, but that could change in the near future.

“In my opinion they seem to be on the verge of getting to that level,” Jim Kubus of PittsburghHockey.net said. “I would think that program at this rate potentially could produce an NHL player in the next five years.”

Kubus admitted that that is obviously an educated guess, but he said that the Colonials are drawing the attention of the hockey world, particularly because of success that they’ve had in recent tournaments.

While the schedule and structure of Canadian Juniors is said to be one of the reasons that most players come from that background, Steigerwald believes there are many positives to playing college hockey.

“In college you practice a lot more,” he said. “You practice all week and then you play on the weekends, so you get more time to really hone your skills and you get more coaching, whereas in junior hockey you play games all the time. So there’s a different approach. I think with colleges too, because of football PSR Frozen Fourand everything, they have really good conditioning programs, too.”

Hockey fans in Western PA will now be able to see the fruits of that coaching and conditioning in their back yard.

“The atmosphere of college hockey was something that I really enjoyed and it’ll be nice to have that buzz around Pittsburgh,” Kunitz said.

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