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College Avenue

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
College hockey may not have as big a hold on the North American sports-watching public as college basketball, but the annual NCAA College Hockey Tournament gets underway today, and it is a bonanza for fans of the icy pastime. Sixteen teams begin vying for the national championship, the winner of which will be determined at the Frozen Four in St. Louis Apr. 5-7.

On a trip to Hershey to watch the Bears play earlier this season, I was somewhat stunned to find that of the few dozen players who had donned a Bears sweater to that point in the season, 14 had played college hockey somewhere before turning pro. Not only that, but those 14 players had attended 14 different universities.

That’s changed now; with the late movement in the league after the NHL’s trading deadline and the AHL’s Clear Day maneuverings, the Bears have now had 19 different college players from 17 different colleges and universities. (This includes recent signees Steve Pinizzotto and Sean Collins, who have yet to actually suit up for the Bears at this writing.)

Down a level at Washington’s ECHL affiliate in South Carolina, the Stingrays have employed 20 different college players from 18 different institutions of higher learning, including six players who overlap with the Bears’ ledger of college talent.

Of the 35 different players who have tugged a Capitals sweater over their heads this season, seven have played some college hockey, including two that overlap with Hershey. Clearly, if some of the college kids in the pipeline are able to make the leap to the NHL, the Caps could be taking on more of a collegiate look in seasons to come.

That’s a big change from a few decades ago, when only a handful of college players dotted the rosters of NHL clubs and their minor league affiliates.

“There weren’t too many,” says Bears coach Bruce Boudreau, recalling his own pro playing days from 1975-92. “You’d probably see one or two that I played with that ended up playing [pro]. Dave Debol and John Stewart were college guys. But it’s hard naming guys who went to college.”

The current trend toward collegiate players is not an isolated one, either. Up in New Jersey, the Atlantic Division-leading Devils have long seemed to lean in the direction of college players. Of the 30 players to play as much as a game for New Jersey this season, 17 of them played U.S. college hockey. Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello spent two decades as a coach and executive at Providence College; he also played there for three years. Lamoriello has now been with the Devils for two decades, and he has clearly put a collegiate stamp on the team.

Out in Anaheim, Ducks vice president and general manager Brian Burke is another Providence College alum. The Ducks are another team that has at the forefront of bringing college talent into its system. In particular, the Ducks have shown a knack for signing undrafted college free agents with assistant general manager David McNab (son of ex-Caps GM Max McNab) being an George McPheeintegral cog in that process. Three of Anaheim’s current top seven scorers (Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz and Dustin Penner) are all undrafted college kids who have made the grade in the NHL. Eleven of the 35 Ducks who have skated for the team in 2006-07 have played some college hockey.

Washington’s front office also has deep collegiate connections. Vice president and GM George McPhee, director of scouting operations Kris Wagner and director of player personnel Brian MacLellan are all Bowling Green grads. McPhee was the second-ever recipient of the prestigious Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player.

Player development scout Steve Richmond played at U. of Michigan, and pro scout Larry Carriere played at Loyola University (CIAU) where his coach was Capitals pro scout Dave Draper. Capitals amateur scout Ray Payne played college hockey at Boston University in the 1960s.

Even many of the Bears who had played some college hockey were unaware that so many of their peers had come through Hershey this season.

“There are more than I thought,” says Bears center Kyle Wilson, a Colgate grad who was originally a Minnesota Wild draft choice. “Everywhere else I’ve been, there have been a lot of junior players. But it seems like there are quite a few college hockey guys here.”
None of the players now playing pro in the Washington system came from noted hockey programs such as Michigan State, Michigan and Boston College. Several come from far less noteworthy college hockey schools such as Merceyhurst, St. Norbert, Rochester Institute of Technology and Elmira College.

Defenseman Marc Busenburg, a smart, slick and slight defenseman who has toiled for both Hershey and South Carolina this season, played his collegiate hockey at the University of Connecticut. Known primarily as a basketball powerhouse, U-Conn was barely on the college hockey map when Busenburg stepped on campus as a freshman in 1996.

“I graduated high school,” Busenburg remembers, “public school Division III high school. I was only like 155 pounds coming out of high school so I wasn’t being recruited by any top schools. I went to U-Conn, it was Division III, and I just really wanted to get a business degree. I didn’t want to give up hockey yet, though.

“We had an open barn; we had a roof but no walls. So we had to walk outside from the locker room. It definitely built character, I think. My junior year, we got a new building and went Division I. It was pretty good. It was the Mac League, then [U-Conn is now in Atlantic Hockey]. It was the bottom of Division I, but it was Division I. We were playing a few good teams. It was a good four years. It taught me a lot of hard work and just grinding it out. We were a blue-collar team. We didn’t have anyone flashy, we just worked hard and grinded it out.”

Chris Bourque Bears forward Chris Bourque spent a season playing for the renowned Jack Parker at Boston University before he turned pro.

“It’s fun seeing guys coming out of Hockey East,” says Bourque. “But seeing guys from St. Cloud, and [David] Steckel from Ohio St. and [ex-Bear Trevor] Byrn[si]e from Dartmouth – that’s up around me – it’s pretty fun. You seem to have more to talk about with the guys from college, because these junior guys are always talking about juniors out in the Western League. We’ve got a lot of western guys. It’s good to see some fresh faces that came through college. They know the style of play, so you can talk about the changes and give each other a hard time when tournament time comes around.

“Even though I only stayed for a year, it still means a lot to go to a college like BU. You always have something to talk about when college guys are around. You can always make fun of the other guys for not having an education. That’s funny, too. It’s a good time.”

In his first year as a pro with the Manchester Monarchs in 2004-05, Steckel and teammate Mike Cammalleri (a Michigan product) gave each other the business daily about their respective alma maters. But like Bourque says, it’s mostly the college guys ganging up on the Canadian juniors.

“A little bit,” says Busenburg when asked about rivalries with other college guys in the locker room. “We throw it out there now and then. But it’s more about bashing the junior guys. The college guys stick together against the junior guys.”

As the youth hockey programs across the nation continue to grow, and as more kids are attracted by the combined lure of the game they love and a higher education, college hockey players figure to make even bigger and wider inroads into the pro game.

“I think that the college players who have played four years at that level are smarter, because they’re older,” says Boudreau. “They’re probably two years older than the European guys that we get or the Canadian junior kids. They usually get it a little quicker. There is more and more influence by college players every day.”

At this tournament time of year, the players’ eyes turn toward their alma maters as they root them toward a championship.

“They’re playing pretty well,” says Bears center Matt Hendricks of his St. Cloud St. comrades. “They’ve got some good players there, and a Washington hopeful in Andrew Gordon and he is having a great breakout season. I follow them when I can, and make a few phone calls here and there. We’re wishing them the best of luck about now.”

Make sure you get your fill of college hockey over these next few weeks. The games are televised, and it’s hockey in its purest form, unfettered by contracts and money. The Frozen Four comes to Verizon Center in 2009, and it’s time for the locals to start whetting their appetite for the college game.


College hockey connections among 2006-07 players in Washington, Hershey and South Carolina

Chris Clark – Clarkson
Ben Clymer – Minnesota
Jamie Hunt – Merceyhurst
Bryan Muir – New Hampshire
Matt Pettinger – Denver
Brian Pothier – RPI
David Steckel – Ohio St.

Chris Bourque – Boston U.
Marc Busenburg – Connecticut
Trevor Byrne – Dartmouth
Shawn Collins – Ohio St.
Donny Grover – Northeastern
Andy Hedlund – Minnesota St.
Matt Hendricks – St. Cloud St.
Matt Koalska – Minnesota
Troy Milam – Ferris St.
Jeff Miles – Vermont
Jeff Pietrasiak – New Hampshire
Steve Pinizzotto – RIT
Sasha Pokulok – Cornell
Nolan Schaefer – Providence
Matt Stefanishion – Ferris St.
Stephen Werner – Massachusetts
Kyle Wilson – Colgate

South Carolina
Josh Anderson – St. Lawrence
Ryan Bennett – Nebraska-Omaha
Brendan Bernakevitch – Harvard
Bryson Busniuk – Vermont
Chris Chaput – Providence
John Donnelly – St. Norbert
Tim Judy – Northeastern
Jarrett Konkle – Elmira College
T.J. McElroy – St. Cloud St.
Travis Morin – Minnesota St.
Matt Reid – Clarkson
Scott Romfo – RPI
Evan Schwabe – Minnesota-Duluth
Peter Szabo – St. Cloud St.

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