Sure there are other routes, the United States Hockey League is rapidly becoming a breeding ground for players before they enter college and players born in Europe have excellent development leaagues before coming to North America, but the NCAA and CHL offer two very different and the most common paths to playing hockey professionally.
The decision is made on a case-by-case basis on what is best for the player and in the case of a big-towering defenseman from the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), Reece Willcox chose the Ivy League.
Fast-forward four years later and Willcox, the Flyers fifth round pick at 141st overall in 2012, has developed at a steady pace, and his level of play and experience has helped the Big Red to an 11-5-3 record, including 7-3-0 in the ECAC and nationally ranked at No. 14.
“I think going to college was the best decision for me. It gives me a little more time to develop. I think playing against older, stronger, faster guys has prepared me for my future,” said Willcox during the Flyers’ development camp last June.
Another tall defensemen, who knows the pro game extensively with 14 years in the National Hockey League and has his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, is Flyers Player Development Coach Kjell Samuelsson.
“The path he took was perfect for him because when he was drafted he was skinny and tall and was still growing,” said Samuelsson. “He’s really taken advantage of the way the college season is - a lot of practicing and off-ice workouts, and he’s gotten a lot stronger. Because of that he’s become a good hockey player.”
From a numbers perspective he has improved, recording a pair of power-play goals and nine points to lead Cornell’s blueline, but it’s the experience of being with the team for four years that has helped develop his game more than anything.
Willcox is one of four captains on the team, and at 6’4’’ and 204 pounds, he is a main-stay on the team’s penalty-killing unit.
“He’s a tall player, who could be stronger,” added Samuelsson. “That’s what he is working on because he’s a late bloomer. When he gets stronger, he’s going to be an even better defender, because his priority in his game is defending well and then moving the puck up to the forwards. When you enter professional hockey, there’s a lot of emphasis on defense and the way that he plays.”
For now, joining the professional ranks will have to wait until the summer or fall months. The 21-year old blue-liner, who turns 22 in March, will remain focused on his studies, as well as the ECAC tournament, slated to begin on March 18 in Lake Placid, NY.
For more on Flyers prospects playing in the NCAA, junior and European hockey leagues see below…