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Canadian prospects like NCAA option better than CHL

by John McGourty
There once was a time that nearly all NCAA Division I hockey players were Canadians. Very few of them had NHL aspirations or ability, but they used their hockey talent to secure a free college education that prepared them well for life after hockey.

Goalie Ken Dryden was one of, if not the, first Canadians to go the American college route to the NHL. Dryden led Cornell to the 1967 NCAA championship, played for the Canadian national team and then joined the Montreal Canadiens organization, who obtained Dryden's rights from Boston, the team that drafted him in 1964. After playing part-time for the Canadiens' AHL farm club while attending law school in Montreal, Dryden joined the Canadiens late in the 1970-71 season and led them to the Stanley Cup.

American-born Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke played at Providence College from 1973-77, and recalled, "When I was there, well over half the Division I players were Canadian. It's lower than that now, but then it was about 60-70 percent. When I went to Providence College, we were about 75-80 percent Canadian."

Things hadn't changed much a decade later, when Dallas Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk followed Dryden's route to Cornell.

"When I went to Cornell, my whole team was from Canada," Nieuwendyk said. "Except for one guy … almost everyone in Division I was from Canada then.

"There are a lot more talented American players filling up roster spots in American college hockey now so there aren't as many opportunities for Canadians as before."

With the rise in the number of American-born hockey players and a limited number of college scholarships, however, things have changed. While there still are a sizable number of Canadians playing NCAA hockey, the numbers are far fewer.

In recent seasons, Canadians like Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny (Denver, 2005), Carolina Hurricanes left wing Ryan Bayda (North Dakota, 2000), and Boston Bruins right wing Chuck Kobasew (Boston College, 2001), among others, have led their colleges to NCAA championships.

But the overwhelming majority of NHL-caliber Canadians choose to play in one of Canada's three major junior leagues -- the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League, which together are governed by the Canadian Hockey League. By NCAA rules, players who play in these leagues lose their college eligibility.

"The majority of (NHL) players still come out of major juniors," Burke said. "It's still the shortest and best and most certain way to get to our League. We're fortunate with the European and college option for players who were late bloomers or maybe smaller players who choose that route and turn into players.

"So we're fortunate, we have three pipelines -- the European pipeline, the CHL pipeline and the college pipeline. They all produce good players."

This year, four top players available for the 2009 Entry Draft have chosen the NCAA route -- Louis Leblanc, Alex Chiasson, Brandon Pirri and Corban Knight.

"We're fortunate, we have three pipelines -- the European pipeline, the CHL pipeline and the college pipeline. They all produce good players."
-- Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke

Leblanc led Montreal's Midget AAA league in scoring two straight seasons before playing this past season with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League, where he led the team in scoring with 28 goals and 59 points. He moved from No. 18 to No. 13 among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final draft rankings, and will play at Harvard University in the fall.

"As a family, we embrace education," Leblanc said. "It has always been a big factor in my life. I like studying and learning new things so I thought the college route was better for me.

"My mom, Marie, is a piano teacher and my dad, Yves, is a chemist. They're both well educated and they take education seriously. It was up to me. If I didn't want to go to college I could have gone to the QMJHL and do what I could there with school."

While an Ivy League education is Leblanc's goal, it doesn't hurt that his future coach had a long NHL career.

"Ted Donato, the coach there played 14 years in the NHL and I think he can show me some things that other coaches can't," Leblanc said. "The name Harvard always helps. It's one of the greatest educations available in the world and I'm looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to the lifestyle and meeting new people."

Leblanc doesn't know how long he'll stay at Harvard before turning pro.

"Right now, I'm thinking of going year-by-year," he said. "Obviously finishing with a Harvard degree would be awesome. It would be a great thing for me, but if after finishing two or three years there an NHL team wants me and it's the best thing for me in terms of hockey development, I think I would go and finish my degree during the summers or when I'm finished playing hockey."

NHL Scouting Combine GearAlex Chiasson, Central Scouting's No. 34-ranked North American skater, opted for the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers ahead of the Val d'Or Foreurs of the QMJHL. The Quebec City native, a tall, powerful right wing, led Des Moines with 50 points, and has committed to national-champion Boston University, where he expects to play significant minutes as a freshman.

"When I was younger, I was an A student. I chose U.S. college for studies and because I thought it was the best thing for me in hockey, at the same time," Chiasson said. "You never know what's going to happen after hockey, whether you're not good enough or something bad happens. It was the best decision for me."

"Boston University hockey, what can I say? What a great team they had this year, national champions. It's a great team with great coaching. It's an amazing atmosphere at the school. It's the best fit for me. I visited for three days in October, visited the rink and hung out with the guys. I fell in love with it. (Fitness trainer) Mike Boyle is there and he's known around the world for what he's done with hockey players. It was a big decision but at the end it's the best thing for me."

Chiasson is 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds but he'll probably mature to near 220. Boyle, who works with high-level pros like Mike Grier, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, will help him add weight while maintaining flexibility.

Like Chiasson, center Brandon Pirri is tall and thin and likely will fill out more in the next few years. He chose RPI, rather than Sudbury of the OHL, after playing two seasons in the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

"I've been a smaller player since I was young," Pirri said. "My dream has always been to play in the NHL. When I get to the NHL, I want to stay there and not be bouncing around the minors. I feel that by going to college, it will give me the time that I need to develop as a hockey player and as a person.

"I'm a good student but I chose RPI more because I really believe in the coaching staff, that they're going to get me to the level I need to be to be a dominant hockey player. In college hockey, with the shorter schedule, it will work to my strengths. I'll have more time to work out, get bigger and stronger. When I go to play pro hockey, I'll be physically ready to play against men."

Pirri was measured at 6-feet, 160 pounds by Central Scouting when the season started, but Pirri says he's up to 180 now. The gain in weight matched a gain in stature -- after finishing third in the league with 94 points, he moved from No. 80 in Central Scouting's midterm rankings to No. 75 in the final release.

"I'm taking working out very seriously this summer and nutrition has also been an important part of that, too," said Pirri. "I have a personal trainer that works with (Edmonton Oilers center) Andrew Cogliano and we work out five times a week."

Pirri said he's sure he made the right choice.

"With an open schedule, not playing so many games, I'll be working out more and growing physically more," Pirri said. "I'll be playing against a lot of older guys, some 24 years old, which is the average age in pro hockey. I think I'll be better prepared when I do play pro hockey."

Knight also is headed for U.S. college -- in his case, the University of North Dakota -- but unlike Leblanc, Chiasson and Pirri, his route was written for him. Knight had to play for the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League after being passed over in the WHL draft.

"I was pretty small when I was 14 years old, about 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9 -- a pretty small kid and I didn't weigh very much," said Knight, who went from unrated at midseason to No. 64 in Central Scouting's final North American skater rankings. "I had a good year in Bantam AA (but) I didn't even play AAA and a lot of the WHL bantam-draft players come out of AAA. It was a case of our family not being able to afford AAA and the program I was in was a very good one. Things turned out well, but, yeah, I got passed over in the WHL draft.

"I tried out as a 17-year-old for Okotoks and I had every intention of playing for them but it didn't work and I got sent back to AAA. I started out with Okotoks this year -- it was my rookie year and the only team I've been with."

Knight had 34 goals and 72 points in 61 games, and will play one more season with Okotoks before going to North Dakota.

Knight was sold after meeting with UND coach Dave Hakstol.

"The biggest thing is North Dakota is an unbelievable place," said Knight. "I had such a respect for the coaches when I met them and I trusted them. It will be something else to play in front of 12,000 people every night. Also, they've turned out a lot of players who turned pro -- Jonathan Toews and Zach Parise are pretty good NHL players. My dream is to play in the NHL so they've turned out some good hockey players there. That made it one of the best ways for me to go."

Contact John McGourty at

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