EDMONTON, AB - A hockey education, for players who spend their junior days at various NCAA collegiate programs across North America, is about more than just hockey.
"College is a grind," Endicott College Gulls defenceman and Dean's List recipient Logan Day said. "Every game matters because there isn't many of them, so you have to bring it every day in the gym, at practice and on game days while making sure you're on top of school work."
In a sport where a prospect's bonafide path to pro for years has been through the Canadian Hockey League, a boost in collegiate talent over the past decade across the NHL has started to buck that trend. For the Oilers, nine of the 24 prospects who attended last week's Development Camp in Edmonton spent their 2017-18 seasons in one of the NCAA's top three divisions.
"The NCAA is really great for development and for helping guys get bigger and stronger," University of Michigan Wolverines centre Cooper Marody said. "You can build your body up more to get ready for the next level as there's not as many games, and academically it's huge for progressing mentally to become a more complete man."
The 21-year-old was acquired by the Oilers from the Philadelphia Flyers for a third-round pick back in March, completing his third season for Michigan with 51 points in 40 games before tallying a goal and two assists in a three-game stint with the Bakersfield Condors.
Multiple seasons of experience against faster, stronger, and older players gives collegiate prospects a better snapshot of what to expect at the pro level. For management, that could mean a better gauge on their potential NHL readiness and potential.
"We watch them really close in college," Oilers Vice-President of Player Development Scott Howson said. "The college game is different. It's a more mature game and can be a faster game with stronger players."
Boston College centre J.D. Dudek, whose rights were acquired by the Oilers along with a third-round pick as part of the trade that sent Patrick Maroon to the New Jersey Devils, elected to take the Division I route after being drafted in the sixth round in 2014 by the Devils.
The Auburn, N.H. native's father Joe Dudek had a storied collegiate career in football at Plymouth State, breaking the NCAA record for career touchdowns and finishing ninth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1985 before playing two games for the Denver Broncos.
"I'm 22 now going through the process day-in, day-out," Dudek said. "Playing 40 games gives us a lot more time in the gym to get stronger and work on things off the ice that are also going to make us better. I'm excited to go back for my senior year, get stronger, help the team win and finish my education."
Pursuing a degree in Education, Dudek is prepared to take on a leadership role in his final year at Boston College alongside teammate and fellow Oilers prospect Graham McPhee after competing on a young Eagles roster that fell one game short of a spot in the NCAA national championship tournament.
"We weren't highly ranked and expected to do much," Dudek added. "We had no seniors, four juniors and the rest were freshmen and sophomores - we were a really young team and really gave the program something to look forward to and just missed a spot in the playoffs."