While U.S. college football often steals the spotlight in the fall season, college hockey certainly doesn’t need to take a back seat when it comes to producing quality athletes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). College hockey is making a bigger impact in the NHL than ever before.
During the 2013-14 season alone, there were 305 former college players skating in the NHL, representing 31 per cent of the League, an 11 per cent spike since 2000. These days, with more college players turning pro, it’s the next largest resource pool or talent second only to major junior hockey. NHL Drafts have featured at least 60 current or future college players for 12 consecutive years and teams continue to scour the NCAA ranks for free agent signees as well.
The Oilers brass have been adept at nabbing NCAA talent with a League-high 10 players on the Oilers roster to start the season. With seven currently in the lineup, six have been acquired via free agency or trades including Justin Schultz (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Mark Fayne (Providence College), Ben Scrivens (Cornell University), Matt Hendricks (St. Cloud State), Mark Arcobello (Yale University) and Teddy Purcell (University of Maine). Rounding out our college alumni, Jeff Petry (Michigan State) is the lone Oilers draft pick in this group selected 45th overall in the 2006 NHL Draft. Brad Hunt (Bemidji State), Richard Bachman (Colorado College) and Will Acton (Lake Superior State) have also seen time with the big club this
Once a hidden resource gem, college hockey has become one of the biggest suppliers of talent to the NHL, surpassing all European leagues. This strong collegiate presence in the Oilers lineup doesn’t come as a big surprise to the Oilers Senior Director of Player Development, Rick Carriere. “The rise of college players is something that’s been a real trend lately. When they turn pro, college guys are more mature
and they’ve already lived on their own,” said Carriere. “Their life skills play a huge role in their transition to pro because they’ve had to focus on two very big disciplines (academics and hockey). This creates a very mature athlete.”
Carriere notices one of the biggest improvements this season is how enhanced the team’s system and structure has been. He thinks a big factor in this is the presence of these collegiate athletes in the blue and orange. “College coaches have more time to implement structure in their games,” said Carriere. “If you come through a strong college program, you leave understanding different defensive structures and right now that’s a big part of our current team.”
Two of these anchors on the Oilers blue line with degrees in their back pockets are Justin Schultz and Mark Fayne who both exude a cool and calm demeanour when it comes to their playing style.
While studying life sciences communications, Schultz still managed to find time to rewrite the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) and NCAA record books from 2009-12. Named a Hobey Baker Award finalist (an honour given annually to the top collegiate hockey player in the country) for two years in a row, Schultz became the fifth Badger to land as a top-10 finalist in only four seasons. The Badgers’ assistant captain was also honoured as the WCHA’s Defensive Player of the Year in both 2011 and 2012, making him only the third player in history to earn the accolade twice.
A dominant player both defensively and offensively, Schultz became the first UW D-man to lead the team in goal scoring after finding the back of the net 16 times in 2011-12. His career-high 40-goal milestone in three seasons ranks him third all-time on Wisconsin’s scoring list among defencemen with Schultz also sitting ninth all-time in WCHA history.
Schultz’s head coach with the Badgers attributes his ability to log impressive minutes in the NHL to his competitiveness and natural ability. “Justin really enjoyed being at the University of Wisconsin, he loved the college atmosphere and as a hockey player, he learned to compete against bigger, stronger men although he’s not the biggest, strongest guy,” said Mike Eaves, Head Coach, UW Badgers. “He learned important body position and use of stick and he’s taken his competitiveness and learned to use it at the NHL level and that’s what’s helped him. I see it now when I watch him, he’s grown in that aspect, but he’s learned to use the tricks of the trade from college.”
Schultz became the first Wisconsin blueliner to reach the100-point milestone since fellow Badger turned NHL star Brian Rafalski achieved this in 1994-95. He finished his college career with 113 points, tying him for eighth place all-time among all UW defenceman.
Many regard Madison as one of the best college towns in the U.S. and Schultz treasured playing in front of an NHL atmosphere. He shares that the college route helped instil values that he’s carried with him to the Oilers.
“College in general really helped me as a hockey player and a person. I was given every opportunity to strengthen my game, especially on the powerplay and in general, the college experience was special to be part of,” said Schultz. “Wisconsin definitely prides itself in being a hard-working school and it’s similar to our mindset here. The Oilers strive for the best work ethic in the League every day so I’ve carried that with me all along.”
Another D-man logging important minutes for the Oil, Fayne took the college route suiting up with the Providence College Friars (2006-10) while studying business management keeping close to his New England roots before turning pro.
Fayne posted 49 points (16G, 33A) in 139 games, only missing one game in his college career. Tim Army, his head coach with the Friars, now in his second season as assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche, understands the transition from college to pro. He cites a challenge being the amount of games played (44-45 games if you make the NCAA playoffs and Frozen Four) versus major junior players accustomed to playing twice as many games, plus playoffs.
“Being ready to bring the same game every night and the demand of playing a lot of games can sometimes be hard when a college player first turns pro,” said Army. “It’s a huge grind and they’re not used to it like the major junior players are.”
Beyond being high-performing athletes, college players are held to a high academic standard as well. “People don’t realize what college athletes go through, it’s extremely demanding,” said Army. “If they can’t do the job in school, they can’t play.”
In Fayne’s case, Army shared high praise crediting his maturity and development to his four years at college where he wore the ‘C’ for the Friars in his senior year. He noted Mark’s desire to entrench himself in the college atmosphere. “A lot of guys like to hide at school, but he didn’t. Mark wanted to be part of it. As a leader he grew and by the end, all of the guys on the team really looked up to him,” said Army. “How he’s matured is really impressive and he’s grown into a very good NHL defenceman.”
While being a reliable stay-at-home D-man seems to be Fayne’s bread and butter, it’s his character that won Coach Army over and it’s something Oilers fans will cherish for the next four years in Oil Country.
“In his senior year he was willing to play with a freshman and Mark really took him under his wing while also maintaining the elevation of his own game. You’re the draft pick of the Devils, you want points and you’d rather play with an older guy with experience, but Mark accepted that role,” recalled Army. “It was the best reflection of Mark’s character.”
While the Oilers continue this season with added depth on the roster, like Carriere, Schultz isn’t surprised by the rise of college players skating for the Oil every night. “I’m not surprised by our college numbers, not anymore anyways, but maybe if you asked me a couple years ago my answer might be different. There’s so much talent out of college these days and guys are learning it’s a smart route,” said Schultz. “The extra time to develop professionally and personally is a big positive.”
The rise of college hockey players is certainly changing the makeup of NHL rosters and with more collegiate prospects in our development pipeline, the Oilers brass will continue to narrow in on the NCAA ranks for high-end talent and free agent signees to get to the top of the class in the League.