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College Kids Making The Grade In The NHL

by Eric Shuff / Nashville Predators
There are multiple paths available to top prospects looking to make it to the NHL, and the college route is as strong as any of them

To get to the National Hockey League, players have the opportunity take different paths. After their early hockey careers, many players follow the path that travels through juniors. Others head down the path that leads through hockey in the NCAA.

NCAA Products at 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend
• Jonathan Toews – Univ. of North Dakota
• David Backes – Minnesota State-Mankato
• Ryan Kesler – Ohio State
• Phil Kessel – Univ. of Minnesota
• Patrick Sharp – Univ. of Vermont
• Martin St. Louis – Univ. of Vermont
• Dan Boyle – Miami Univ.
• Duncan Keith – Michigan State
• Tim Thomas – Univ. of Vermont

• Kevin Shattenkirk – Boston Univ.
• Derek Stepan – Univ. of Wisconsin

The NCAA has been known to produce some of the NHL’s top talent over the years. Former NHL stars John Leclair (Vermont) and Tony Amonte (Boston University) both came out of college hockey and had successful NHL careers. Current stars include Montreal’s Mike Cammalleri (Michigan) and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller (Michigan State).

When asked why so many players that come through college hockey see success in the NHL, Nashville Predators Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty attributes the success to two major factors.

“The players that come out of college are a little bit older and physically mature,” Kealty said. “In college, you have a week to prepare for a set of weekend games, so a player’s physical training is higher than that of other leagues.”

“The coaches in top college programs realize that there are a lot of things they have to do to structure weight training, nutrition and discipline year-round,” Predators Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton said. “These coaches create successful programs and players through this type of structure.”

Both Kealty and Fenton took the college path themselves. Kealty played four years at Boston University from 1994-98. He was drafted 22nd overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, and was signed by the Predators as a free agent in 1998. Fenton also played four seasons at Boston University from 1978-82 and continued on to a strong pro career that saw him amass 183 points (100g-83a) in 411 NHL games with Hartford (now Carolina), the New York Rangers, Los Angeles, Winnipeg (now Phoenix), Toronto, Calgary and San Jose and 403 points (228g-183a) in 356 more professional games at the minor league level.

“The biggest difference with college now is that players are leaving earlier,” Kealty said. “When I was there, a lot of players that went pro played four years of college hockey. Now it appears players leave early, so it makes some of the elite players in college a bit younger these days.”

Two players that left college hockey early to pursue professional hockey careers are Predators defenseman Ryan Suter and second-year forward Colin Wilson.

Suter played at the University of Wisconsin for his freshman year in 2003-04 following in the footsteps of his father, Bob, and uncles, Gary and John. During his time with the Badgers, Suter was named to the All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association Third Team and the All-WCHA Rookie team. He was drafted seventh overall by Nashville in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and has been a major part of the team’s success since 2005.

Wilson’s career with the Boston University Terriers spanned from 2007-09, ending with victory in the National Championship Game in April 2009. Wilson was also named a finalist for the 2009 Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the nation’s top college hockey player. He was drafted seventh overall by Nashville in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He credits much of his success in the NHL to things he experienced on-ice while playing with Boston U.

“Since the games in college are more physical and faster than other leagues, you learn how to play a smart game,” Wilson said. “You learn how to pick your areas as opposed to a run-around game.”

Wilson believed the team’s system was not just taught by the coaches, however. Veterans had a major impact on the players. Older players on his BU team were an integral part in Wilson’s growth on and off the ice.

Teammate and fellow college hockey product Chris Mueller agreed that a veteran presence is a great way to learn and prepare.

“Battling against an older age group teaches you to keep your head up and to be more strategic during games,” Mueller said. “You just have to be prepared for so you’re not afraid to be more aggressive in each game.”

Mueller played for the Michigan State Spartans from 2004-08. In his time, Mueller was part of the Spartans’ national championship team two years before Wilson’s Terriers won it. He tied for the team lead in points during the team’s NCAA Tournament run with 10 in just five games.

Mueller and Wilson agreed that their time in the national championship spotlight was helpful in their development as a young hockey player.

“It’s a big stage, and you have 18-19,000 fans in the building cheering for or against you,” Wilson said. “Learning to play with that kind of pressure is very helpful at the next level.”

Said Mueller: “You learn to play with a lot of pressure on your shoulders. You learn when you get to the pros that each game is high-pressure, so the national championship prepares you for just that.”

Several Predators prospects traveled the college hockey path to their professional careers. Rookie forwards Ryan Thang and Blake Geoffrion are putting up solid performances with the Milwaukee Admirals – both ranking in the Top 10 in points on the team.

Thang played four years at the University of Notre Dame from 2006-10. In his time there, he was named the team’s captain for his senior year and is one of just 30 players in the history of the program to post more than 50 goals and 50 assists in his career.

Geoffrion’s career with the University of Wisconsin spanned the same years as Thang. While playing for the Badgers, he won the 2010 Hobey Baker Memorial Award, and helped his team to the 2010 NCAA National Championship Game. A Brentwood, Tenn., native, Geoffrion grew up playing hockey in the Nashville Youth Hockey League and in 2006 became the first Nashvillian to be selected in the NHL Entry Draft, going 56th overall (second round) to the Predators.

Fenton has seen a rise in hockey players coming from southern United States, but notices a lot of room for growth.

“If we can get some more colleges like University of Alabama-Huntsville involved more in the South, you can build that infrastructure to help players move on to teams like the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers or Florida Panthers,” Fenton said.

This weekend, the Merrimack College Warriors and Alabama-Huntsville Chargers took part in the first NCAA games ever played at Bridgestone Arena. These teams showcased the talents that college hockey develops in front of hockey fans from outside the traditional northern hockey markets. The game featured players such as the 2009-10 Hockey East Rookie of the Year – Merrimack’s Stephane Da Costa – and Blake Geoffrion’s younger brothers – UAH’s Brice and Sebastian Geoffrion.

No matter the road a player chooses, it is hard to ignore the strengths of competing in collegiate hockey with the types of players it has developed over the years. With growth in different parts of the country in youth and junior hockey, college hockey provides a great opportunity to grow as long as the paths continue to be paved for those wanting to travel them.

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