On Opening Night, the Minnesota Wild had 12 former college hockey players on its roster, the most among all National Hockey League teams. However, with the highest number of collegiate-experienced athletes, the Wild isn’t a deviation from the norm—more an indicator of an upward trend.
Last season, 305 skaters (31 percent of the NHL) were National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) alumni. In the last decade, the number of NHLers coming from college has jumped about 35 percent.
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher has seen the increase of college players in the NHL and the team’s roster has followed suit.
“There wasn’t a plan to find college kids, but it goes to show you how strong American college hockey is now,” Fletcher said. “There are so many more former college players that are playing in the NHL. It’s a great avenue to become a player.”
Many have the opportunity to choose between Canadian junior or college hockey. The Canadian junior route has produced the greatest number of NHLers, but more and more players are earning roster spots in the League after attending college.
For Wild players like Zach Parise (North Dakota), Ryan Suter (Wisconsin) and Thomas Vanek (Minnesota), it seemed like their destiny was always going to be the NHL. All three were first-round draft picks in 2003, but decided to pursue their pro hockey career through the college route.
“I felt it was the spot that could develop me best for the NHL— that’s really what it came down to,” Parise said. “I got pointed in that direction by some pretty influential hockey people and it was a great decision for me.”
Time To Develop
For the most part, it’s rare for a teenager to make the leap to the NHL and make an immediate impact. Players like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, who were both first-overall picks and regular contributors to their clubs in their teens, are few and far between.
The average teenager isn’t as freakishly skilled or physically mature as Crosby or Stamkos and needs more time to work on their game.
The average age of an NHL rookie is 23. Last season, there were only 21 teenagers in the League, and 20 of them were first-round picks. Of those players, only nine were regulars on their club’s roster.
“From a hockey standpoint, college hockey provides you with a development setting for as long a period as possible, depending on when you enter college,” said Mike Snee, Executive Director of College Hockey Inc. “With four years of eligibility, that could be up to age 24.”
College Hockey Inc. was formed five years ago to help inform young players and their parents about the benefits of college hockey both on and off the ice.
“The college hockey environment, with a very manageable travel schedule with Friday and Saturday games, allows significant practice time and time to be on the ice,” Snee said. “Just as important: Significant time to be in a weight room and training off the ice.”
As far as physical maturity goes, college hockey allows players to grow and pack on muscle.
“Developmentally, particularly for kids that need a little more time, college is a much better route and it’s worked well for us,” Fletcher said. “The one problem with Canadian Juniors, you have to make a decision on the kids when they’re 20 years old. With college you can extend that deadline for a couple of years and it allows the later developing kids a little bit more time.”
Many players who attend college go undrafted, but that doesn’t mean an end to their pro dreams. Christian Folin (UMass Lowell), Justin Fontaine (University of Minnesota Duluth) and Nate Prosser (Colorado College) all passed through their eligibility for the NHL Entry Draft unpicked. Still, they were able to use time in college to improve and prepare for pro hockey.
Folin wanted to go to an up and coming school. He saw UMass Lowell as a program that would allow him the necessary ice time and a staff that would work with him to advance.
“I met with the coaching staff and had a really good feeling,” Folin said. “There was an assistant coach, Jason Lammers, who was really good and a guy who works with you on a day-to-day basis and wants you to get better. That’s something that I really wanted for my development.”
The Swede wasn’t a highly recruited prospect after spending two years with the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League (NAHL). But attending the smaller school about 30 miles north of Boston was the best decision the blueliner could’ve made.
“There wasn’t a ton of interest, it wasn’t like I had 20 teams to pick from, so I lucked out a bit with the school,” Folin said. “It was a great fit for me, I really enjoyed it. From the start, we played a defensive game, which is what I’m all about.”
After two years with the River Hawks, two Hockey East championships, a Frozen Four appearance, Folin was ready to make the jump to pro hockey. He was one of the hottest college free agents when he signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Wild following his sophomore year.
Folin is blessed with a prototypical NHL body, but many players are not quite as lucky. For several college players, time spent in school is also about maturing physically. Not everyone is fully grown as a freshman.
Prosser played junior hockey for three seasons for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League (USHL) even before committing to Colorado College.
“I think I was a late bloomer, so I didn’t really get strong and develop and build muscle until my early 20s instead of my late teens,” Prosser said. “So I went into CC as a 20-year-old and I needed those four years to grow up and become stronger in my game, become a better skater, get a better shot, all those kinds of things. By the time I was done I was 24 and basically a man at that time, so I needed that time.”
For Fontaine, who hails from Bonnyville, Alberta, getting bigger and stronger didn’t factor in at a young age. During his four college years in Duluth, he was given time to train and add strength.
“Growing up in my small town,
I never really got into weightlifting until I was 17 or 18, so I didn’t really know that was a big factor in the game,” Fontaine said. “I got a lot stronger when I got to college.”
Fontaine didn’t immediately make the jump to the NHL after school. He spent two years in the American Hockey League before cracking the Wild’s lineup last year. The structure of college and time in the weight room was much different than the minors.
“You’ve got someone who sets everything up, times for workouts and training, where in the minors you’re on your own,” Fontaine said. “It’s a good setup, there are mandatory workouts and it gets everyone together, which builds team bonding, too.”
Balancing Books And Hockey
For an athlete in college, hockey isn’t their only responsibility. They have to manage their class time and school work, along with their workouts and practice. The discipline of attending courses and maintaining a productive schedule is a helpful skill that translates into a more well-rounded athlete.
“When you’re going to college, you’re going to class and you have to balance your studies with your training off the ice and practicing and playing,” Fletcher said. “I think they come out with a real good sense of time management—certainly they’ve had to take on a lot of responsibility just to get through college, so you’re talking about a much more mature person, generally.”
When a coaching staff is willing to give a college player a chance, there’s a level of accountability on the player to stay eligible academically.
“They invested in me. They only have a certain amount of scholarships, so I wanted to pay that back,” Folin said. “I felt like since the coaching staff brought me in,
I felt like I was responsible to take care of the school part of it. I saw it more like work. Go to work and then have fun afterwards with hockey.”
Like any other college kid, hockey players are living on their own and responsible for the everyday tasks of young adulthood.
“Making your own meals, cooking, laundry, cleaning, upkeep of your room, that helped me out,” Prosser said. “I’m still kind of a neat freak to this day because I don’t like clothes all over the floor or a big load of dirty laundry, I like to keep things tidy.
“A lot of that probably came from being on my own.”
The Elk River native knew that getting away from the comfort
of home and the umbrella of his parents would help him transition to adulthood.
“I kind of wanted to get away from home and that was a big step for me to mature as a man and grow up and be on my own,” Prosser said. “Whether you’re close to home or not, you’re on your own, making your own rules, making your own schedule and time for homework.”
Along with learning how to manage their daily routine, they’re getting an education in the classroom.
The NCAA recently released its Graduation Success Rate (GSR) data and college hockey leads all other sports in graduation rate. According to the NCAA’s GSR, 92.1 percent of players entering in 2007 graduated, best among all NCAA men’s sports.
The data measures student-athletes who enrolled in 2007. It’s a 6-point increase from the prior year and higher than the overall NCAA average graduation rate (84 percent).
“It was a tough school, I studied economics and it was really demanding,” Prosser said. “We had a lot of studying, a lot of reading, a lot of papers and tests. I really had to bear down, so I took pride in my GPA and making sure I worked hard in class, as well as on the ice.
“I like that I have my degree. If anything ever was to happen, you have that to fall back on.”
Time of Their Life
Like any other college kid, athletes are learning lessons in the classroom and in life, and they are doing it with their peers. For hockey players, they have a built in support system with their teammates.
“We had such a tight knit group because the campus was so small,” Prosser said. “We were able to branch out but there weren’t tons of (other students), so we had a close group, even to this day.”
Their fellow students look up to the team. The amateur atmosphere spills from the campus into the stands. College arenas are regularly packed with hockey-crazed students who want to let off steam on the weekend after studying for five-straight days.
“The college crowd, it’s awesome. For opposing teams, I think it was tough to come in and play there,” Parise said. “Even when you go on road games, the atmosphere of the college game is pretty cool.”
It was an eye-opening experience when Parise made the leap to the AHL. He went from the always sold-out Ralph Engelstad Arena at UND to crowds that were as sparsely populated as the North Dakota plains.
“Those Tuesday night games in Albany, where you had about 300 people that they announce, but it was really more like 100,” Parise said. “It was not as fun as college.”
Of course, the most fun comes from winning and an NCAA National Championship is the ultimate goal. Fontaine was a key member of the UMD Bulldogs team that won the title in 2011. The Frozen Four was at Xcel Energy Center, essentially giving the Bulldogs a home-ice advantage as it advanced to the championship game against the Michigan Wolverines.
The championship contest was a game for the ages, as the Bulldogs defeated the Wolverines in overtime, 3-2. It was the first NCAA hockey title in school history.
“It was unreal, especially here in Minnesota with so many fans cheering for us,” Fontaine said. “It’s pretty special when you think about it. When I look back when I’m older, to do it with all the guys, it will probably be one of my top moments.”
Making the leap to pro hockey
is difficult, but college has set up many players on the Wild roster for success. And even with their college days behind them, there are little lessons they learned in school that stick with them as they make the transition. Folin is still getting used to going from broke college kid to getting paid to play.
“It’s a big adjustment. I’m still adjusting, where you go out to
eat sometimes and you think, ‘I shouldn’t spend this much money on a dinner’ which would’ve been a full week for me in college,” Folin said. The blueliner recently paid a visit to the Olive Garden because that’s where he would go the day before games at UMass. He added, “It’s different, but I enjoy it, too. It’s hard to complain when you have a little extra in your pocket.”