Road to the Pros: NCAA hockey, a rising trend
When you walk into Thompson Arena, the features you are most likely to notice are the larger-than- life portraits that line the rink’s walls depicting Dartmouth graduates who have gone on to careers in professional hockey. Undeniably, the College has a strong presence in the NHL.
In this year’s playoffs, three former Big Green standouts competed in the annual quest for the Stanley Cup. David Jones ’08 and the Minnesota Wild fell to the Dallas Stars in six games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. While former teammate Ben Lovejoy ’06 and the Pittsburgh Penguins knocked out Tanner Glass ’07 and the New York Rangers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Lee Stempniak ’05 and the Boston Bruins fell just short of garnering the eighth and final seed in the East. On top of those four players, Bill Daly ’86 serves as Deputy Commissioner of the NHL, second in command to Gary Bettman.
Across the board, more former college hockey players are playing in the NHL than ever. According to collegehockeyinc.com, 36 percent of NHL debuts over the last seven years are former college hockey players. College players are not just playing in the NHL, but excelling in it. Among those stars are Duncan Keith from Michigan State University and Jonathan Toews from the University of North Dakota of the Chicago Blackhawks, Joe Pavelski from the University of Wisconsin of the San Jose Sharks and T.J. Oshie from the University of North Dakota of the Washington Capitals. This year’s class of NHL rookies features three future superstars in Jack Eichel from Boston University, Shayne Gostisbehere from Union College and Dylan Larkin from the University of Michigan who have pundits believing that the rise of college hockey is not temporary.
Dartmouth men’s hockey coach Bob Gaudet ’81 credits the NHL for developing the game, making it a more popular sport nationwide and enticing some of the best young American athletes into the game.
“The NHL has done a really good job of expanding hockey, so kids are playing really all over the country now,” he said. “The NHL has teams in California and Florida along with the traditional areas. I honestly think that hockey in the United States is getting really high caliber athletes to play. Kids that are really good athletes are playing hockey and spreading the word about the game and the energy and the excitement of the game.”
To Gaudet’s point, the 2016 NHL playoffs featured three teams from California, two from Florida, one from Tennessee and one from Texas. In the upcoming NHL draft, the consensus number one overall pick is Auston Matthews, a center who was born in San Francisco and grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona. Clearly, hockey is taking roots in regions where previously it was either absent or irrelevant.
A frequent reason young hockey players opt for the more traditional junior path as opposed to collegiate hockey is the lengthy schedule major junior teams play, more closely replicating an NHL schedule.
As Eric Robinson ’14, currently playing for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League, an affiliate of the Nashville Predators of the NHL and Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, points out, the number of games in the season is the only major discrepancy between junior and college players.
“They play over two times as many as we do. You can’t go out and watch a practice not knowing who’s who and point out which guy is a college guy and which guy is a junior guy,” Robinson said.
While many experts have previously pointed to the difference in schedule as a disadvantage of college hockey, Gaudet argues that fewer games can actually be beneficial to his players. He said that the team usually plays 34 games, depending on how playoffs go. Junior players play almost double that.
“So the amount of practice time you have to hone your abilities is a lot less,” he said. “A lot of your practice is just maintenance type things because you’re getting ready to play again. With us, there’s real development. We’ll do skill work. We’ll have weight training that will be meaningful with a high-caliber strength and conditioning coach. The NCAA and Division I hockey is a great development model.”
Now more than ever, Gaudet thinks that the speed of the NHL game requires players to be in elite shape through exceptional development.
“I see the game as being better now than it was a couple years ago at the pro level,” he said. “The speed, the creativity, for a little bit it was getting bogged down with so much shot blocking, and there’s quite a bit of that now, but the skill level, the creativity, and the speed of the game right now is just fabulous. Enhancements in coaching and training has really improved the game. Our kids are practicing more than they’re playing, and that’s a really good developmental model. We [are around] a 3-to-1 practices to games ratio, so our kids are working on skills, conditioning and injury prevention through stretching and nutrition. The speed of the game is increasing, and our kids have been able to keep up with that.”
Both Tyler Sikura ’15 of the AHL’s Portland Pirates and Robinson agreed that the NCAA offers young hockey players a unique opportunity for development.
“The great thing about college is you have four years to improve yourself,” Robinson said. “Whether or not Philadelphia or anyone else knew that Shayne Gostisbehere was going to be quarterbacking the Flyers’ power play in the playoffs, he did his time in college and proved himself there, and he definitely deserves to be where he is. My time at Dartmouth definitely developed me for the pro game.”
Sikura points out that some players may be naturally predisposed to not showing their potential until later in their careers.
“There’s a lot of late bloomers coming out of college after having gotten a couple of more years to develop,” he said. “College really prepares you for the pro game in terms of being a well-rounded person and in terms of time management and being away from home.”
Gaudet contends that the players at Dartmouth who have gone on to NHL careers have been his hardest workers, and most willing to take advantage of the developmental opportunities at the College.
“[They] are the hardest working, most dedicated guys on our team because they’re trying to get every ounce of ability out of them,” Gaudet said. “They tend to be really good students because I think comprehensive excellence is a really big thing. You can’t be great in one thing and really poor in something else. If you’re diligent and detail oriented, you typically are across the board.”
Gaudet said Lee Stempniak, a player who has been in the professional circuit for about a decade, still comes back to talk to the Big Green’s strength coach.
“He still comes back to get better,” Gaudet said. “That’s why he is who he is. It’s quite a passion and quite a commitment to play at that level.”
He went on to use Stempniak as a specific example of the hard work necessary to make it from college to the NHL. He noted that Stempniak was one of his first players to be interested in yoga.
“He was a very bright kid and was interested in the kind of flexibility to get a half or a quarter step quicker in his stride. I thought it was really interesting, and it’s something we’ve incorporated. The roots of that were with Stempniak who wanted to branch out and be the best he possibly could be,” Gaudet said.
While Gaudet takes pride in his program’s NHL pedigree, he is quick to emphasize that NHL success is not the program’s primary objective.
“The number one thing is that kids are coming here to get an education,” Gaudet said.
He knows from his own experience that many professional careers will be over before they ever gain traction. Gaudet was offered a contract from the Quebec Nordiques, an NHL team at the time. After going back to school, Gaudet said he signed with the Winnipeg Jets as a free agent.
“I know very well that the game ends,” Gaudet said. “I wasn’t in the right place at the right time, which is really a key factor, or potentially, I wasn’t good enough. What I had was the opportunity to get a world class education and have the chance to be a pro. I never played in the NHL, but I was given a chance. The point is that the game ends — sometimes it ends early on in careers and sometimes guys play longer — but to have the opportunity to go to college and have a passion like hockey is a great thing.”
Robinson keeps this mentality in mind as he continues to pursue his own NHL dreams.
“For now, I hope [hockey is my career],” he said. “If I keep getting injured, maybe not. When athletes choose to play their sport at a school like Dartmouth, typically they realize that the sport is not going to last forever. I realized that before I got here, and I still do, but I love hockey, I’ve loved hockey since I was five years old. I want to make a career out of it until my body [gives out] or an organization doesn’t want to employ me. I will work to make that goal, but I’m pretty realistic and the fact that I have a degree from Dartmouth makes it so that there’s no pressure on me to play longer than I really should be.”
Robinson and Sikura are among several former players from the Big Green who have signed Amateur Try Out contracts. These contracts allow players who have finished their collegiate or junior seasons to transition into the NHL, AHL or ECHL. More recently, James Kruger ’16 signed an ATO with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, an affiliate of the Capitals.
As more Dartmouth players attempt to take advantage of the growing sport of college hockey, Gaudet emphasizes that his players have a unique opportunity to play elite hockey and receive an elite education. Gaudet said the team opens against the University of Michigan on Oct. 29 at home. The team plays and hosts nationally ranked talent such as the Wolverines, the Boston College Eagles, the Boston University Terriers, the University of Denver Boones and the Quinnipiac University Bobcats.
“We don’t need to take a back seat to anybody,” Gaudet said. “We’re playing one of the top schedules in the country. Our guys have the opportunity to play and aspire to be the best. We haven’t done that yet, but we’re challenging our guys with the best competition, with the highest level of hockey in the country at the college level. It’s a great level of hockey on top of a world class education.”