Word that the Toronto Maple Leafs had signed defenceman Eric Knodel out of the University of New Hampshire didn’t sit well with Don Cherry.
“Leafs love those College guys,” the popular Canadian broadcaster wrote Wednesday as part of two Twitter posts. “Going to get a tryout with the Marlies. That means he takes a spot from some guy slugging it out on the buses. If you want to make the Leafs or get a tryout just go to a US College.”
Forget for a second that Knodel wasn’t a free agent but a 2009 fifth-round draft pick out of the Philadelphia suburbs, and that playing in college was a way to help turn the raw prospect into a professional. It was still a derisive swipe at U.S. college hockey, which in Canada is often considered an inferior path to the NHL compared to major-junior leagues.
“I think that if more Canadian families were exposed to what college can do — as parents for your kid socially, athletically and academically … I think more people would be doing it,” said University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery, a Montreal native who went to Maine and ended up playing 122 NHL games.
One opportunity for exposure is the NCAA tournament, which begins Friday and includes 109 Canadian players. There are 35 players from Ontario, 35 from British Columbia, 18 from Alberta and seven each from Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Many of those players are trying to follow in the footsteps of several successful Canadian NHLers who went to college, including four members of the gold-medal-winning Sochi Olympic team: Jonathan Toews (North Dakota), Martin St. Louis (Vermont), Patrick Sharp (Vermont) and Chris Kunitz (Ferris State).
Among the 945 players to see NHL action this season, 100 were Canadians who played at a U.S. college.
Naturally, many went the more traditional road, through the QMJHL, OHL or WHL. But the NCAA is slowly becoming another acceptable way to get there.
“There’s no wrong path,” Phoenix Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving said. “I think as a Canadian guy you grew up and you’re around major junior hockey more, so … you’re closer to it than you are U.S. colleges, but, jeez, there’s no wrong answer. It’s an individual choice and there’s benefits to both.”
Treliving said major junior hockey is the “quicker” path to the NHL because it has more of a pro-style schedule and grind. But others point to college’s 40-game season as a better chance for some players to develop. There’s more opportunity to lift weights and practice.
“There’s the Sidney Crosbys and the Ovechkins and the Malkins of the world that could grow under a rock and are going to play in the NHL,” Montgomery said. “There’s other perfect examples — elite players like the Paul Kariyas of the world. Those are the ones everyone knows but it’s like, did he really need to go to college? Well, Paul Kariya needed to go to college because he was 155 pounds and in 18 months of college he was 175 pounds ready to play against 30-year-old men that are 225 pounds.
“It teaches you how to be a man quick.”
Craig Simpson knows the perception of college hockey has changed a lot in the 30 years since he went to Michigan State. His son Dillon enters the NCAA tournament as North Dakota’s senior captain.
Simpson, now an analyst for “Hockey Night In Canada,” said college hockey wasn’t even on the radar when he played for the Spartans. He went on to become the second overall pick in the 1985 draft and played over 600 NHL games.
“For me it’s the greatest balance of being able to continue with your academics and still try to play at a really high level and become an NHL player,” he said.
Still, Simpson knows there are stumbling blocks to getting more Canadians to play NCAA hockey.
“I think the most part, unfortunately, a lot of parents out here (in Western Canada) anyways don’t know what the options are with U.S. college hockey,” Simpson said in a phone interview.
“They all look and they see the Western Hockey League scouts and talk to them every single day and everybody knows what the Edmonton Oil Kings or the Calgary Hitmen or Prince Albert Raiders, who they are.”
Simpson said it’s difficult for parents to get that information without having some connection. He’s proud that Dillon, a 2011 fourth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers following his freshman season, chose to take the college route.
Not every Canadian player who might want to play college hockey is so lucky. Simpson pointed to NCAA eligibility rules that prevent teenage hockey players from going to college if they’ve been in the CHL or participated in an exhibition game, as they’re considered professionals.
“I think it would change a lot if you see some players who are good students and maybe it didn’t work out in junior that are 18 or 19 now and had an opportunity to go to college, you’d have a lot more notoriety in Canada,” Simpson said.
Perhaps some notoriety can come from watching this NCAA tournament. Boston College defenceman Michael Matheson (Pointe-Claire, Que.) is a first-round pick and top prospect for the Florida Panthers, while Quinnipiac has Connor and Kellen Jones (Montrose, B.C.) and Matthew Peca(Petawawa, Ont.).
Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel (Swift Current, Sask.) has been one of the best in the country this season and could soon follow in the footsteps of other recent Canadian college players like Matt Read, Ben Scrivens and Cory Conacher who have signed NHL contracts.
Hamilton brothers Greg and Matt Carey recently signed deals with the Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, after playing at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. Greg Carey came away satisfied with his direction, which was only possible because playing tier-2 junior hockey opened him up to the world of U.S. colleges.