European Players Invade College Hockey

The business of hockey is changing in so many ways and so is its role in our culture. Hockey’s presence in the NCAA is just one of these changes and it’s slowly becoming the “go-to” route for more and more players aspiring to the pro level. Schools in the States are very different than Canadian schools, most noticeably seen in their facilities available to student-athletes. Like the CHL, they provide top tier coaches, development professionals, nutritionists, etc., but they’re also pumping out basketball players, volleyball players, and football players. It’s an athlete factory and it’s nothing like the schools in Canada.

The North American Decision

Boston University has recently become all the rage in college hockey. It’s where Jack Eichel, the No. 2 overall pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft came from. For American players like Eichel, taking the NCAA route to the NHL was a no-brainer decision. It seemed like the best option for him and today, no one can argue about that.

For current Canadian NHL prospects’ Brandon Hickey (drafted in 2014 at No. 64 overall) and A.J. Greer (drafted in 2015 at No. 39 overall), the decision to commit to Boston University may have been a little bit scarier, not because they’re young boys, but rather because they’re Canadians. Back in Canada, they grew up playing hockey with other Canadians who went on to play in the CHL, many of which are still playing there today. Their decisions to play College Hockey defied the status quo and eventually for Greer, he ended up leaving Boston to play for the Rouyn-Nouranda Huskies of the QMJHL.

Rising Trends in College Hockey

Greer isn’t the only guy from the 15’ Draft class to do this either. Jeremy Bracco was drafted at No. 61 overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs and he started his 2015-16 season off with Boston College. After five games, he made the switch to the CHL and is now playing with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. “I worked with him until October,” says Patrice Bouzan, a Learning Specialist and Academic Counsellor at Boston College. Weighing in the factor that the Leafs may be giving Bracco some kind of “educated” direction, it’s difficult to understand the reasons behind his switch to the CHL. “I think it was hockey related, “ says Bouzan. “It’s rare though.”
However, this switching rarity might not be so rare in the near future. Both Canadians and Americans are experiencing a cultural shift in their pursuits of playing pro hockey in the NHL… and so are the Europeans. The entire pursuit to the NHL is a culture. It’s a mindset. It’s a force to be reckoned with and it differs from country to country. Regardless of whether you’re Canadian, American or European, the NCAA route to the NHL is changing everywhere. “There’s a newer trend in men’s hockey,” Bouzan continues. “They’re playing in junior longer.” Players will delay their entry into College hockey so they can get bigger and better. They don’t want to be on the fourth line. Perhaps that’s the reason why Greer departed from Boston at the beginning of his sophomore season? After all, he was playing primarily in a third-line role.

Perhaps the uncertainty of where to play hockey while going to school lies more so with their talent? Maybe it has nothing to do with their nationality and everything to do with their ability? Or maybe a combination of both? Greer was at the front end of the Draft’s second round selections and Bracco was at the tail end. It was the tail end pick who made the switch. If you take a look at the University of North Dakota – another school with a notable reputation for producing high calibre talent, Canadian players like Jonathan Toews (No. 3 overall in 2006) and Travis Zajac (No. 20 overall in 2004) honed their first-round-level skills there. American first-rounder Nick Schmaltz (No. 20 overall in 2014) is currently honing his skills there, but so is sixth-rounder Paul LaDue (No. 181 in 2012). Perhaps LaDue is simply a trendsetter and showing other higher-round Draft picks that it’s possible to make it to the NHL, assuming he makes it to there of course.

Signs of an Upcoming European Invasion in the NCAA?

What about European players though? What does their pursuit to the NHL look like? At first glance, one would wonder if there’s really a big difference between the three; Europeans verses Americans verses Canadians. However, it seems that European players may have greater NHL success by playing in the NCAA first. Back in 2012, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) published an article on their website titled, ‘The Best of Two Worlds’, which revealed some interesting statistics:

“The most successful European players who have become NHL and international stars have gone the traditional way of developing at home and taking the step to the NHL when ready. There are 31 Europeans in the NHL who have played 1,000 or more NHL games and only one of them (Slovakia’s Zdeno Chara) played in the Canadian junior leagues before going to the NHL. And Chara played all in all 49 games in the CHL.”

Interesting, right? Additionally, Universities are beginning to notice a rise in the number of international hockey players enrolling in their schools. “There’s been an uptake in international enrolment,” says Phil Decarlo, an Assistant Athletic Director at Boston University. “The University is trying to increase their international footprint.” One of Boston University’s most recent European NHL prospects is Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson (No. 45 overall in 2015), a Swedish boy drafted by the Boston Bruins. In that same Draft class, the University of North Dakota also saw Slovakian Matej Tomek become an NHL prospect when the Philadelphia flyers selected him at No. 90 overall.

“We’ve had a couple of European players,” says Chris Cords, the Senior Academic Advisor at the University of Minnesota for men’s hockey. Back in 2003, Thomas Vanek  (No. 5 overall) was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres and he’s Austrian. More recently, there’s been Erik Haula, a Finnish player who’s now with the Minnesota Wild. Then there’s Leon Bristedt, a Swedish player who’s still playing for the University. “They really wanted the educational experience,” says Cords.

While some Universities are noticing an increase of European players on campus, others still aren’t seeing any. “I’ve been here for six years and no Europeans,” says Bouzan. When asked how many European players she works with at Boston College, she told The Hockey Writers that “in women’s and men’s hockey; none. In field hockey, there’s four.” Then she added that “men’s soccer has a huge amount of European players though.” Soccer is and always will be one step ahead of hockey. Gary Bettman can envy the Premiership’s profits all he wants, but the writing’s on the wall; the globalization of ice hockey is in an embryonic state and American schools need to work some more Europeans into the mix if they want to get similar results. Yes, there were a lot of broken hearts when Rogers took over the NHL’s exclusive broadcasting rights, but moves like these make getting hockey in more places that much more efficient. Fandom can start blossoming in the most unlikely of places, such as Arizona, California and Florida. Hopefully sooner rather than later, Mr. Bettman can feel like a worthy competitor in the eyes of European sports executives and fans everywhere can enjoy a better product. It’s actually a win-win situation in the long run; more talent, more teams, more opportunity.