- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2009

The simplistic perspective says University of Minnesota men’s coach Don Lucia might have the plushest job in college hockey, and at least from a distance, it’s hard to argue with that. His Gophers have won two national titles and made three Frozen Four appearances in the last eight years, play before sellout crowds each weekend and have one of the biggest television audiences in the game.

The 50-year-old coach is an emblem for many of the successes - but also the struggles - in the college game these days.

When the NCAA Frozen Four rolls into Verizon Center in April, the talent level could be at its best (50 players signed pro contracts last season) and most diverse (more than 50 current Division I players hail from the West Coast).

The game has attracted new talent on the back of the NHL’s expansion into the Sun Belt. TV ratings increased during last year’s Frozen Four as Notre Dame reached the championship game for the first time. The tournament has sold out every year since 2000, setting attendance records in 2007 in St. Louis, the first of four consecutive nontraditional sites to get the tournament.

But as college hockey has expanded, its foundation continues to scuffle.

Its symbiotic relationship with the NHL has been difficult at times, with a new collective bargaining agreement and more-rapid player development pushing the number of early exits past 30 after the 2007-08 season.

Lucia has lost 11 players early in the last three seasons, including sophomore Kyle Okposo to the Islanders in December 2007. The midseason exit of New York’s 2006 first-round draft pick prompted a brief, though public, war of words between Lucia and Islanders general manager Garth Snow and was followed weeks later by Denver University forward Brock Trotter’s exit for the Montreal Canadiens.

College hockey’s plight differs from that of college football or basketball. It’s a largely regional sport that brings in nowhere near the cash of the top two men’s sports, giving it less clout with the NCAA. And because many players are drafted before they go to college, teams could make efforts to sign a player at any time. While the NBA requires potential picks to be a year out of high school and at least 19 years old in the draft year and the NFL prohibits players from entering the draft until they are three years removed from high school, college hockey isn’t likely to get such help from the NHL.

Couple that with the need to sell the game as a viable option against Canadian major junior leagues, and the early exits just mean one more headache for coaches.

“We have very little say,” Lucia said. “Kids now, with their parents and their family adviser, they’re pretty much the ones that are decision-makers in all that. When a kid makes a decision, there’s nothing you can do but be supportive.”

Exits mean more work

For the most part, the NHL and the 59 Division I college hockey programs have a cordial relationship; colleges need successful NHL products to maintain their legitimacy against junior leagues, while executives in the program largely praise the development of their prospects in college.

“[College kids] don’t play as many games per se as a kid you draft out of juniors,” Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning said. “But they’re in the weight room three times a week, practicing four times a week and playing two games. For kids that have to get stronger, that’s a good route to take.”

That has resulted in some NHL teams, including the Washington Capitals, refusing to broach the subject of early departure with a draft picks unless approached by the player.

“We’ll tell them whether we think they should leave or not. We had one instance where a player wanted to know what we thought, and we didn’t think he was going to develop any more playing where he was,” Caps GM George McPhee said. “That’s the only case we’ve had in 11 years.”

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