- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

In 36 years at Boston University, Jack Parker has won two NCAA men's hockey championships, reached 12 Frozen Fours and coached four of the biggest names on the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal team - Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Jack O'Callahan and Dave Silk. He's also won 814 games, second-most in NCAA history.

So when he says, only somewhat facetiously, that he's discovered the perfect college player, it's probably worth listening to him.

“The best guy to get is the 5-foot-4 All-American,” Parker said. “He'll stay all four years and be a terrific player for you.”

As the only coach of what he calls a “brand name” hockey program among three other virtual unknowns at this week's Frozen Four, Parker's words hint at what's turned up one of the strangest championship tournaments in NCAA hockey history.

There's plenty of sepia-toned sentiment about Boston University's three competitors - Bemidji State, Miami (Ohio) and Vermont - that arrive at the Verizon Center this week with one Frozen Four appearance among them. But behind all that, college hockey insiders see one of the mechanisms that's caused this weekend's bizarre field.

With major programs annually losing top players to the NHL and restocking with another round of sure-to-leave-early teenagers, a window has opened for schools recruiting players who aren't as high on the pro radar and more likely to stick around for four years.

Four of Bemidji State's top six scorers are seniors. All six of Vermont's top scorers are juniors and seniors. Miami returned five of its top six from a team that went 33-8-1 in 2007-08. And the effects of early departures are just as pronounced on the other side of the equation.

The Western Collegiate Hockey Association didn't put a team in the Frozen Four for the first time since 1999; in fact, only one team (Minnesota Duluth) reached a regional final. Commissioner Bruce McLeod said the league has lost close to 50 players to early exits in the last three seasons.

Michigan has reached just one Frozen Four since 2004 despite that its recruiting classes routinely rank among the nation's top five.The Wolverines went to eight national semifinals from 1992 to 2002.

Early departures aren't exclusive to the nation's marquee programs. Miami coach Enrico Blasi pointed out that the RedHawks lost goaltender Jeff Zatkoff to the Los Angeles Kings after the 2007-08 season, and Vermont could lose junior forward Viktor Stalberg after the Frozen Four. But the trend has created a situation in which programs that recruit top players routinely field teams full of teenagers and match them up against squads that have seniors who went through a year of junior hockey and are sometimes 24 years old.

“When they become 24- or 25-year-old seniors and they're playing against the Jordan Schroeder of Minnesota, it's tough,” said Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi, whose program missed the tournament for the first time since 2000 after losing 11 players the last three years. “The kid's 18 years old. He's very talented, but his physical body is very different. We still want the Jordan Schroeders. We want him here all the time. His future is brighter than some of those other guys. But I'm here to tell you there's an equalizer of those four, five years of physical difference.”

The countermove for major programs isn't yet clear. Nobody expects they will stop recruiting highly touted players, but McLeod predicted teams will be more diligent about getting commitments from recruits.

As tough as it is to stay away from elite players at a time when American hockey is cranking out more of them than ever, this weekend's teams showcase the virtues of experience.

Even Boston has a strong complement of senior forwards as well as defenseman Matt Gilroy, who could win the Hobey Baker Award on Friday after coming to Boston undrafted by the NHL. The Terriers think they could lose sophomores Colin Wilson and Nick Bonino after the season, but they've at least been able to keep a core group together long enough to make their first Frozen Four since 1997.

“At the beginning of the year, we pushed that stuff outside the locker room,” Gilroy said. “It didn't matter who was staying, who was going, what scout was talking to what kid. We just wanted to be a team. We want to do it the right way and finish with something special at the end.”

To do that, they'll have to survive a field of physically refined upperclassmen disguised as little guys.

“The parity is incredible at the college hockey level,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. “Players leaving early is probably making that possible.”

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