- 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.”

But there’s little denying that early departures have become more of a reality in the college game. Lucia pointed to the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, which this year limited rookie signing bonuses to $85,000. That hasn’t deterred players from turning pro, however, because it’s much less expensive for pro teams to get draft picks into their system than it was before the 2004-05 lockout.

As Minnesota Wild assistant GM Tom Lynn pointed out, the agreement might even have streamlined the process for players.

They can no longer wait until after their junior season to come out and use the threat of returning to school - or going to major juniors long enough to trigger free agency - as leverage for a bigger contract. Because there is such little wiggle room in rookie contracts, players “tend to come out when they’re ready,” Lynn said.

Given their development before college, that may be sooner than it used to be.

Players are competing at higher levels before they get to college, whether it’s playing with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., or taking a year before college to play in the U.S. Hockey League.

Freshmen on Division I hockey teams are older, stronger and more developed than they were 15 years ago, meaning they’re also more impatient about when they will make the leap to the pros.

“Looking at 1997 to 2001 and 2005 to ‘09, the level of players going to American colleges has changed drastically,” Lynn said. “In the old days, the guys drafted in the top 10 were in juniors and they’d come straight to the NHL. Now they’re in college for a year or two.”

Then he joked, “Now the colleges are taking players away from us.”

Even if a top player’s college stay is brief, the system essentially has forced college coaches to recruit for two scenarios: one if a star player stays an extra year, another if he leaves.

Many will recruit players from the USHL with a caveat: The player may have to delay enrollment an extra year if a pro prospect stays.

“You have to have a recruiting plan. When player comes in, you have an idea whether or not he may be a player that’s a two-, three- or four-year player. It’s not something you can set in stone,” said University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, who has Caps 2005 first-rounder Joe Finley on his team. “Communication plays a large role in our ability to put pieces together for a year, two years down the road.”

Hakstol and Lucia have both said repeatedly they don’t begrudge players who leave with a chance to make an NHL team right away. And many of them - like former Gophers forward Phil Kessel or former Fighting Sioux center Jonathan Toews - have excelled early.

What irks proponents of the college game is when players bolt only to spend a year or two in the minor leagues.

“Nobody at my level would make the NHL out to be bad guys on this,” Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said. “When players could really benefit from playing in college and they end up in the [ECHL], those are cases we kind of wonder if the teams are taking numbers and hoping some of them work out.”

And there’s the obvious impact on a college team’s success. Decimated by early departures, Minnesota - which can draw each year from arguably the deepest talent pool in the country - finished seventh in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association last season, its worst showing of Lucia’s tenure.

As for the 10 current or future Gophers chosen in the first round of the NHL draft in the last seven years? Six of them were picked since Minnesota’s last Frozen Four appearance in 2005. Seven of the 10 players never reached a Frozen Four.

Growing game is difficult

Despite the uncertain nature of the early departures, college coaches can do little to prevent them - in large part because of how much they need a solid relationship with the NHL.

Unlike coaches in football or basketball, college hockey coaches have to fight a battle even to get top prospects onto their campuses. In Canada’s major junior leagues, those prospects would play nearly twice as many games a season.

That battle has intensified since college coaches have started recruiting in states like California, where there are no Division I hockey programs. The ability to roll out NHL prospects, then, becomes a selling point.

“There is a selling that has to go on,” Bertagna said. “When the other option gets a little more aggressive in their selling, it puts pressure on us to go out and market the game.”

Bertagna and other conference commissioners have started a Web site, playcollegehockey.com, to point out the virtues of the college game among the variety of options.

Battlegrounds are getting bigger - McPhee said youth hockey registration and retention rates have jumped sizably in the D.C. area with the Capitals’ success, and the Frozen Four lands in Tampa, Fla., in 2012 after trips to St. Louis and Denver the last two years - and it’s clear the college game needs the approval of the NHL to thrive.

The pecking order, then, has effectively been defined. It’s up to college teams to thrive in it.

“I think we’re just down this path now,” Lucia said. “I don’t think anything will change.”

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