When Drew Stafford was deciding how to approach his hockey career, there was a certain lure about North Dakota.
Stafford followed several of his teammates from Shattuck-St. Mary’s High School in Minnesota to the University of North Dakota, seeing an opportunity to play in great arenas, receive great coaching and develop as a hockey player.
Stafford was the Buffalo Sabres’ No. 1 draft pick, and 13th overall, in 2004, the summer after his freshman year at North Dakota. He played three seasons total, racking up 118 points (48 goals, 70 assists) before leaving school to begin his professional hockey career.
Once upon a time, Stafford’s route would have an exception to the rule. Once upon a time, the perception was the best route to the NHL went through one of three major-junior leagues in Canada. College hockey? That was a weekend league and a safety net.
The reality is bucking that perception.
This season, more than 30 percent of NHL players have an NCAA hockey background with more than 300 former college players in the league.
On the current Sabres roster, there are seven players who chose the college hockey route. Along with Stafford are Ryan Miller (Michigan State), Matt Moulson (Cornell), Brian Flynn (Maine) Kevin Porter (Michigan), John Scott (Michigan Tech) and Jamie McBain (Wisconsin).
“Being an NCAA Division I hockey player is not a fallback plan,” said Canisius College coach Dave Smith, a graduate of Ohio State. “It’s an out-front plan for hockey and for life. I’m a hockey fan. I love hockey at all levels. As you learn more about college hockey, you see that you develop as an athlete and you develop socially. You can realize success and develop here.”
Here’s the deal for elite hockey players with aspirations of playing professionally — generally speaking by age 16 players need to decide if they’re going the major-junior route or the college route. The three major-junior leagues — the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major-Junior League and the Western Hockey League — feature players age 16-20. Play one game for a major-junior team and you kiss your NCAA eligibility goodbye since the NCAA classifies those leagues as professional.
Major-junior teams play upwards of 60 games a season while NCAA teams play 34 in addition to postseason tournaments.
Historically, the fewer games have been used as a negative recruiting tool for major-junior teams against colleges. But more and more, the extra practice and training time with fewer games is being viewed as a positive in developing hockey players.
“The major-junior route is still more popular but there’s more guys you’re seeing going the college route,” Stafford said. “You’re playing on the weekends so you have a lot of time to practice, a lot of time to spend training. You notice a lot more college guys are usually on the fitness side of things maybe a little ahead of major-junior players because the major-junior guys are playing so much, they don’t have a lot of time to practice and train.”
For some players, that extra time to train and practice is the difference needed to develop their game. Not everyone is pro hockey ready at age 18 but that doesn’t mean playing in the NHL is a pipe dream.
Take Brian Flynn, an undrafted free agent who played four seasons at the University of Maine before signing with the Sabres on March 29, 2012, and joining the Rochester Americans once his senior season was complete.
“Personally major-junior was never an option for me,” Flynn said. “When I was that age, 16 or so, I was not capable of playing in a league like that. I was small, skinny so I had to take a longer route and let my body mature more and playing those four years of college you mature more. For a guy like me who’s a little smaller it helps because you can work out more in a college season than if you’re playing 60 games in major juniors. I think that was big for me.
“Education came first in my household growing up. So that was most important but as I got into college and started doing well, improving my game a lot, I realized that the NHL was a definite possibility, so it worked out really well for me.”
The perception of college hockey players in the NHL has changed, not just as more players enter the ranks but as more general managers and others in the front office enter from a college background. Those making the draft, signings and roster decisions are familiar with the increasing talent level of college players.
And the ultimate game changer for college hockey may be found in Happy Valley, taking college hockey out of a niche sport in Minnesota and Massachusetts and putting it into a new national spotlight.
“Penn State happened and suddenly a major, nationally branded school added Division I men’s hockey,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., an organization formed to help market and promote the game. “Because Penn State happened, the Big Ten happened and now it puts college hockey into a language that a lot of people in college athletics can understand.”
It’s the first year of the Big Ten hockey conference, including Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State. That’s something college sports fans in the U.S. can understand. Before Penn State and the Big Ten, the landscape was a collection of hockey-only conferences often including unfamiliar schools like Bemidji State, Minnesota State and UMass-Lowell.
But just as important as morphing into a college conference system that is familiar to the American sporting public is the new ability to brand and broadcast Division I hockey.
The Big Ten hockey conference gets prime time coverage on the Big Ten television network. The continued growth of cable sports networks looking for programming has also allowed college hockey to reach a wider, national audience with games on the NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, ESPN along with regional coverage.
And, as Snee points out, youth hockey is growing in the United States and culturally the athletic development path goes through college rather than through a major-junior system.
“I think part of it is a reflection of more Americans playing hockey today, and the United States, culturally is a collegiate sport country,” Snee said. “Name the sport and the development path goes through college. There’s this pageantry and school spirit that goes with college athletics and as kids are exposed to college athletics they understand that experience – the student section, the band. And now we can show that playing college hockey is a way to reach your goals.”