Sunday, July 16, 2017

US making inroads into Canada's game via USNTDP and NCAA

Published by, 7-14-2017

Yes, we’re well aware that Edmonton’s Connor McDavid just signed an 8yr./$100 million extension. The Oilers captain had a spectacular season in which he lead his team to Game-7 of the Western Conference Semi-finals while also bringing home a sweet trifecta of individual trophies at the NHL Awards Show.

The 2015 first-overall pick deserved every accolade sent his way.

McDavid was drafted out of the OHL where most Canadian hockey players develop their game. For years the U.S. has been trying to catch up as the gulf between Canadian and American players was more like an ocean. On one side you have Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, atop a slew of others as the greatest players of all time. The U.S. has produced some great players in Pat LaFontaine, Mike Modano, Brett Hull, and even Buffalo's own Phil Housley, but there's a lot of catching up to do.

There's still a huge gap on a superstar-level although Buffalo native Patrick Kane is making his way up the various lists. Kane spent two years in the U.S. National Team Development Program before playing one season with the OHL's London Knights. Kane was a player that put the USNTDP on the map and less than 10 years later, two more USNTDP products are looking like players who should help close that gap--Buffalo's Jack Eichel and Toronto's Auston Matthews.

Matthews is a particularly interesting case as he was born in northern California but was raised in the desert watching the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. The two-sport athlete chose hockey over baseball and had two remarkable seasons in the U.S. before heading to Switzerland prior to being selected first-overall by the Maple Leafs in 2016.

Boston native Eichel went a more traditional route as he went to Boston University following his two years with the USNTDP and hit the ice for the Sabres after being selected second-overall in 2015.

While CHL has always been a main feeder for the NHL, the Euro leagues and NCAA are beginning to make their marks as well. College in particular is a growing source for NHL talent and we can look no further than the 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Of the 33 players to suit up for the club for at least one game, 20 of them came from the college ranks.

The NCAA is no stranger to producing quality players either and that includes superstars. Hull attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth 1984-86, Chris Chelios went to the University of Wisconsin from 1981-83 and Brian Leetch played a year at Boston College. Montreal Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden put his pro career on hold after being drafted in 1964 and attended Cornell University. After sitting out his freshman year, played three seasons for the Big Red.

As a feeder for the NHL, college hockey has really made some inroads. According to College Hockey Inc., "a record 314 former college players skated in the NHL in 2016-17, comprising 32% of the league. That number was just 20% at the turn of the century." And they went on to write that "the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins featured more former college players than any NHL team in history."

Tonight two Hockey East powerhouse in Boston College and Boston University are having an alumni game for charity. The Commonwealth Avenue Charity Classic Hockey Game with all proceeds to benefit Compassionate Care ALS and The Travis Roy Foundation. A game worthy in and of itself for the cause, but one that features some very notable hockey names from only two schools.

Eichel (BU) leads the Terriers while "Johnny Hockey," aka Johnny Gadreau (BC) leads the Eagles. Other names of note are Charlie Coyle (MIN) who will be skating for BU plus goalie Cory Schneider (NJD,) defenseman Noah Hanifin (CAR) and Stanley Cup winner Brooks Orpik (WSH) who will be on the ice for the Eagles.

There's still a huge gap between Canadian players and those from the States, and although the CHL still produces a majority of NHL players, the USNTDP and the NCAA are churning out some pretty good players at a steadily increasing rate. The superstar quotient isn't quite there yet, despite the notable career of Kane thus far and the talent-level both Matthews and Eichel have displayed as teenagers, but for those of us who remember hockey as Canada's game almost exclusively the U.S. (and Europe) is beginning to change the conversation.

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