College hockey players feel pull to go pro

The word from Grand Forks, N.D., this summer was that a handful of North Dakota men's hockey players made a pact to return in 2007-08 to pursue an NCAA Division I title.

The word from Grand Forks, N.D., this summer was that a handful of North Dakota men's hockey players made a pact to return in 2007-08 to pursue an NCAA Division I title.

They probably could have signed professional contracts after their sophomore seasons, but chose to stay in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The group consists of NHL Entry Draft first-round picks Joe Finley and T.J. Oshie, second-round pick Taylor Chorney and undrafted 2007 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner Ryan Duncan.

They're becoming the exception.

Thirty-one players have left WCHA schools early the past two years to become pros, including 12 since the end of 2006-07. That's more than the rest of Division I combined. That's more than double the number of the previous three years; which has brought concern from coaches, screams from fans and parity to the best collegiate conference.

The exodus started after the NHL's lockout season of 2004-05 and a new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement which, among other things, allows NHL teams to bring in more players and pay them less.


"I still believe in going to college, working to get better, playing for a successful program and getting a degree,'' said University of Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who has lost six underclassmen to the pros the past two years, and has his team at the DECC this weekend to face Minnesota Duluth.

"I'm all for a player who signs and goes right to the NHL, but that's probably not going to happen for a lot of them. They'll leave for the minor leagues. My hope, in any changes that come about, is that players see the light and understand when they're ready to go. I've seen players leave too early, but I've never seen any leave too late.''

It's a business

The recent increase in early departures already was a point of emphasis in the WCHA before it turned into a maelstrom last month. Minnesota sophomore forward Kyle Okposo of St. Paul, a first-round draft pick who considered signing with the New York Islanders during the summer, chose to do so at midseason, which is almost unheard of.

Islanders general manager Garth Snow, a former University of Maine goalie, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Lucia was doing a poor job of developing players and that the Islanders organization could do better. There was finger-pointing and letter writing all around.

Okposo. 19, is with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn.

Minnesota Duluth is coping with its first marquee underclassmen losses in 21 years, since winger Brett Hull left after two years in 1986. Defenseman Matt Niskanen and winger Mason Raymond signed pro contracts after last season as sophomores. Niskanen has played every game with the Dallas Stars as one of the NHL's surprise rookies, while Raymond has been between the AHL and the NHL, and is presently with the Vancouver Canucks and playing well.

"None of us wants to lose players. I was disappointed, but the best way to look at it is [to] enjoy your players while they're there,'' said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, in his eighth season.


"It's a business for the NHL teams, but I hope what happened at Minnesota, with Okposo, isn't a trend. We're talking about the situation now and the best thing would be if it leads to better communication between the NHL and college hockey.''

Commissioners of Division I conferences, including the WCHA's Bruce McLeod, have sought such dialogue. They don't yet know what can be done, but they met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and senior executive vice president Colin Campbell in New York for four hours in November.

A half-hour meeting with NHL general managers is scheduled for February.

Daly told Inside College Hockey that the NHL's general managers were forming a committee to address the league's relationship with the college game.

"We are in a battle to keep our good players,'' McLeod said. "We are in direct competition with the Canadian major-junior teams which are more and more committed to having their nation's players, like Jonathan Toews [who played at North Dakota] and Kyle Turris [at Wisconsin], stay at home.

"In the NHL, because of the reduced signing bonuses [following 2004-05], teams can bring in more players. It's like 'Let's see what they can do and if they can't make it, bring in the next group.' The American Hockey League is looking to change its image and have a league for younger players and not aging players.''

The maximum NHL signing bonus is $87,500. Previously it was $725,000.

What can be done?


The college-to-pro road could be smoothed with at least a couple tweaks, say college coaches, who offer suggestions that would amount to a gentleman's agreement.

* Set a date early in the summer when collegians would say yes or no to professional teams so that college programs aren't caught in a bind by an August departure.

* Guarantee that players leaving before their sophomore year be put on NHL rosters, or the NHL team would forfeit a future draft pick.

Former UMD defenseman Tom Kurvers, the 1984 Hobey Baker Memorial winner, has a dual perspective. He played four seasons with the Bulldogs, and 11 in the NHL. Kurvers, now director of player personnel for the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, says there is room for understanding on both sides and that emerging pro-college meetings will be critical.

"Management in the NHL has far more background with Canadian junior hockey than with college hockey. There's less acknowledgement and trust of the college game,'' says Kurvers, 45, who has been with the Coyotes for 10 years and has served as a scout and assistant coach. "I think NHL people underestimate the quality of play and the quality of coaching, especially in the WCHA. It's the best hockey league in the United States outside the NHL. Some people think there's better coaching in the AHL, but that's not true.

"But until the dynamic changes, the NHL will continue to grab players to improve their team, or their depth, at the expense of college and junior hockey."

Kurvers offers a prime example of the benefits of college -- University of Michigan senior center Kevin Porter of Northville, Mich. Porter, 21, a 2004 fourth-round NHL Entry Draft pick by Phoenix, has played four years with the Wolverines and leads Division I in scoring this season with 37 points in 22 games. He has 157 career points in 141 games.

Porter is a top candidate for the 2008 Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which goes to the top player in Division I.


"Four years is still the best bet for a college player,'' said Kurvers. "Why not stay four years and go right to the NHL instead of toiling in the AHL.''

Kevin Pates covers college hockey for the News Tribune. He can be reached at (218) 723-5306 or (800) 456-8181, or by e-mail at .

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