When it comes to the National Hockey League (NHL), the path to professional success can be quite different for aspiring players. You see, while many young talents get drafted straight from junior leagues or overseas teams, there’s another route that some NHL players take – college hockey.
In this blog, I explain the world of college hockey and explore whether NHL players come from collegiate backgrounds.
The College Hockey Landscape
Before I dive into the connection between college hockey and the NHL, it’s essential to understand the college hockey landscape in the United States and Canada.
College hockey is highly competitive, with hundreds of teams participating in different divisions and conferences. The most prominent college hockey programs are found in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). Also, the top division for men’s ice hockey is Division I.
Benefits of College Hockey
1. Development and Exposure
One of the main reasons many young hockey players opt to play college hockey is because it offers them a chance to develop their skills and get noticed.
College hockey programs are known for their excellent coaching staff and top-notch facilities, which give players all the tools they need to improve their skills and reach their fullest potential.
Johnny Gaudreau, a star forward for the Columbus Blue Jackets, played college hockey at Boston College. He used his time there to develop his game and eventually became one of the league’s most dynamic scorers.
2. Academic Opportunities
For many college hockey players, the ultimate goal is to reach the NHL. But you know what’s great? The emphasis on education is a huge advantage, too.
These student-athletes can pursue a college degree while playing at a high level. That way, they have a backup plan if their hockey dreams don’t work out.
Duncan Keith, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks, played college hockey at Michigan State University before starting his NHL career. His college education provided him with a strong foundation for life after hockey.
3. Physical and Mental Maturity
College hockey is a fantastic opportunity for players to grow physically and mentally. The competition is intense, and you’ll often find yourself going up against older opponents. That’s what helps you develop that competitive edge and resilience, right?
Chris Drury, who had a successful NHL career and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, played college hockey at Boston University.
The Path to the NHL
While college hockey has its perks, it’s important to recognize that not all players who go through college end up in the NHL. Getting to the pros is a tough journey, and only a handful of players can actually make it onto an NHL team.
1. NHL Draft
Most NHL players who come from college hockey are drafted by NHL teams before they begin their college careers. Being drafted is a significant step towards making it to the NHL, and it often determines a player’s future in the league.
Jack Eichel, a former captain of the Buffalo Sabres and a highly-touted prospect, was selected second overall by Buffalo in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He then played college hockey for Boston University for one season before making his NHL debut.
2. Free Agents and Undrafted Players
Not all college hockey players are drafted by NHL teams. Some players go undrafted and may choose the college route as a way to continue developing their skills. Others enter college as free agents after being passed over in the draft.
Matt Gilroy, a defenseman who played college hockey at Boston University, was not drafted by an NHL team. However, he signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent after college and had a successful NHL career.
Challenges of College Hockey
College hockey offers numerous benefits, but it also presents challenges that players must navigate.
One significant challenge is the demanding task of balancing academics and athletics. College hockey players must manage rigorous academic schedules alongside intense training and competition, requiring exceptional time management skills and determination.
An example of success in this regard is NHL defenseman Torey Krug. Excelled both on the ice and in the classroom during his college hockey career at Michigan State University.
Another challenge stems from the shorter seasons and limited opportunities for competition in college hockey compared to junior and professional leagues. With fewer games to showcase their skills, players may find gaining exposure to NHL scouts more difficult.
However, some, like NHL star Zach Parise, who played college hockey at the University of North Dakota, stood out in their college careers. Parise’s exceptional skill and work ethic captured the attention of NHL teams, leading to his selection as the 17th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft despite the shorter college season.
In conclusion, the question of whether NHL players play college hockey has a resounding answer – yes, they certainly do. College hockey is a valuable stepping stone for many aspiring players on their journey to the higher level.
It offers a combination of skill development, academic opportunities, and a unique environment for physical and mental growth.
However, it’s important to remember that college hockey is just one of several paths to the NHL. While some players are drafted directly into the league, others choose the college route for its benefits.
Ultimately, the path to professional hockey is highly competitive and requires dedication, talent, and hard work.
As we’ve seen from examples like Johnny Gaudreau, Duncan Keith, Jack Eichel, and many others, college hockey has been instrumental in shaping the careers of NHL stars.
It provides an opportunity for young players to fulfill their dreams of playing in the world’s premier hockey league while also preparing them for life beyond the rink.