Friday, 12 January 2018

They're Right

If you happen to listen to the broadcasts of the Manitoba Bisons women's hockey team, we often have two writers from the school's student-produced newspaper, The Manitoban, on during the intermissions. I have to say that we're fortunate and lucky to have two outstanding writers in Ryan Stelter and Jason Pchajek join us regularly to discuss articles they've written about the sport, but the newspaper really has an outstanding group of individuals that turn in superb stories. One such story appeared on my Twitter feed today, and I have to say that Austin Frame's work, combined with an earlier article written by Ron Mahon who is a former Bisons men's hockey broadcaster, hit the nail on the head when it comes to the amount of overlooked talent playing in U SPORTS men's hockey.

NHL and AHL teams are always looking for good players to plug holes, fill in for injuries, and simply upgrade their levels of talent. There are draft picks, free agents, and possible undrafted NCAA players they could use to improve their teams, but the one pipeline that seems to be overlooked consistently is men's hockey at the Canadian university level. As Rob Mahon points out in his article, the AHL's Manitoba Moose have found some solid players that are making impacts at the AHL level after their U SPORTS eligibility was fulfilled. The Aalborg Pirates in Denmark's Metal Ligaen have tapped the U SPORTS pipeline to pick up some quality talent to bolster their roster. The AHL's Ontario Reign went out and signed a significant U SPORTS prospect as well.

What does all of these notes mean? Well, as Austin Frame wrote, it might be time for Hockey Canada and the professional hockey ranks to really start scouting Canada's university hockey system for high-quality talent, especially after the U SPORTS team downed the Canadian World Junior selection squad in a pair of games played prior to the tournament.

"I think a lot of the guys felt that U SPORTS gets overlooked as a whole. For lots of guys this is still a stepping stone to professional hockey and I don’t think people realize that," Saskatchewan Huskies defenceman and U SPORTS all-star captain Kendall McFaull said.

"So for us to showcase the talent against the [Canadian] world juniors and prove that this is how good U SPORTS hockey is was something really important to us and we treated it like they were big games and not just your typical all-star games."

Make no mistake that U SPORTS is not going to push the allure of the NCAA off the map. It's not designed to be that way, but is designed to fill a niche that other programs do not. If players in the Canadian Hockey League graduate out of that program, they get one year's worth of tuition for every season played in the CHL. That allows older players to return to school to gain a post-secondary education after having sacrificed years in helping their chosen teams in the CHL. It's a pretty good deal when you look at it, and one that I think more players should utilize when it comes to their futures.

In saying this, U SPORTS is seeing the level of talent rise across the country as more and more players take advantage of the tuition program. In turn, this has allowed the Canadian university hockey program to move from glorified beer league to one of the best leagues no one watches on the planet. There are now former NHL draft picks playing in all four Canadian university conferences, and the university teams have had to up their recruiting processes to try to fend off suitors from across the land when it comes to talented hockey players.

Now you may be saying that this is all nice and well for these players who probably will never play in the NHL, but let's be honest when it comes to anyone taking one of those 800-or-so NHL jobs. It just doesn't happen all that frequently, but there is greater turnover in leagues around the world.

One example of a player who was a highly-touted NHL player who came back to U SPORTS following a major injury and retirement from the NHL is Jared Aulin. Aulin, who was bartending in Calgary when he decided to give hockey one more try, joined the Calgary Dinos and parlayed that university stint into a highly successful career in Europe in Sweden and Switzerland. It's my pleasure to report that Jared signed a one-year contract extension with the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers at the age of 35. For a guy who thought his career was over, U SPORTS provided a springboard back into the game, and he has been enjoying life in Europe ever since.

The key in U SPORTS men's hockey is that most of the players are already in their mid-20s when they graduate from their respective university programs, making them more physically mature than their NCAA counterparts who graduate from their respective American universities. Getting a 23 or 24 year-old free agent who has four years of university hockey and four years of major junior hockey under his belt is something not many teams can boast, and these players are having impacts at the AHL and ECHL levels in North America and in leagues across Europe the moment they hit the ice. It's like signing a physically-mature, mid-draft selection who can score and play immediately without having to actually use a draft pick on him.

The talent in U SPORTS is there. There's a goalie who was at the Spengler Cup playing in Saskatchewan right now (with that article penned by Ryan Stelter). There are NHL draft picks scattered across the country on various teams. There are players who were highly-touted junior players that NHL teams passed over in their draft years. The talent level is deep at the U SPORTS level.

The only question to ask is why aren't you watching?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: