Drake Caggiula couldn’t look away.
An impressionable 12 years old back in early 2007, the native of Whitby, Ont., was glued to the television in awe as a Canadian he knew nothing about scored a shootout goal in what became a memorable semifinal victory over the United States at the world junior hockey championship.
The player was University of North Dakota star Jonathan Toews, and Caggiula was hooked.
“I was watching him in the shootout and wondering: ‘Where does he play?”‘ Caggiula recalled in a phone interview this week. “There’s this college guy that’s just tearing it up. I wanted to figure out more about him.
“Next thing you know I’m looking up North Dakota and watching YouTube videos and fell in love with the place and said: ‘If I can play college hockey, that’s the one place I want to go.”‘
Grand Forks, N.D., is exactly where he wound up, and after four years and three straight appearances in the NCAA’s Frozen Four, including this week in Tampa, Fla., Caggiula is glad he chose U.S. college hockey over the major junior route in Canada.
“Being a smaller player, I just figured it would give me more time to develop physically,” said the 21-year-old.
With 58 goals and 64 assists in 160 games since arriving at the school in 2012, the five-foot-10, 185-pound forward is expected to be a target for NHL teams as an undrafted free agent once his season ends.
Caggiula was a third-round pick of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters as a teenager, but decided to play a level below in junior A to maintain eligibility south of the border, improve his game and give his body time to mature.
‘This was an opportunity for me to get stronger. I wasn’t at the level I needed to be to play in the WHL [Western Hockey League] at my size.’ – B.C.’s Troy Stecher on playing U.S. college hockey
“That was the best option for me to become the player I am,” he said.
North Dakota defenceman Troy Stecher, who like Caggiula should get a lot of attention from NHL clubs after the Frozen Four, followed a similar path.
“I knew my stature was something I would have to overcome,” said Stecher, who turns 22 this week. “This was an opportunity for me to get stronger. I wasn’t at the level I needed to be to play in the WHL at my size.”
Now five-foot-11 and 191 pounds, the Richmond, B.C., native said choosing college hockey was life-changing.
“You still have an opportunity to make it based on your performance,” said Stecher. “This route gives you extra time to develop into the player you want to be. With that you can do whatever you want.”
Alternative to major junior hockey
As North Dakota gets set to take on Denver in one of Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinals — Boston College meets Quinnipiac in the other — Caggiula and Stecher’s sentiments are shared by some of the other Canadians whose teams are still alive in the tournament.
Major junior hockey is a great opportunity, they say, but it wasn’t for them. They required time to grow in lower leagues before taking the next step.
“Guys who go to the WHL are more physically mature at 16 or 17,” said Denver forward Matt Marcinew, a 22-year-old from Calgary. “That wasn’t the case for me and I needed that extra time to get physically ready.”
Over the last five years, Canadians have made up roughly 30 per cent of NCAA Division 1 players.
“I wasn’t getting any looks from the WHL. I was a small defenceman growing up. My bantam draft year I was five foot two, 102 pounds,” said Quinnipiac’s Devon Toews, now six foot one and 181 pounds. “I wasn’t a good size for the WHL. I kept playing my game and I started to grow a little bit.”
The 22-year-old from Abbotsford, B.C., a New York Islanders’ fourth-round pick who is not related to Jonathan Toews, has seen plenty of players go to the WHL, ruling them out of any future NCAA career, and not make it.
“They were released from their teams or moved around and haven’t really made a name for themselves,” said Toews.
Former NHLer Brendan Morrison played for Michigan in three Frozen Fours, a single-elimination competition similar to the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament, scoring in overtime to clinch the 1996 title for the Wolverines in an era when fewer Canadians were in U.S. college.
“If you’re a good enough player, you’re going to make the pros no matter what route you go,” said Morrison, who suited up for more than 900 games in the NHL. “But what you get exposed to in college, you can’t get anywhere else.”
Caggiula said that even if the NHL doesn’t pan out, playing at North Dakota turned out to be a no-brainer.
“If worse comes to worst you have your education and you get a regular job,” said Caggiula. “You’re killing two birds with one stone. You’re really setting yourself up further down the road in life.”