A still frame taken from the bedlam ensuing Sidney Crosby’s 2010 gold medal-winning goal at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver will show at least a few fan-held signs declaring “Hockey is Canada’s Game.”
Ice hockey was born in the frozen veins of The Great White North, the game’s breakneck pace and brutish misdemeanor as fundamental to the Canadian identity as any political leader or military conquest.
But while hockey’s past belongs to the Canadians, its future may have more of a Yankee influence.
For a North American hockey player, there are two primary paths to the National Hockey League: major junior in the Canadian Hockey League or collegiate hockey in the NCAA.
The Canadian Hockey League consists of three major junior hockey leagues: the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and the Western Hockey League (WHL). These leagues are comprised of the best 16 to 20-year-old hockey players in the world and have produced the first overall pick in the last seven NHL drafts.
Supported by a long list of esteemed NHL players like Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and Shea Weber, the CHL is considered the Canadian way and is often the more glamorized of the two routes.
“I’ve watched enough games to know the OHL’s got some of the best players in the world,” Penn State defenseman and Mississauga, Ontario native Luke Juha said. “They have so much skill.”
But due to the elite level of play, CHL players are stripped of their NCAA eligibility, strengthening the divide between major junior and collegiate hockey.
For Juha, there was great pressure to enter the OHL draft at 16 after playing seven years of minor hockey in the Toronto area.
“At that point, the OHL draft is pretty prevalent [in Ontario],” Juha said.
But Juha decided to ditch the hallowed OHL and the Canadian “norm” for a more gradual journey to the NHL through Junior A leagues in Ontario and British Columbia, and eventually the NCAA.
The NCAA’s reputation as an outlet for American players made the decision more challenging, Juha said.
“It was definitely tough, because I [was] going away from the beaten path,” the sophomore defender said. “It’s just not something that most people in Toronto do.”
Juha’s choice to play college hockey in American instead of major junior in Canada is one that has grown considerably more popular since the turn of the century.
Room to grow
Guy Gadowsky, an Edmonton, Alberta native who’s spent 14 seasons coaching NCAA Division I programs from Alaska-Fairbanks to Princeton, and now Penn State, said collegiate hockey’s greatest asset is the education that accompanies the athletics.
“The NCAA allows you to play top-quality hockey and, at the same time, get an education,” Gadowsky said. “Being educated at a great university is an extremely valuable thing for you as a person; for your life.”
Of the 301 former NCAA players who skated for an NHL team during the 2011-2012 season, 151 players completed all four years of college, according to the College Hockey, Inc. website.
To the contrary, the CHL’s collegiate eligibility restriction, paired with the great number of its players entering the NHL at 18, make getting an education “very difficult,” Gadowsky said.
Furthermore, while NCAA hockey players intellectually develop as student-athletes, they develop physically too, the coach said.
Juha said his size was a key factor in the decision to play collegiate hockey.
“At the time, I was 5’10”, 170 [pounds],” the Nittany Lion blueliner said. “I figured, I’m a smaller guy, I think I could use a couple more years of development.”
Four years later, after three seasons playing Junior A and one injury-shortened season at Penn State, Juha has bulked up to 5 feet 11 inches, 194 pounds and at 20 years old, still has three seasons of NCAA eligibility left.
“In the OHL, your career is over if you don’t go anywhere at 20 years old,” Juha said. “Now I’m going to be 22 or 23 looking to play in the NHL. I’m going to be two or three years further in development. Way stronger. Way faster.”
Although promising university-bound players — like Penn State freshmen Eamon McAdam and Mike Williamson — may be drafted into the NHL before they play one minute at the school that recruited them, approximately 28 percent of college-made NHLers went undrafted, according to the College Hockey, Inc. website.
These undrafted, late-bloomers benefit greatly from the college hockey system, Gadowsky said.
“To be able to work out with [Strength and Conditioning Coach] Rob McLean in the facilities that we have at Penn State for four years, you have no choice but to become a much stronger, more explosive athlete,” Gadowsky said.
While physical and mental maturity have been talking points in CHL vs. NCAA debates for years, the dispute ultimately boils down to each league’s respective skill level.
Closing the gap
Boasting names like Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux and Drew Doughty, it would seem the CHL’s level of play is superior to that of the NCAA.
However, a true comparison must take into account the average schedule and roster of a CHL team versus a NCAA team.
The OHL and QMJHL play 68-game seasons and the WHL plays 72 games per season, while a NCAA team plays less than 50 games..
The CHL’s longer seasons give prospects a more authentic preview of a grueling, 82-game NHL season, but Juha said a CHL schedule isn’t necessarily more beneficial.
“A lot of times they consider [games played] a downfall, but being able to focus on every game speaks a lot about your development,” Juha said. “The NCAA has such a competitive league now. Every game is like a playoff game.”
These games with more “tight-checking” and defensive play make scoring harder, Gadowsky said.
“The game is more intense,” Gadowsky said. “I think that makes it more difficult to put up a lot of points. The rosters in college dictate that every player that’s on the ice, is going to be at a very high level.”
The disparity in size and ability between a 16 and 20-year-old is much different than that of a 21 and 25-year-old, he said.
Though there is no fighting in college hockey as there is in major junior hockey, older college-aged players will be more equally developed in strength and stature than their younger counterparts in the CHL.
“The thing I’ve found in the NCAA is every line is really good,” Juha said.
The parity and level play between NCAA programs has boded well for its players in the NHL in recent years.
In fact, according to College Hockey, Inc., the number of former college players playing in the NHL increased by 43 percent from the 1999-2000 season until the 2011-2012 season.
Today, almost one third — or 31 percent — of NHLplayers got to the professional ranks through college hockey.
Arguably the best two-way forward in the world, Jonathan Toews spent two seasons with the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux from 2005-2007 before hoisting two Stanley Cups as captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.
A Canadian who went the college route, Toews is an inspiration, Juha said.
Juha said diminutive Boston Bruins blueliner Torey Krug was an inspiration, too. Krug, who electrified the league with four playoff goals in 2013 was a 5-foot 9-inch, undrafted defenseman after two seasons with Michigan State.
“Seeing a guy that’s 5’9” or 5’10” going to the NHL and almost dominating, controlling the game, I just love it,” Juha said.
“The ultimate goal is still to play in the NHL,” he said. “I look up to those guys. I want to be in their shoes one day.”