Where have all the stars gone?

By Jess Myers

Much is made of “intangibles” in college hockey. You know; those elements a player brings to the game that can’t be measured, like locker room leadership or big hits that keep an opponent in check.

But in the college game (and at higher levels, if names like “Gretzky” are any indication) it’s the tangibles that make superstars. Things like goals, assists, points and wins are what get the attention in March when the trophy recipients are determined.

If you crunch the college hockey nation’s tangible numbers in advance of the 2002-03 season, it looks much like the outlook for the nation’s economy: sluggish at best, bleak at worst.

In the words of Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) from “A Few Good Men,” these are the facts, and they are indisputable: Of the 28 players in the nation who scored 40 points or better last season, only 10 return. Of the 10 players who score 50 points or better, only three (Colin Hemingway, New Hampshire; Peter Sejna, Colorado College; and John Shouneyia, Michigan) will play college hockey this year. Of the 10 Hobey finalists from last season, only two (Denver goalie Wade Dubielewicz and Cornell defenseman Doug Murray) are back for another run.

2002 Hobey Baker Finalists
Player 2001-02 Team Current Team (as of Oct. 3)
Ryan Carter Iona Reading Royals (ECHL)
Marc Cavosie Rensselaer Houston (AHL)
Rob Collins Ferris State Grand Rapids (AHL)
Wade Dubielewicz Denver Denver
Jim Fahey Northeastern San Jose (NHL)
Mark Hartigan St. Cloud State Chicago (AHL)
Darren Haydar New Hampshire Milwaukee (AHL)
Jordan Leopold Minnesota Calgary (NHL)
Ryan Miller Michigan State Buffalo (NHL)
Doug Murray Cornell Cornell

The roster of last season’s college stars who are toiling in the NHL (or AHL) this time around is staggering: Ryan Miller, Jordan Leopold, Mike Cammalleri, Johnny Pohl, Mark Hartigan, Darren Haydar, Chris Paradise, Jim Fahey, Jeff Hoggan, Mark Cullen,
Rob Collins, Nate DiCasmirro, Ryan Olson, Jeff Taffe, Chad Theuer, Tim Skarperud, Mike Komisarek, Marc Cavosie, Mike Bishai, Ryan Bayda... And the list, as they say, goes on.

So does the start of the new season mark the end of college hockey as we know it? Not surprisingly, you get a division of opinion between the pro hockey interests and the college hockey interests.

When asked for an explanation of pro hockey’s sudden intense interest in college hockey’s better underclassmen, Tom Kurvers, the Phoenix Coyotes scout who won the Hobey as a senior defenseman at Minnesota-Duluth in 1984, offers more interesting numbers.

“We’re three years into the last wave of NHL expansion, so there are now 30 teams all looking to compete on some level,” he said, while watching fellow Hobey-winning defenseman Leopold man the Calgary Flames’ blue line during a preseason game at Minnesota. “Every team has holes to fill all the time, so there’s never been a greater demand for good players.”

College coaches are an eternally optimistic lot, and find the silver lining in player departures by noting that college hockey has rightfully gained a reputation as a top proving ground for eventual pro players. At the same time, anyone who’s taken a girl to the prom only to have her leave with someone else before the Grand March knows what it’s like to be jilted.

“The NHL signs so many great underclassmen that we don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their maturity,” said St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl, who saw Hobey runner-up Hartigan bolt early for the Atlanta Thrashers seemingly just minutes after the Huskies 2001-02 season ended. “It’s a problem that hits every team eventually because money is money, and when the pros start throwing money around, it’s tough for kids.”

And while collegians are wowed by the money that the pro teams can offer, going after talented underclassmen makes fiscal sense for the NHL teams as well. It doesn’t take an Ivy League economics degree to figure out why.

The signing of players with college eligibility has become as commonplace in the game as the "sieve chant."
– Jeff Sauer

Read more about this issue from a coach's perspective in the first of Jeff Sauer's bi-weekly columns for Inside College Hockey.

“At the pro level, teams need to win immediately, and money is always a factor,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “So if you’re a pro g.m. and you sign two or three college prospects at (salary) cap level of around $1.5 million or so, you’re bound to get some offensive production out of at least one of them. And three prospects at cap level still costs much less than signing one Bill Guerin-level free agent for $8 million.”

Some coaches look further back, and say that the NHL’s all-out raiding of college hockey’s top talent is far from a new thing.

“This is the start of the third decade of the NHL recognizing college hockey as a great developer of talent,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, who managed to get one more season out of Dubielewicz despite the siren’s song of pro hockey beckoning.

“It’s a problem that affects us all eventually. For years, people marveled at Michigan’s ability to hold onto their top underclassmen, but this summer proved that maybe the pendulum is swinging their way.”

Boston University coach Jack Parker, who recently saw Rick DiPietro depart Commonwealth Avenue for the New York Islanders after just one spectacular season of college hockey, says that what happened last summer in the WCHA and CCHA has been happening in the East for some time.

“Maybe it was about time some of those other guys had to pay the price,” said Parker of his coaching counterparts to the west. “It’s one thing for guys to graduate, but quite another to lose a guy early. And that’s been a bit of an epidemic in our league.”

The bright spot in New England and New York is that Mazzoleni and some other eastern coaches point out that the ECAC and Hockey East haven’t been hit as hard
by early departures and talent graduation as the west this year.

“This season, Hockey East should be as good as its ever been talent-wise,” said Parker.

Headline Grabbers?

"The best of me is up my sleeve," sings John Mayer in his hit song "No Such Thing." The same can be said for these 12 players, who we think, like Mayer, will come out of the shadows to shine this season. INCH picked two players from each conference, not counting anyone on our first two Preseason All-America teams:

CCHA – Eric Nystrom, F, Michigan, and Morgan Cey, G, Notre Dame
CHA – Rigel Shaw, F, Findlay, and Tyler Kindle, D, Wayne State
ECAC – Dominic Moore, F, Harvard, and Yann Danis, G, Brown
Hockey East – Ed McGrane, F, UMass Lowell, and Sean Collins, F, New Hampshire
MAAC – Ron D'Angelo, F, Connecticut, and Chris Garceau, F, Army
WCHA – Matt Koalska, F, Minnesota, and Kevin Doell, F, Denver

So while some college hockey coaches will concede that we might be facing a down year, the optimism within reigns supreme. In those heady anything-is-possible days when teams are just taking the ice for the first time, coaches generally tip their hats to those who have moved on, then profess excitement for what’s been left behind, and for the newcomers who will make their college hockey debuts in October.

“We are certainly losing more kids to the NHL early, but that speaks volumes for the development opportunities in college hockey,” said Minnesota State-Mankato coach Troy Jutting. “The losses are offset by the fact that there are a lot of great young players coming into our league and other leagues this year. And good players will always step up to fill any talent gaps.”

Kurvers goes as far as to compare 2002-03 to what Olympic years were like when Olympic hockey teams were dominated by collegians. A check of the Hobey history
books shows that a few lesser-known players were given opportunities to step up and be noticed in Olympic seasons past. The case could be made that Hobey winners Kurvers (’84), Minnesota goalie Robb Stauber (’88), Maine forward Scott Pellerin (’92) and Minnesota-Duluth forward Chris Marinucci (’94) certainly benefited by having 15 or more of the top collegians playing for a gold medal in those seasons.

“Young players always seem to find a way to use the extra ice time, step up, and get noticed,” said Kurvers. “The players coming into college hockey have all been recruited because they’ve got talent. And those kinds of guys with commitment and talent always seem to find a way to make it in the game.”

So if there are budding stars out there waiting to fill any talent voids, where should fans look to find them? Those who are supposed to understand the most about the college game, the coaches, admit that they don’t even know. At least not yet.

“Let’s wait two months,” said Gwozdecky. “By mid-November I bet you’ll find some terrific players who might not have been on the marquee last year, but
who have been given a role and have stepped up and filled that role beyond all expectations.”

It seems that finding bright stars, be it in the sky or on the rink, is a matter of patience and persistence. After all of the brightest stars have seemingly flared up and gone dark, you might be tempted to call it an evening. But there’s always the chance of seeing a few shooting stars – those bright flashes of brilliance that come out of nowhere when you least expect them.

For college hockey fans and stargazers alike, the best advice is: keep watching.

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