NCAA Hockey Versus Canadian Major Junior - Is One Better

Marc Elliott

PALISADE… When it comes to American college hockey going up against Canadian Major Junior hockey, is one of these superior to the other or is the gap closer then ever? There was a day when the most sure route to get to professional hockey in general and to the National Hockey League in particular went through Canadian Junior hockey. That has undergone some big challenges the past few years and the debate has become more intense then ever as well. At one time in the history of the NHL you pretty much had to be Canadian and Caucasian to work in this league. If my memory is somewhat correct, Duluth’s Tommy Williams played at a time whereby he was the only American player in the league. Coming off of the Americans 1960 Gold Medal “Forgotten” Miracle team, Williams became the first American to get a regular playing spot since Eveleth’s Frankie “Mr. Zero” Brimsek retired in 1950. 

It should also be noted that back then American players going North to play Junior hockey north of the 49th was also a rarity, if not a totally absent occurrence. But now, American players in the NHL, and those with NCAA playing experience makeup about a full one third of the leagues rosters. This is remarkable. When I was a youngster I witnessed the final years of the original six and saw the first expansion. I have been keenly aware of this transition and how long and slow it has taken to unfold. Having followed NCAA hockey just as long, I have also noted the influence of Canadian players upon college rosters over the years. With the first collegiate Championship taking place in 1948, the University of Michigan won 6 of their 9 titles by 1956 with rosters heavily influenced by Canadian players. They have won only 3 since. 

By the time I began to follow University of Minnesota hockey around the mid-sixties, they had already moved to a Minnesota players only stance, kicked off by the late, great Big John Mariucci. There is the odd out-of-state player there now, but not too many ever get on to that roster. I can tell you that for years the University of North Dakota featured mainly Canadians and Minnesotans. (yeah I know, ND is a sparsely populated place) Even the local University of Minnesota-Duluth team featured heavily dominated Canadian rosters at different times in it’s history, and I have to say that I am very happy to see Coach Scott Sandelin putting a strong emphasis on in-State Minnesotan players on the team now. I like that very much. The University of Denver won 5 of it’s 8 National titles by 1969 with basically Canadian rosters. One of my favorites? Former Black Hawk Lou Angotti of course. 

What got under my craw for years was in just trying to be an American and go over the border and get a roster spot or coaching gig. Good luck on that. But post Miracle on Ice the transition started to take place. Americans by and large still aren’t prominent in Canadian hockey but their presence here has been lessened to a degree as well. Of course, there is no shortage of qualified players there, so what do you do? 

This debate has gone on for years though, and a conversation at the recent NHL Entry Draft got me thinking about it again. When Eden Prairie player Casey Middlestadt was drafted 8th by the Buffalo Sabres, a Canadian hockey analyst began to talk about how long it might take him to get to the NHL if he only played collegiate hockey. (signed by the Gophers) This person was decrying how little big game “experience” he was going to get playing only 35-40 games per year. He went on to say that this player didn’t make his top ten list, and that he will need to play at least two years of college hockey and at least one AHL season before he could consider making to the NHL. He went on and on about how many more “meaningful” games he could play going the Junior route and so on. Big Casey didn’t wow at the NHL Combine either, unable to do a pull-up or get past one rep on the bench press. 

However, he has probably got top three hands as far as draftees go this year, so damn the pull-ups and presses. So, if you were boiling this down to a volume of game competition debate, which is better? The Scandinavian model is famous for lack of game volume, some of the North American model is famous for games played. The Swedes and Finns don’t seem to have a problem not playing tons of games and produce high level talent year after year. Canadian Junior hockey has players as young as 15 and 16 leaving home to go into a sometimes harsh environment. CJH features an NHL rules proto type. That means your 16 year old fresh faced kid can be getting punched in the face by a 19 or 20 year old player while playing a 68 game regular season schedule. NCAA hockey does not allow fighting. Fight and it’s an auto game out. NCAA hockey competes mainly on weekends in the Midwest and West with some week night tilts out East. Division One NCAA Hockey has a 90% graduation rate. With Pro hockey jobs still limited in scope, that’s a built in comfort feature for parents trying to decide between the two.  

At the end of the day it’s an easy decision for me. I love the school atmosphere, the lesser games played puts an emphasis on practice, weight training and skill development during the week with two very intense games each weekend while working toward a well rounded education topped off with a degree that could serve a young man or woman quite well the rest of their life. The Junior format can put a few into the Pro’s, make the team owners quite a chunk of change while leaving some players on the outside looking in with nothing to fall back on at the end of the ride. Am I biased? Yes I am, and honest enough to say so. Let me end on this; could the NCAA model eventually put more players into the NHL then the CJH route? Hmmmmm… PEACE