What do past and present NHLers Steve Rucchin, Cory Cross and Mike Ridley have in common?
They’ve all had NHL careers spanning more than 600 games, and their careers all started at Canadian universities.
Rucchin played a year at the University of Western Ontario and Cross played for the University of Alberta for three years. Both players played in the International Hockey League the year after university before making the NHL.
Ridley played two years at the University of Manitoba before making the jump directly to the New York Rangers in 1984-85.
Randy Gregg, a former University of Alberta player, went on to win five Stanley Cups with the hometown Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s and current NHLer Mathieu Darche of the Tampa Bay Lightning played for the McGill Redmen for four years.
Queen’s men’s hockey head coach Brett Gibson said CIS hockey is improving, and this may become a more common trend.
“The CIS is becoming almost equivalent to pro hockey now,” he said. “We’re getting the top players in their overage year. Instead of going pro they’re going to the CIS to get their degree.
“A few years ago every kid that tried out made it, and now we’re turning away recruits.”
For many years, major junior hockey in Canada has been regarded as the best place for future NHLers to hone their skills. Top players such as Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza rose through the ranks of major junior hockey. NHL teams used to own their own junior teams and develop their own talent but, since that practice ended, junior hockey has been the most direct route to the big league for young Canadian hockey players.
But aside from the top-end talent, most junior players aren’t destined for NHL careers. They fill the many minor-league and European professional teams in the hopes of one day making the big show.
Gibson’s a five-year veteran of OHL hockey and a four-year veteran of CIS hockey. He spent 2003-04 in the East Coast Hockey League with the Pensacola Ice Pilots. He became an associate coach for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs before coming to Queen’s.
For some junior players, he said, it may be best to get an education instead of taking a chance on a professional career in the minor leagues.
“Instead of going down and riding buses they can come here for three years, live the university life, … leave with a degree and go play pro hockey at 23 years old.
“You practice every day and you get a degree. … You’re definitely not making a mistake playing CIS hockey.”
Gibson said major junior players generally view the CIS as a step down from junior hockey.
“The OHL kids don’t realize how good the CIS is,” he said. “They come in with a bit of a swagger and get knocked down right away, and then adjust and become better players.
“Meanwhile, guys from elsewhere come in with a chip on their shoulder because they never got to play major junior.”
Gibson said when he’s recruiting junior players a large part of his job is convincing them that turning pro right away may not be the best option.
“I think every guy still wants to play pro hockey,” he said. “It’s hard to tell the blue-chip prospects that they can come to the CIS.”
Gibson said the leagues aren’t as comparable as they may seem due to the age difference.
Major junior features players aged 16 to 20; most university players are 19 to 25 years old.
“The top team in the CIS would beat the top team in the CHL just based on age and maturity. … It’s a difference in skill and the strength of the guys.”
Queen’s goaltender Ryan Gibb, this year’s OUA East MVP, played two years for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals before coming to Queen’s.
He said although the OHL’s more crisp and precise, major junior players view the CIS as a step sideways, not backwards.
“The exposure [in the CIS] is not as great as the OHL, but it’s not much worse,” he said. “There are still a lot of leagues that look at CIS for players and a lot of guys go on to bigger and better things from this league fairly consistently.”
Gibb added he came to Queen’s not knowing what level of play to expect.
“I was actually surprised at how good of a league it was,” he said.
“The way the standings have played themselves out, teams that weren’t good three years ago are now first place. … All the teams are getting better, which means that all the players are getting better too.”
Gare Joyce, author of Future Greats and Heartbreaks and a frequent contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, is a 20-year sports writing veteran, formerly of the Globe and Mail.
He said the CIS is a largely untapped resource the NHL could take a closer look at.
“I think a lot of players who don’t track for the NHL but could be very viable players in the AHL or in Europe, a lot of them end up in CIS schools. It’s a more attractive option then starting down the route of being a career minor-leaguer or heading off to Europe,” he said.
“I think that the NHL overlooks and misses out on at least a couple of players who could fill roles. People look at Steve Rucchin as being as unlikely as a win in a lottery. … I don’t know why they would think that.”
Joyce said it isn’t time-efficient for NHL teams to scour the university ranks for depth players when they’re already looking at NCAA schools and European
“Maybe a player in that category has to go to Europe or sign up with an East Coast league team to get noticed,” he said. “I think that there’s room for a talented player to land somewhere coming out of the CIS.
“There’s an appetite for talent that the NHL can’t satisfy right now. When you get to the AHL and ECHL, those leagues aren’t as good as they need to be, so really there is a need for talented players and I think the CIS would be a source if it occurred to more NHL teams.”
Joyce said the NHL won’t change its recruiting strategies anytime soon. The league took until the 1970s to realize the amount of talent in European leagues, and has only recently become dependent on NCAA schools for top prospects.
“Long before the NHL tapped the NCAA, the blinders were on and they thought that major junior was the only source. … If there’s talent the NHL will eventually find it, but it’s sort of like turning around an oil tanker. It’s not a three-point turn. To turn around their thinking it’s sort of a generational time frame.”
Joyce said Canadian university hockey has to separate itself from major junior to make itself more attractive to both fans and scouts.
“[It might help] if you established something along the lines of first division and second division, so that you actually had cross-over national competition early on between the best schools,” he said. “If it became less regional at its base then you’d be offering something that junior hockey doesn’t. Hockey actually represents [the CIS’s] chance to break out and have a greater crossover into the major popular sports media. If you had Alberta coming into Queen’s for a game, if you had U of T going out to Vancouver … you’d be separating yourself from major junior.”
Gibson said he doesn’t think cross-league matches are a realistic possibility even with the more even talent pool between CIS and major junior leagues.
“It will never happen because it’s a no-win situation for either program,” he said. “If we beat the Oshawa Generals we’re supposed to because we’re older, and if they beat us it doesn’t look good for us.”
Joyce doesn’t see it happening either.
“I don’t think major junior would ever go for it, it’s just too physically risky with underage players,” he said. “Some of the 16 year-olds will play in the NHL but some of them won’t, so you’ve got decent but not great 16-year olds that shouldn’t be on the same sheet of ice as a 23 year old.
“Putting them in against a CIS team would be lambs to slaughter.”