The puck drops Saturday night on the final of the Frozen Four as the Boston University Terriers take on the Providence Friars in a game that not only pits two New England schools against each other, but two schools in the same league—Hockey East. All eyes are on Jack Eichel, who won the Hobey Baker Award on Friday night, for the Terriers and is expected to go second in this summer’s draft as well as Jon Gillies, goaltender for the Friars. Eichel’s impressive talent has resulted in attention being paid to the college level of hockey like never before. And while Boston College is out of the run for the championship, they are the alma mater for Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes, and have on their current roster Noah Hanifin, who is expected to be selected third overall in the NHL Draft this summer.
John Buccigross and Barry Melrose have been giving television viewers of the Frozen Four games the play-by-play and the color commentary. Friday night they could be found at The Greatest Bar in Boston, just a few yards from TD Garden, discussing what is anticipated to be one of the best competitions on the ice as both teams have been remarkable this year. The Pink Puck was there and had a chance to chat with both of them.
The college hockey route doesn’t come without some thought and preparation, and is perhaps not a perfect fit for all hockey players.
“It’s a great sport for the late bloomers. It’s a great sport for people wanting to get the degree. If they don’t make it, then they can transition into the working life smoothly,” said Buccigross. “Great schools. Free education. They see the benefits of more time to train as opposed to more games in junior, so [the player can] get bigger and stronger and [he] can get time to develop.”
Buccigross, who most see on ESPN as part of SportsCenter, does a lot to promote college hockey—including the Twitter hash tag #cawlidgehawkey—considers himself to be a “late bloomer” and said that as such they are close to his heart.
Melrose believes that the increased attention to college hockey because of the likes of Eichel opens the eyes to those players who might want to take the college route.
“Obvously you’ve got Jack Eichel who’s going to be the number two pick this year. You’ve got Noah Hanifin who will be the number three pick,” commented Melrose. “Auston Matthews will probably be the number one pick next year. So you’re getting a lot of high profile kids playing in American college hockey.”
One option for the college-bound player is to go through the USHL. This gives the player a taste of the “junior” style of hockey without losing their college eligibility. And for coaches of some colleges, though they are reaching out to players when they are in 7th and 8th grades or as freshmen in high school, a good balance to getting those young players in as freshman is to have a couple of older players as well. The USHL is where they often find them.
“Some coaches just don’t want an 18-year-older. They’d rather have a 20-year-older, so again [the USHL is] a good way for a late bloomer to gain some weight, get some experience, get a little stronger, move away from home if you’ve never done that before,” Buccigross expanded. “It gives you one or two years of American junior hockey to keep your college eligibility, because if you go play Canadian junior, you can’t play college hockey, Twenty, 30, 40 years ago, the kids didn’t have that option in America, so the USHL has really helped college hockey,”
This doesn’t mean that all American players should choose the college route.
“If the kid doesn’t want to go to school anymore, he doesn’t have to go to class. If he doesn’t like school, doesn’t want to go to classes, he can play junior hockey,” Buccigross said. “And maybe not everybody was meant to go to college.”
“I’m a believer that you don’t have to hurt junior hockey in Canada to make American hockey stronger. I think that they can both cohabitate and I think that they can both be very, very strong,” added Melrose. “I think certain kids want to play junior hockey. I think for certain kids it’s better for them to play college hockey. So I don’t think it has to be one or the other.”
Though he doesn’t have a son, Melrose has given the two routes to the professional leagues a great deal of thought.
“I always said that if I had sons, that if my son was a Blue Chip kid, I would have him play junior hockey. It teaches you how to be a pro. You’re playing 75 games. You’re traveling like a pro. You’re learning how to practice and be ready,” he explained. “If my kid was maybe a little bit slower developer, maybe a smaller kid or a skinny kid. I’d have him in college hockey, where he can practice five days a week and lift weights. Where he’s not playing 72 games, he’s playing 36, 38 games.”
In many instances a player may elect to go the college route, but then gets an offer that he simply can’t turn down. Such may be the case with Eichel. Seldom does the Hobey Baker Award winner return to college the year after winning, electing instead to go into the professional leagues. Of course, usually the Hobey Baker is given to a junior or senior player. However, Eichel’s talents, despite his young age, may mean he too will head off to the team that drafts him this summer.
“He’ll reach the point where, if he came back, there would be games next year that he’d be like ‘What am I doing out here? I might get hurt. I’m so much better. I’m just not challenged enough.’ And there were some games like that this year, you could see, where he almost looked bored,” Buccigross commented. “Now, the big lights, national TV, he wants to show what he’s all about, and he is so far. No, he’ll go. He’ll be in the NHL next year and he’ll make his million dollars and he’ll be pushed against big time competition and it’s probably the right move.”
“I think Eichel’s a special kid. He’s a generational kid, we talk about, who only comes around once [for] a short period of time,” Melrose agreed. “Whoever drafts him is going to want him in that team the next year, so I think Jack Eichel is probably a one and done.”
That doesn’t mean that Boston University won’t be a good team next year, if they do lose Eichel to the pucks and checks of the NHL.
“They’ve got a big class coming in. They’ll be a tournament team for sure. They might not be a national championship-level team, but they’ll be a Top Ten team,” Buccigross declared. “Before the season even starts they’ve got big prospects. You know, they’ve got four freshmen on defense. Those guys will all come back. They’ll be fine. They’ll reload quickly.”
I couldn’t finish the interviews though without asking Melrose his take on the perfect college hockey team.
“Obviously I would have kids from every state in the United States. I would have kids from every province in Canada, so they could interact and get to know each other. I would probably have it in the northeast because this is sort of the hot bed of hockey in America,” Melrose said, warming to the vision in his head. “I would probably have a coach like [Jack] Parker or Jerry York, you know a guy that’s been through the wars, that have coached in every level and every area, you know Dean Blais, a person like that.”
As playoffs begin in a few days for the NHL, scouts and other management are also doing their last investigations on the draft-eligible players before the NHL Combine and final interviews begin to mark the beginning of the “draft season.” This season’s draft looks to have one of the strongest college presences. Eichel and Hanifin are already in college, as is University of Michigan’s Zach Werenski, who is anticipated to go ninth. In addition there are at least three others expected to go in the first round. College hockey has definitely found its stride.