Anyone who has ever heard of a two-line pass knows the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team. A team of American amateurs defeated the heavily-favored Soviet Union on its way to winning the gold medal. The Soviet team was loaded with professionals; it had beaten a team of NHL all-stars, 6-0 in an exhibition game prior to the Olympics. Though several members of that “Miracle on Ice” team would later make the NHL, very few skaters in the pros had played in college.
Over the next generation, the NHL began to see a slow rise in players who had started out in the NCAA. Today, over 30% of the league has previously spent some time playing in college.
More than ever, college athletes are advancing into professional hockey, just as they have been doing in football and basketball for dozens of years. Previously, Major Junior hockey (CHL) seemed to be the only North American stepping stone for prospects to hone their skills before reaching the NHL.
Although the strength of college hockey has changed that to an extent in recent years, only about 13% of first round picks in the NHL draft over the past 15 years played in the NCAA at some point prior to going pro. Given how many of the league’s current top players have gone that route, however, that figure should increase in the coming years.
There are 12 players with 25 or more goals at the Winter Olympics break. Half of them played college hockey in the U.S.: Phil Kessel (Minnesota), Joe Pavelski (Wisconsin), Patrick Sharp (Vermont), Chris Kunitz (Ferris State), Max Pacioretty (Michigan) and Martin St. Louis (Vermont). St. Louis also was the NHL leader in points last season.
Three of the last five Vezina Trophy winners – Ryan Miller (Michigan State) and Tim Thomas twice (Vermont) – and three of the most recent four Conn Smythe Trophy winners – Thomas, Jonathan Toews (North Dakota) and Jonathan Quick (UMass-Amherst) – all played in the NCAA.
There are even six foreign players in the Sochi Olympics who played in American universities prior to embarking on their NHL careers: Carl Hagelin (Michigan), Duncan Keith (Michigan State), Kunitz, Sharp, Toews and Thomas Vanek (Minnesota)
The vast majority (80%) of the American men’s hockey team that will compete in Sochi this February will be comprised of former NCAA athletes. It will be the first time this country has sent 20 “college kids” to the Olympics since Mike Eruzione’s late goal took down the Soviets 34 years ago. In the United States’ opening game that year, the team scored near the end of regulation to earn a draw against Sweden. If they face each other again next month, this time even the Swedes will have a former college player on their team (Hagelin).
Former College Players on Team USA’s Men’s Hockey Team, 2014
|Jimmy Howard (Maine)||Ryan Miller (Michigan State)||Jonathan Quick (UMASS-Amherst)||Justin Faulk (Minnesota-Duluth)|
|Paul Martin (Minnesota)||Ryan McDonagh (Wisconsin)||Brooks Orpik (Boston College)||Kevin Shattenkirk (Boston U.)|
|Ryan Suter (Wisconsin)||David Backes (Minnesota St.-Mankato)||Ryan Kesler (Ohio State)||Phil Kessel (Minnesota)|
|T.J. Oshie (North Dakota)||Max Pacioretty (Michigan)||Zach Parise (North Dakota)||Joe Pavelski (Wisconsin)|
|Paul Stastny (Denver)||Derek Stepan (Wisconsin)||James van Riemsdyk (New Hampshire)||Blake Wheeler (Minnesota)|
(photo by Kris Krug)