yankee hockey

GIVING IT THE OLD COLLEGE TRY

Posted in column, Prospects by yankhockey on March 31, 2009

There was a little something you may have noticed going on for the past couple weeks, the NCAA playoffs. No, I’m not talking about basketball, but rather the college hockey tournament which pits the best 16 college teams against each other in single elimination MADNESS!. No really, it’s pretty fun.

This year was kind of an odd one. Many of the teams normally associated with the tournament, the U of Minnesota, Boston College, and Michigan State didn’t make the cut this year, while Air Force, New Hampshire, Miami (Ohio) and lowly Bemidji State not only appeared in the tourney, but managed to upset some tournament stalwarts.

This year Boston University was the number one seeded team, and it seems well founded since they haven’t had much competition so far. They will be playing Vermont, who has a very decent team, in the semi-finals. Meanwhile, in the upset bracket, Bemidji State, who beat surprisingly second seeded Notre Dame and college hockey powerhouse Cornell will be facing the out of no where Miami (Ohio) who had to beat Colorado and Minnesota Duluth, so either team coming out of the lower bracket this year will be a surprising one.

There are two problems with the Frozen Four that make it much less significant then the Final Four. One, they really don’t get the word out enough on the hockey tournament. I realize that hockey doesn’t have the across the board market that basketball does, but there still needs to be more talk, more advertising, and better television deals to really pique the interests of people out there. The second reason is that the best players of college age just aren’t in the NCAA college tournament.

The NBA has a rule that does not allow players to be join the league right out of high school, or even be drafted for that matter. The NHL does not have that restraint. The most significant 18 and 19 year old players often head straight into professional leagues right out of junior. A lot of this has to do with the nature of hockey in Canada, where many of the best players come from. Junior hockey in Canada is as close to professional as you can get without a paycheck. Children are recruited onto teams, often having to leave their homes and schools and live with a surrogate family in another city, they are traded like commodities, and most of all they are taught to see professional hockey as their only goal. In the States junior and high school hockey is not nearly taken to that level. Though some US players do go straight to the pros, many take the college route. Other countries are more like Canada, at least when it comes to college age players drafted into the NHL. Very few European born players come from the college ranks, yet many of the best young stars in the NHL are European born.

Because of all this, the best college age hockey takes place during the world juniors, when the best players under 21 meet in a winner take all tournament. The Frozen Four, by comparison, is little league.

Of course, this is all due to the incredibly international nature of hockey. Though there are a great many good basketball players arriving into the NBA from countries other then the US, the best players are still coming from the college ranks. In the NHL the vast majority of players coming out of college are US players, with Canadians coming from major junior, and European either coming from their own junior leagues, or occasionally the WHL or ECHL where they’ve come to try to prove they can play the North American game. Still, that doesn’t make the Frozen Four insignificant, just less notable, amongst the other college championships. Believe me, NHL teams are watching for that diamond in the rough, and you should watch too. Not because you’re seeing the future of hockey, but because these guys have worked hard all year to be amongst the elite of college hockey and they may not have another moment like this again as they leave with diplomas and enter into the non-sporting workforce, and they’ve earned your attention.

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FREEDOM OF CHOICE

Posted in column by yankhockey on March 12, 2009

I was at the grocery store today where I bought orange juice, cranberry/grape juice, and milk all at the same time and thought to myself, “Isn’t it nice to live in a place where we can make all these different choices.” Soon football fans will discover a new choice, the United Football League, aka the UFL, an offshoot league with all of four teams that will be playing what they advertise as professional football in the summer. Frankly, neither I, nor anyone else who’s heard of the league, believes that for a moment.

Most other sports give you a number of choices. Some of them, like baseball, offer competitive teams all through the minor leagues where they play in attractive parks, some with a great deal of history. Some, like basketball, put on sad games in high school gymnasiums. Football is somewhat like basketball except that what amounts for the minor leagues in football, the Arena League and Canadian League, offer up a little variety, if not the same level of competition. Luckily for football and basketball there’s the college teams.

Hockey is much more like baseball, especially in Canada, in that it has a very good and complex minor league system. There’s the WHL, the ECHL, the AHL, not to mention the SEL, KHL, MJHL… the list goes on and on. I’ve seen my share of NHL games, and there is nothing like it in th world. But I have also seen AHL, ECHL, and now defunct IHL games and I have to say, though the talent is noticeably lacking in the minors, the games don’t suffer for it.

Many of these guys will never make it to the big ice and bright lights of the NHL, and they know it too. But that doesn’t mean they don’t play with all the heart of a champion. There’s something about a sport that is a tradition. In the US it’s baseball, our national pastime. Kids in this country fantasize about becoming a ball player. I always imagined myself at third base, or pitching. In Canada, and in the Northern Midwest (and maybe upstate New York) kids dream of being hockey players. See, it doesn’t matter at what level you are playing, when you’re living the dream you’re happy.

I don’t know that kids dream about playing football. Basketball I can see, but there’s a certain selfishness present in the modern game that leads me to believe if you aren’t playing for the NBA then you probably don’t want to play. All those guys on the minor league ice play with pride and respect, and the cities they play for tend to echo that towards their players. The minor league arenas I’ve been too haven’t been run down garbage rinks, no sir. In fact, they’ve been some of the nicest rinks I’ve been too.

Some of the things I notice when I go to an NHL game are the enormous crowds, the schmucks wearing jerseys for teams that aren’t even playing, and mostly people yelling at each other about not being able to see the action. And why not yell, you spent $80-$200, maybe more on those tickets, you won’t tolerate some guy leaning over in his seat blocking your view of the ice. When I go see my local ECHL team there is a much more relaxed atmosphere. The people are there to have some fun. Some want to see a game they never thought they’d be into, other’s are big hockey fans who are happy to see the game played wherever they might be.

My point is, it’s nice to have choice and not have to suffer from a inferior product. You’ll never be fooled into thinking you’re at an NHL game when you’re watching a team called the Bakersfield Condors taking on the Florida Everblades (whomever came up with that name needs to be removed from the country immediately), but you won’t suffer through it either. It’s an enjoyably experience that I highly recommend to anyone who has the chance.

As for the UFL? I suggest football fans just be patient until the next season starts, college or pro. Something tells me that this new league and it’s four teams just won’t cut it, especially not if the XFL couldn’t make it.

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