Learning Curve

College Players And Teams Come To Grips With Early Departures
By: 
Jess Myers

On a Sunday night in March, when Michigan pulled away from Boston University late in the game to win the NCAA Northeast Regional at a rink in Worcester, Mass., it looked for a short time like Jordan Greenway's seasonlong hockey adventure might be at an end.

In reality, the hockey career for the star forward from Upstate New York was just beginning. Greenway spent the winter of 2017-18 playing a dual starring hockey role not only for the Terriers in Boston, but also for Team USA at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in South Korea. 

Within a matter of hours after the final horn sounded, signaling the end of his junior season of college hockey, Greenway received a contract offer from the Minnesota Wild, who had picked him in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft.

His first "welcome to the modern NHL" moment came a short time later, when the notion of being handed a paper contract and a pen to sign it with was dispelled. In 2018, the contract was sent by the Wild right to Greenway's cell phone, where he was able to sign and begin his adventure playing hockey for a paycheck.

He was far from alone in his decision to leave college hockey early for a career shooting or stopping pucks. As of May 1, Greenway was among more than two dozen underclassmen from the 60 Division I college hockey schools to leave campus for a locker room in the NHL or the minor leagues. 

That list includes three of the most well-known names from Team USA in PyeongChang - Greenway, Denver star Troy Terry and Harvard phenom Ryan Donato. 

Terry signed with the Anaheim Ducks after his college season ended in the regional final, and Donato made his Boston Bruins debut in late March, scoring a goal in his first NHL game, then hustling across town for a class at Harvard the next morning.

For each of those two dozen ex-collegians, it's an individual decision made with the help of their families, coaches, future NHL employers and family advisors, which is the polite name for their agents, who work in an advisory role for no money under NCAA rules until such time as a player signs a pro contract.

All of those interests and opinions make late March a hectic time for college hockey coaches, who often see their rosters for the following season unexpectedly and dramatically re-made in a matter of hours. That was the case for Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who saw a quartet of underclassmen who had starred on the Pioneers' 2017 NCAA title team---Terry, Henrik Borgstrom (Florida), Dylan Gambrell (San Jose) and Blake Hillman (Chicago)-sign pro contracts within a matter of hours.

As a player, Montgomery played 122 games in the NHL, and nearly 600 in the minor leagues. For his current players, Montgomery wants to make sure they have a golden opportunity to play at pro hockey's highest level before they make the jump.

"The biggest thing I tell players is if they're going to leave school early, they want to have a good opportunity to go right to the NHL," said Montgomery, who also left for the NHL as the new head coach of the Dallas Stars. "I don't think you leave college and lose the opportunity to get close to your degree to ride a bus in the AHL."

Although pro teams often advocate for a few months to a few years playing in the AHL as a way for a college player to make a smoother transition to the speed and lifestyle of the NHL. 

Brent Flahr, the Wild executive who scouted, drafted and eventually signed Greenway, points to recent college stars like Jason Zucker (Denver) and Luke Kunin (Wisconsin) who have made successful impacts with the Wild only after an apprenticeship in the AHL. When they're used to packed college arenas full of students cheering them on, going from that to the minor leagues isn't always easy. 

Wild star Zach Parise, who left the University of North Dakota after two seasons of college hockey, has admitted in the past that his first pro hockey season, spent riding busses while playing for a struggling Albany team in the AHL, was the hardest of his career, mentally. 

That's another question pondered in the decision of when to make the jump-is a player ready? That's actually two questions for some NHL teams.

"It's one, if he thinks he's ready, and two, if we think he's ready," Flahr said. "In some cases, a player thinks he's ready and we don't. Other times we think a player is ready and they may not."

That was the case with Greenway, who had an opportunity to sign with the Wild a year earlier, but elected to spend another season in college, and to play in the Olympics.

"I definitely considered leaving and coming to the Wild but in the end, I wanted to go back and refine some things I thought I needed to be able to come [to the NHL] and do well," said Greenway, who played 11 games with the Wild after signing and scored his first NHL goal in the playoffs versus Winnipeg. 

"I also wanted to do more at school, and I f itWhen a player is pondering that jump to pro hockey, other college coaches stress that it's a door that will close and can't be opened again. Once a player signs with a pro team, there's no return to college hockey if they find they're not ready for, or happy about, the move. 

Former Minnesota Duluth star Brett Hull, who had a dream career in the NHL and retired with more than 700 goals and two Stanley Cup rings, wrote in his autobiography that leaving college after two years was one of his only hockey-related regrets. 

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson is a strong advocate that four years of college hockey is in many cases the quickest route to the NHL.

"Not just completing the degree, but because your senior year is the best year of your life, especially in a good program when you like the people there. Losing that is something you'll regret when you're 30 years old," Jackson said, recalling that he huddled with Irish stars Anders Lee and Cal Peterson on the plane back to Indiana after their final college games, to talk about their futures and whether the time was right for them to make the jump. 

"It's different out there. And often players come back and tell me 'I wish I would've stayed.' Or the ones that do stay are glad they made the decision."

Once that decision is made, the real work begins. For players like Greenway, who feel it's their time to sign a contract, the reality of professional hockey as their job hits them quickly.

"It was a dream come true," Greenway said about signing that first contract. It was late in the NHL season, and he was watching the Wild play from the Xcel Energy Center pressbox as a healthy scratch for the first time in his pro career. 

"But that's over and there's a lot more I have to do. The work is just starting now." 

Jess Myers is a freelance writer based in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.

 

 

Issue: 
2018-06

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