In the University of New Hampshire’s men’s hockey locker room a close group of twenty guys prepare for each game. They sit in the stalls of the locker room, wearing their white jerseys with the initials UNH across the front in blue and they prepare to go out on the ice as a team. Although they make up a team each player is different. One difference is between the drafted and undrafted players.
In 2004 the National Hockey League made the ruling that players at a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I school could be drafted and still stay in college. As long as these players do not play for a professional team or hire an agent, they can return to their respective schools such as UNH, Northeastern University, Boston University, and Boston College among other Division I schools to get their degrees. Hockey players who turn eighteen by late September qualify for that year’s draft. Once a player is 21 they are no longer eligible.
For some hockey players, their hockey skill is what helped them to get into a prestigious university, “Growing up I wanted to play college hockey and use hockey to get an education“ said Paul Thompson, a junior on the UNH Wildcats.
When a male hockey player gets out of high school he has many options to choose from. First, they must think about whether they will enter the NHL draft, part of the decision in this will depend on how good the player is. They must also decide whether they will play in a junior league, an amateur league for developing young players, or to go to college to receive an education while playing.
Greg Burke, a freshman at UNH, was drafted in the third round of the 2007 NHL draft by the Washington Capitals. He did not want to play in juniors, but always dreamed of attending the school he grew up close to, UNH.
Burke, an undeclared major, continued to talk about his schoolwork, “I take it seriously because it is required you take it seriously. I am focused on it, but it is second on my priority list.” Most drafted players will go from college to the American Hockey League, which is the minor league of the NHL. Once the player is in the NHL, if all goes on track, he will stay there until his mid-thirties to early forties, following that they will retire.
Len Zaichkowsky, a sports psychology professor at Boston University, believes that college hockey players vary on their commitment to school work, “The kids who are drafted still know it’s a long shot to make [the] NHL, and are in a position to get an education… I don’t think one group values education over the other, they are drafted at 18 and things change.”
As of 2003, the NCAA has used a, “sliding scale,” for their incoming student athletes’ grades. This means that the higher an applying athlete’s grade point average is, the lower their Scholastic Assessment Test score needs to be. This also works the opposite way, the higher the SAT score, the lower the GPA is required to be. Once in the college, students must keep their GPA above a 2.1 to stay academically eligible.
Mark Phalon, an assistant coach for the Northeastern University Huskies, said that he has never dealt with a case where a player’s grades become a big issue. He commented via e-mail, “I think these kids treat school just like any other [student would]. If a really [high] touted player knows he will be leaving school early to pursue a [professional] career I could see them giving up on academics because they know they will not be finishing school.”
Greg Manz, an undrafted junior, went to a prestigious high school, Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, which helped him keep his academics high on his priority list. He is also aware that he probably will not play hockey after he graduates from UNH.
Manz said, “I have to make a decision soon if I will keep going in hockey. I have a plan laid out of what I will do if I don’t play hockey, which is to go to law school.”
Thompson feels that he should take his school seriously because, “whether you have the best future in hockey or not, eventually you need to use your education.”
As far as priorities go, both Thompson and Burke said hockey is higher than school. “I put hockey before school. There is a pretty good gap because hockey is my passion and it is the reason I am here,” said Burke.
Steve Quailer, a player at Northeastern University, was drafted in the third round of the 2008 draft by the Montreal Canadians. Quailer spoke of his priorities saying, “[Hockey] is a lot higher for me, it is not just like my job, I really like playing hockey so it is a lot higher.”
Manz had a hard time deciding which he feels is a bigger priority. “I say I devote more time doing schoolwork rather than thinking about hockey off the ice. However, when it comes to hockey I would say I put more work into that, especially during the season,”
Zaichkowsky also noted, “There are certain advantages to being undrafted, when you are a free agent you can pick where you go, and may get a higher value.”
He made reference to Boston University’s Matt Gilroy who was an undrafted player that went on to win Hobey Baker, an award given to the top Men’s ice hockey player in the NCAA, his senior year. Gilroy signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent after the B.U. Season ended.
Phalon also noted, “If you look at some of the elite players in Hockey East in Wade MacLeod (of Northeastern University), James Marcou and Casey Wellman [both] of [University of Massachusettes] none of them are drafted by NHL. teams.”
Phalon also commented on the likelihood an undrafted player sould end up in the NHL. “It is very likely for [undrafted] players to continue playing after college. College gives players four years [to] develop and mature… some players are late bloomers,” said Phalon.
Phalon also cited examples of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Martin St. Louis, a five time NHL. all-star, who was an undrafted player. St. Louis played four years of college hockey at the University of Vermont, and is now an elite player in the NHL.
Many times players who are drafted will not stay all four years at their respective college. For example, the Philadelphia Flyers drafted James van Riemsdyk before he attended UNH. He played there for two years before signing a contract with the Flyers and playing for them.
Burke said that as of now he plans to stay at UNH all four years, however he hasn’t put much thought into it. Burke talks to the Capitals organization about once a week to discuss how the previous weekend’s games went.
Quailer was the victim of a cheap hit in an exhibition game, putting him out of play for the rest of this season. “I was going to leave after this year (to play professional), but I can’t do that now, so I will probably leave after next season,” said Quailer. He said he still speaks to the Canadians organization once a month so they can hear about his injury status.
As far as the social aspect goes, the players do not distinguish themselves as being drafted or undrafted. “Being drafted is a plus, but it doesn’t make you better than the other guys hockey wise or as a person. All the guys are in the same boat and want to move on,” said Quailer.
“I feel that though [being drafted] is a huge honor and accomplishment, most players still realize they have not made it yet. Most prospects realize that there is still so much work to be done but they get a shot of confidence in knowing that an NHL club believes in their abilities,” said Phalon.
As for the undrafted players, they enjoy having guys on their team who have been drafted. Manz said, “It puts more motivation and drive into me because everyday I practice with guys who have been drafted. Everyday I compete against great players.”