Where Do Terrific Hockey Players Come From? Pretty Much Any Place with a Sheet of Ice

2009draft.jpgNote the snooty tone of Rick from Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, in a recent online chat with TSN’s Bob McKenzie:

Snooty Rick: How can anyone rationalize the final [draft] rankings when they include high school hockey players in the U.S.? Compared to CHL players, they don’t have the proven stamina for a long schedule or play against elite talent day in and day out. Some are playing against kids in Junior High, and they [sic] are no Sidney Crosbys there! Thoughts?

Here’s my thought, Rick: You won’t be a talent evaluator for any NHL team in this lifetime.  Bob of course deftly rebuked this intemperate uprising with cold hard countering facts, but also a macro-observation about the development nature of our great game, which is that the determinant factor in evaluating young hockey talent is what the hockey heart helps deliver shift after shift, no matter the location of the rink:

BobM: “Rick, no one ever said scouting players was easy and trying to inegrate U.S. high schoolers on a list with major junior and/or college players is difficult. But I learned a very long time ago not to be fooled by the fact that a prospect “only” plays U.S. high school hockey and dismiss him because of that. I learned that in the early 1980s when the Buffalo Sabres drafted Phil Housley and Tom Barrasso right out of U.S. High School and they immediately became stars in the NHL. What I realized then is that the league the player plays in isn’t the primary factor; the talent of the player is. Hockey players come in all shapes and sizes and they come from all sort of different leagues and countries. Judge the player, not the league he plays in. It’s difficult sometimes because there’s inherent risk when a prospect hasn’t played against great competition, but Tom Barrasso stepped out of Acton-Boxboro High School in Boston and won the Vezina and Calder Trophies in his first NHL season as a 90-year-old. Go figure.”   

The Capitals of course have benefited from an investment in U.S. schoolboy prodigies — Bobby Carpenter, back in 1981. When I chatted with John Carlson up in Hershey this spring, he expressed to me his wonder-bewilderment about being less than a year removed from playing schoolboy hockey in New Jersey to being selected by the Capitals in the first round last summer, then patrolling the blueline for the Calder Cup-contending Bears less than a year after that.

U.S. high schoolers who attract the notice of NHL teams have to be special, precisely for the reasons McKenzie touched upon: they don’t play as many games, there’s an enormous discrepancy in age and body size and maturity level within the schoolboy ranks, and there’s also an access to instructional ice issue. But we ought not denigrate high school hockey in Minnesota or Massachusetts for its shortcomings but rather celebrate the fact that once in a while — pretty annually, really — those circuits with their cheerleaders in the stands actually deliver first-round talent to the NHL. Hockey Hall of Fame talent, in point of fact.     

Joe Mullen spent his formative development years playing roller hockey with a wadded up roll of electrical tape in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. All he did was go on to score 500 goals in the NHL, and earn enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Some NHL teams this June have an issue with Quebequois center prospect Louis Leblanc, who put up gaudy numbers in the USHL this past season, opting to play hockey at Harvard and the ECAC this fall. OK, that league doesn’t have the luster of a WCHA, but its NHL alumni ranks (Jeff Halpern, Brian Pothier . . . Joe Nieuwendyk) are impressive all right.

Pitch the puck out on the ice and let them go chase after it. There’s a pretty good chance that by the age of 17 or 18 the kid who gets to it the quickest and holds onto it the longest is worth taking a good long look at.   

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3 Responses to Where Do Terrific Hockey Players Come From? Pretty Much Any Place with a Sheet of Ice

  1. Meg Jarrell says:

    Excellent post. Luc Robitalle was probably that level of talent (or lack thereof) when he was drafted in the 9th round. Where is he today? In the Hall of Fame. Talent only gets you so far, and then competitiveness – heart and soul – gets you the rest of the way.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Tom Barrasso was 90 years old during his rookie campaign? That’s quite impressive, haha. I’m guessing that should be “19-year-old”.

  3. RPI93 says:

    Add Joey Juneau, Adam Oates, and Neil Sheehy to the list of ECAC alumni who played in the NHL.

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