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Proven Pathway: NAHL sets new record for NCAA commitments

(By Alex Kyrias, NAHL) – Every young hockey player grows up with a dream. For the majority of those players who are playing junior hockey in the United States, that dream is to one day play college hockey in the NCAA.

There are several paths for a player to accomplish this, which are accompanied by various opinions and theories of what league or what team may be the best fit for a player if he is looking to his extend and advance his career to the NCAA level.

In the ongoing case for the North American Hockey League, the proof and proven pathway in is numbers. Record breaking numbers to be exact, as the 2013-14 season was the best ever for NCAA commitments in the 38-year history of the league. As of July 22, exactly 211 players had committed to universities and colleges at both the NCAA Division I and III levels.

No other league in North America saw as many commitments for their players, while they were actually playing in the league, and the NAHL finished second only to the United States Hockey League in total NCAA commitments for 2013-14.

It shatters the old record of 193 set back during the 2012-13 season. Of the 211 players making commitments this year, 142 of those (over two-thirds) are moving on to the Division I ranks, and 79 are going to play at Division III schools. Additionally, 32 of the 210 are alumni of the NAHL, playing in the league prior to the 2013-14 season.

It is all part of a larger trend that proves and shows that the NAHL and its teams are as successful and effective as anyone in junior hockey in providing opportunity and creating exposure events that are proven to showcase players and move them onto the next level.

“Over the course of the past few seasons, the NAHL has put a premium on providing more opportunities for our players in markets that are sustainable and stable,” said NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “Because of that stability, our owners have been able to watch their teams grow and thrive in their respective markets and as a result, we have seen the NCAA commitments go up.”

Events such as the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota, and the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, held in Troy, Michigan, help to bring in hundreds of scouts per event. The Top Prospects featured a record number of scouts for the fourth straight year, while the record set at the showcase in Blaine last September saw over 340 NHL, NCAA and junior scouts come through the doors of the Schwan Super Rink during the five days.

“The NCAA schools are able to see a maturation and growth process that begins with events like the NAHL Showcase, then continues with a rigorous regular season schedule and events like the Top Prospects Tournament, and culminates in an exciting Robertson Cup playoffs,” continued Frankenfeld.

“The record number of commitments is also a huge testament to the amount of work that the teams put in to advance their players to the next level,” Frankenfeld continued. “It starts with the owners and continues with the talented group of coaches we have in the NAHL, who work tirelessly to not only develop the players, but are doing the leg work to keep in constant contact with the NCAA coaches to ensure they are communicating information about their players. Finally, I believe that the competition on the ice is at a very high level right now and that is a testament to the type of talent we have in our players in the NAHL,” he added.

The NAHL will charge forth into the 2014-15 season, hoping to top even the record number of 211 commitments from this season.

“The fact that we are able to claim over 200 NCAA commitments in one season is a testament of all the above factors,” Frankenfeld said, “and it is further proof that when it comes to NCAA commitments and opportunity, the NAHL is one of the best in North America.”

Consider the following statistics:

• With 211 commitments and 179 of those from current NAHL players and not alumni, that means on average, a third of the

players from each NAHL roster are getting an NCAA commitment each season.

• Two-thirds of the NCAA commitments are to NCAA Division I schools.

• 135 of the 211 total commitments to date came after the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament in February, further showing the

benefit of the event.

• In the last two years, the NAHL has not only had 400 NCAA commitments, but also seen over two million fans go through

turnstyles.

• Over 650 NAHL alumni played in the NCAA this past season with over half of those playing Division I hockey.

However, it isn’t just Frankenfeld that believes in the system, it is just about everyone else in the hockey community as well.

All of it, including both high-profile exposure events, helped Wenatchee Wild goaltender Chase Perry, who had a tremendous rookie season in the NAHL. In September, the scouts were buzzing about Perry being an exciting and new prospect. In March, just weeks after playing in the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, Perry committed to play NCAA Division I hockey at Colorado College. On June 28, Perry was drafted 136th overall in the 5th round of the NHL Entry Draft by the Detroit Red Wings. Perry was one of six players with NAHL ties selected at the 2014 NHL Draft.

SB Nation hockey writer Chris Dilks chimed in on the success the NAHL has had because of its developmental model. “Although Wenatchee goalie Chase Perry was the only current/active player listed out of the NAHL to be selected in the NHL Draft, that doesn't mean the second day of the draft was a quiet one for the league. Five other players that played in the NAHL were also selected, including Zach Nagelvoort (University of Michigan), Steven Johnson (University of Minnesota), and Kyle Schempp (Ferris State University), who played full seasons in the league.”

Dilks continued, “Four other players that played in the NAPHL, the NAHL's youth league affiliate were selected, including Boston College's Thatcher Demko, and the league also saw a player that played in their Tier III affiliate the NA3HL, goalie Alex Nedeljkovic selected. It certainly showed the depth the league has in finding and helping develop lesser-known players, and providing depth to the American hockey system.”

Perhaps no team in the past four years exemplifies this process as well as the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Over the course of the past four seasons, not only have the Ice Dogs won two Robertson Cup National Championships, but they have also had 43 NCAA commitments during those four seasons, including 12 this past season.

Trevor Stewart, head coach of the Ice Dogs, believes that because NAHL players typically enter the league without a commitment, it drives them more to do whatever they can to try and earn one and take the next step in their hockey careers.

“I think it is a matter of players being hungry and driven to improve, especially the older players. I think they realize whether they are coming from another junior league or midget hockey that this is potentially their final opportunity to make it happen and as a result, they work extremely hard,” said Stewart. “The exciting part for all these players is that the opportunity is there for the taking. One look at the league’s commitments and our list of alumni should tell them that. Players are going to get out what they put in. What I am excited lately is also seeing a trend of the younger players getting committed as well and moving on to the NCAA.”

Stewart continued… “I think when players come into the NAHL they know they are going to get playing time, grow and develop as a player and experience everything they would in a college environment such as travel and playing in hostile environments. I think all that combined with the exposure they get at the NAHL events and during the regular season gives us some real confidence as an organization and as a league that we are doing things right.”

15 players from the Janesville Jets organization, both past and present, made NCAA commitments during the 2013-14 season, including Top Prospects participants Logan Halladay and Robin Hoglund, who are both headed to play hockey at Big 10 powerhouse, the University of Minnesota.

Janesville Jets head coach Joe Dibble said that moving players onto the next level is priority #1. “We want to be known as an organization who is doing whatever we can to move players onto the NCAA level and I think this type of mission is something that is shared league-wide. The NAHL is known for its ability to produce NCAA-ready players and this year’s commitment numbers further prove that belief. I think the NAHL offers the most diverse environment for all of this to be accomplished,” said Dibble. “When you see the list of commitments every season some of the players are older, some are younger and committing for a season or two down the road, but the most important point is regardless of age, they are earning these commitments during their time spent playing and developing in the NAHL.”

Dibble also offered his thoughts about why this is happening. “There are a lot of avenues to make sure that these players are getting the opportunity for exposure. The NAHL Showcase and the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament are just two great examples of this. The hockey and scouting community knows that these are now considered ‘must-see’ events and the number of scouts that attend each season prove that. It is a yearlong commitment we have as coaches to our players. Beginning with our new group at the end of the summer, we try and provide all NCAA coaches with updates on our players, both from an academic standpoint and an athletic standpoint.”

The Jets philosophy is also shared by current NHL superstar and San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, who is a minority owner of the Jets and also emphasizes a hands-on approach.

“That’s always a goal for these players (to go NCAA Division I). You come to the junior leagues to take that step and play college hockey. Anytime there’s a program that’s going to put more kids to the next level, you’re going to become aware of it. Just like when you look at what school you’re picking. What team has won more, if you have a few options? Those teams that have that track record tend to keep that track record. I think the Jets and the NAHL have done a great job with that.”

No coach has a longer tenure in the NAHL than Topeka’s Scott Langer, who has been at the helm of the RoadRunners franchise for over a decade. While the RoadRunners won the NAHL’s South Division Playoff title and made the NAHL’s final four this past season, the RoadRunners also had nine NCAA commitments and Langer subscribes to the theory that winning and making sure your players are moving onto the NCAA is a cooperative effort.

“We feel that players moving onto the NCAA is the most important thing for our organization. However, I think that on-ice success is a byproduct of that because it is a matter of combining the team chemistry and talent to make a championship team. I think if you subscribe to that philosophy, it is only a matter of time before you win a championship,” said Langer. “We make guys understand that they have to work hard every single day in order to make something like an NCAA commitment happen. Our players are being pushed to their maximum effort and potential because every single night in the NAHL, your opponent is doing the exact same thing. The NAHL has a network of very good coaches, who are not only the extra mile to develop these players, but to also ensure that they are doing everything they can to move them onto the next level. It makes every one of us better and I think the NCAA coaches notice that.”

Langer also spoke about the importance of staying in communication with coaches across the NCAA landscape. “I think we spend about 60% of every day of the season communicating in some fashion with NCAA coaches. It is of the utmost importance to not only provide them with the most information on players that you can, but also to be honest during the process. We know their time is valuable because they are looking at players from all over the world and competing junior leagues. We want to set ourselves apart from those other leagues in the effectiveness of our communication and our honesty to them. That type of regular communication is just as important part of the process as anything we do.”

The Robertson Cup National Runner-Up and Central Division regular season and playoff champion Austin Bruins had 13 players, including 11 current, make commitments during the 2013-14 season. That included the likes of NAHL Top Prospects participants Nick Lehr (University of Minnesota), Jay Dickman (Bemidji State) and Sam Kauppila (St. Lawrence).

Austin Bruins head coach Chris Tok said that for the Bruins, success on the ice and being able to place over a dozen players in the NCAA was something that were both a priority. “The on-ice success is a bonus, but the primary focus for us is development, particularly towards the NCAA level. I think a lot of times the two (winning and commitments) go hand-in-hand, but developing players and moving them onto the NCAA is something that as a coach, you want to see happen every season. As coaches, it is very important that we do our due diligence for our players in following up with the NCAA coaches on a regular basis,” said Tok.

Tok also echoed the sentiment that the NAHL events are providing players with a great opportunity for exposure. “The NAHL events provide a wonderful outlet for our players to get noticed, but it goes deeper than that. We want to be sure that we are always networking and keeping them in constant communications in regards to our players. We want to sure that they have all of the resources they need to make a decision on a player. The #1 priority has to be moving players on. I think if we are doing our job in doing that, then the winning part goes along with it. I think our 2013-14 is a perfect example of that. We had a great number of NCAA commitments and thanks in large part to that type of talent, we were able to have on-ice success and make it all the way to the Robertson Cup Finals. We want players to walk away from their experience with the Bruins in the NAHL believing it was the best experience of their life.”

The Kenai River Brown Bears have nine players heading off to the NCAA to date, which includes NAHL Most Valuable Player and NAPHL graduate Alec Butcher (Sacred Heart) and NAHL Top Prospects participant Sebastian Fuchs (University of Denver).

Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant believes that the record number of NCAA commitments has to do with the quality of hockey in the NAHL. "I think the increase in NCAA commitments speaks to the high level of play in our league and to the quality of the players that our organizations attract to their rosters. I also believe that NCAA programs see the value of our league and the types of players that they can rely on. I constantly hear that our players are hard-working, talented, mature hockey players, all qualities that translate well to college hockey."

Beauparlant continued… “There is no doubt that the league's two premier events, the NAHL Showcase and the NAHL Top Prospects Showcase, provide the opportunity for our players to demonstrate their abilities to collegiate coaches and professional scouts. I also believe that our coaching fraternity does an excellent job of developing our players, preparing them for the rigors of college hockey, and promoting them through constant networking with college coaches."

One of the exciting and recent commitments for the NAHL was Springfield Jr. Blues goalie Stefanos Lekkas, who not only was named to the All-NAHL Rookie 2nd Team, but also played in the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament and will be heading to the University of Vermont.

Jr. Blues head coach Tony Zasowski, who like Lekkas was a goalie and also played NCAA Division I hockey said that the talent level in the league is very high and plays a key role. “The fact that the NAHL had it best year for commitment should come as no surprise as teams are doing a great job recruiting talented players. Every team has great players which was shown by the parity in the league this season and expect it to get better next season.

Bu perhaps the biggest impact that NAHL players have is on the NCAA teams themselves. The best evidence and most telling testimonials come from the actual NCAA Division I coaches themselves. They are the ones watching these NAHL players develop and betting on their futures as a hockey player to make an impact while in college.

“Players in the NAHL take hockey seriously,” said Ferris State Assistant Coach Drew Famulak. “We have some kids out of the NAHL that are very highly skilled, committed to what we want to do as a team and show great leadership qualities. They have also been exposed to some of the best coaching in the country, which is satisfying for us knowing they can step in and contribute right away.”

“These guys are on the ice everyday with a very intense and rigorous schedule and they are well coached and have a lot of experience playing junior hockey in some tough environments,” said Robert Morris University Head Coach Derek Schooley, who got his coaching start in the NAHL in 1997. “They are doing the extra work in the weight room and in the classroom in addition to their extensive on ice schedule, so you know you are getting someone who is battle-tested and can handle the rigors of an NCAA Division I schedule.”

Maybe no one knows or enjoys the benefit of NAHL players more than Air Force Head Coach Frank Serratore, who boasts more NAHL graduates on his team than any other NCAA Division I program. “We like the NAHL because of the maturity of the players. If you want an opportunity or chance to become a hockey player you can come to the NAHL and succeed. I like what the NAHL does for young men… it is the league of opportunity,” said Serratore.

So, when considering what league may be best for the junior-bound hockey player, consider the sheer evidence: A record-breaking season resulting in 211 NCAA commitments to date, community-supported teams in stable and diverse markets with committed ownership, top quality coaching, one-of-a-kind events that provide unparalleled exposure, a vast network of NAHL alumni who are making an impact at the next level and finally, the continued support and testimony from the NCAA coaches themselves, who continue to support the philosophy that when it comes to earning an NCAA commitment while playing junior hockey, no one does it better than the NAHL.

About the NAHL

The NAHL, the only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier II Junior league boasting 24 teams from across North America, prides itself on the social maturity and skill development of student-athletes ages 16-20 with aspirations of advancing to collegiate and/or professional hockey. During the 2013-14 season, a record number of 211 NAHL players committed to NCAA schools. NAHL alumni Justin Williams was named the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs alumni Connor Hellebuyck won the first ever Mike Richter Award in 2014, honoring the top goaltender in the NCAA, eight former NAHL players signed NHL contracts in 2014 and six players with NAHL ties were selected in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. For more information, visit www.nahl.com