The NCAA drops the puck today on their men's hockey tournament and there will be no shortage of Canadians on the ice as 16 teams try to make their first step to becoming National Champions.
The tournament includes a total of 109 Canadian players. There are 35 players from Ontario, 35 from British Columbia, 18 from Alberta and seven each from Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Many of those players are trying to follow in the footsteps of several successful Canadian NHLers who went to college, including four members of the gold-medal-winning Sochi Olympic team: Jonathan Toews (North Dakota), Martin St. Louis (Vermont), Patrick Sharp (Vermont) and Chris Kunitz (Ferris State).
"I think that if more Canadian families were exposed to what college can do — as parents for your kid socially, athletically and academically ... I think more people would be doing it," said University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery, a Montreal native who went to Maine and ended up playing 122 NHL games.
Among the 945 players to see NHL action this season, 100 were Canadians who played at a U.S. college.
Naturally, many went the more traditional road, through the QMJHL, OHL or WHL. But the NCAA is slowly becoming another acceptable way to get there.
"There's no wrong path," Phoenix Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving said. "I think as a Canadian guy you grew up and you're around major junior hockey more, so ... you're closer to it than you are U.S. colleges, but, jeez, there's no wrong answer. It's an individual choice and there's benefits to both."
Treliving said major junior hockey is the "quicker" path to the NHL because it has more of a pro-style schedule and grind. But others point to college's 40-game season as a better chance for some players to develop. There's more opportunity to lift weights and practice.
"There's the Sidney Crosbys and the Ovechkins and the Malkins of the world that could grow under a rock and are going to play in the NHL," Montgomery said. "There's other perfect examples — elite players like the Paul Kariyas of the world. Those are the ones everyone knows but it's like, did he really need to go to college? Well, Paul Kariya needed to go to college because he was 155 pounds and in 18 months of college he was 175 pounds ready to play against 30-year-old men that are 225 pounds.
"It teaches you how to be a man quick."
Perhaps some notoriety can come from watching this NCAA tournament. Boston College defenceman Michael Matheson (Pointe-Claire, Que.) is a first-round pick and top prospect for the Florida Panthers, while Quinnipiac has Connor and Kellen Jones (Montrose, B.C.) and Matthew Peca(Petawawa, Ont.).
Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel (Swift Current, Sask.) has been one of the best in the country this season and could soon follow in the footsteps of other recent Canadian college players like Matt Read, Ben Scrivens and Cory Conacher who have signed NHL contracts.
Hamilton brothers Greg and Matt Carey recently signed deals with the Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, after playing at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. Greg Carey came away satisfied with his direction, which was only possible because playing tier-2 junior hockey opened him up to the world of U.S. colleges.
"You have friends, older friends on your team who have the ability to go and to head down to the States and play and it looks like a lot of fun," Carey said in a phone interview. "And then you get to go on your visits and you get exposed to this world that you really don't see as a Canadian kid growing up. We see a lot of the major junior with the 'Dub' and the 'O' and the 'Q' and the NHL is right there, front and centre, so we don't really get the NCAA."
Looking at the tournament from an NHL draft perspective, the top eligible player in the tournament, according to Craig Button's rankings, is Boston College's starting goalie Thatcher Demko. Demko posted a .921 save percentage and 2.13 goals against average in 21 starts this season.