Updated: Jan 29, 2021
By: Max Toth
We’re about a week into the 2021 NHL season and some amazing storylines have already surfaced - the Laine-Dubois blockbuster, the Montreal Canadiens surprising start and Sportsnet's never-ending mission to let hockey fans know “It’s on!”
But how about the U.S. college hockey season?
The battle between Boston College and Minnesota State for the league's top spot, Saint Cloud State's shocking upset of then-number one North Dakota and Odeen Tufto's spirited fight for the Hobey Baker award.
You’ve never heard of Odeen Tufto, and you think Saint Cloud sounds more like a rival school from Harry Potter than a below average public university in Minnesota?
Well....you’re not alone, because while the NHL has been growing exponentially, college hockey has remained stagnant - especially compared to big time U.S. college basketball and football.
The main reason college hockey hasn’t reached the mainstream is pretty simple - the players just aren’t as good as they are in other college sports. The American-based NCAA definitely has some skilled players but the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) has always been the main power broker when it comes to collecting the top on-ice talent.
You need proof?
Of the 31 players drafted in the first round of this year's NHL entry draft, just one of them came from the U.S. college ranks - Dylan Holloway, the 14th pick.
But before we completely kick college hockey to the curb, it should be pointed out that 22 of the 25 players on the U.S.A world juniors team that won gold in Edmonton earlier this month played in college, so there’s obviously some talent south of the border, right?
But let’s be honest.
Sure, the players are important, but we all know who drives big-time college sports - the big-name coaches.
Whether or not basketball and football programs have game-changing athletes like Zion Williamson or Devonta Smith, coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Nick Saban are always in the spotlight. After all, players come and go but in college, coaches are forever.
Unfortunately, in hockey, a game less attuned to strategy and play-calling, coaches aren’t nearly as visible and it undoubtedly hurts the sport.
While college basketball and football reign supreme in the southern United States, those sports are still popular right across the entire country.
The same, though, can’t be said for hockey.
Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota.
These have always been the states that have ruled college hockey. Arizona, for instance, hasn't exactly pumped out NHL players who aren't named Auston Matthews. By the way, Matthews didn't even play for a U.S. college team, choosing to take his talents to Switzerland before lighting it up with the Toronto Maple Leafs; and skipping school isn’t uncommon among the cream of the crop of American players, as superstars such as Mike Modano and Patrick Kane earned their stripes in the CHL.
So what can U.S. college hockey do to become more popular?
The only thing they can really hope for is that more Auston Matthews-calibre players decide that going to school is a cool thing to do.
Until then, unfortunately, the U.S. college ranks will continue to be dominated by the Saint Cloud's and Odeen Tufto's of the hockey world.