For the majority of hockey families in British Columbia, the US College hockey experience is largely unknown. And like many things unknown, is often looked upon with a mix of suspicion and skepticism. It can’t be all that wonderful, as all the best pros come from the WHL, is a common refrain.
But a quick look down the rosters of most of the top Division 1 US College teams will show more NHL prospects than a typical WHL team will show. But they’re older, comes the rejoinder, and the top NHL picks almost all come from the CHL, the argument continues.
The debate will go on for ever, as to which route is best for hockey development.
The main point however, is that for most elite players in BC, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is simply not a well understood option.
That changed in a big way last week during US Thanksgiving for a group of North Shore Winter Club bantam players, who embarked on an unusual zero-competition, all development excursion to Madison, Wisconsin, home of the UW Badgers – and many national championship football, basketball, and hockey teams.
The group was led by returning Badger alumni, assistant coach Mark Jackson and head coach Neil Stevenson-Moore, a Princeton hockey grad.
Jackson, originally from St. Albert, said the objective of the trip was to bring the team together and inspire them to strive for that next level of competition.
“Only when you experience a big-time NCAA program like Wisconsin first hand can you truly understand the magnitude of the game and what it means to play at the collegiate level,” Jackson said at the end of the five day excursion.
“Touring the world-class facilities, hearing from the veteran coaches and athletic directors, genuinely awakened the teams’ awareness of the effort required to be an elite student-athlete.
The minutely organized agenda was packed full of activity from early morning to lights out at 10:00 pm each night, under the supervision of team manager Greg Wolfe.
Day one started with a wakeup call at 7:30 am, breakfast, a 45 minute work out in the Badgers gym, then a 90 minute full ice practice on the new LaBahn arena, home to the UW women’s team, a sparkling new 2,273 seat facility linked by tunnel to the 15,359 seat $49 million Koln Centre, home to both the men’s hockey and basketball teams.
The skate was followed by a tour of the Student Athlete Performance centre at Camp Randall football stadium, and the library a close up view of the Badgers hockey practice and then a second skate in the late afternoon
Day two followed a similar pattern, with skates on the Olympic-sized Kohl Centre ice, including a meeting UW head coach Mike Eaves. Day three was highlighted by attending a game between the Badgers and Ferris State. The game ended in a 1-1, ending an uncharacteristic 0-8 start.
Saturday started with a late breakfast, a tour of football pre-game activities around Camp Randall, and then the annual Big 10 game itself between Wisconsin and the Minnesota Golden Gophers for the famed Paul Bunyan Ax trophy (which replaced the previous “Slab of Bacon” trophy which disappeared in 1948).
After the big game, in which #14 Badgers defeated #22 Gophers 34-24, the NSWC bantams returned to the Koln Center to watch the second game in the Ferris State doubleheader. This time the Badgers won 5-3, no doubt in part because of the NSWC kharma that was being directed their way.
At the end of the whirlwind tour, Wolfe said the trip was a tremendous success.
“The purpose was to provide the boys a taster of the college hockey experience through a balance of inspiration and perspiration. With two a day practices, dryland, school study sessions and an up close behind the scenes look at the life of a college hockey player, I know the boys have returned with a new desire to up their game both on the ice and in the class room.
The football experience was a major hit with the team. According to Maclean the Big Marching Band, the packed stadium, the amazing American cheering, the face painting and the cheerleaders all combined to make it “the best trip ever.”
When asked what he’d remember about the trip a year from now, he said, “I’ll never forget it.”
Goaltender Michael Harroch said what stood out for him were how big and how new the facilities were. For Matteo Pecchia, it was how friendly the Badger played and staff were, and how well the team was treated by everyone involved with the program.
For Jack McIntosh, the trip was “just as memorable as the Quebec Peewee tournament”, a reference to the world famous annual 10 day tournament held in Quebec City each February.