College hockey, once largely dismissed as a path to a pro hockey career, now has a large footprint throughout the NHL.
When this season began, the league had six new coaches, four of whom played NCAA hockey. Two of them led college teams last year: Dallas' Jim Montgomery (University of Denver) and the New York Rangers' David Quinn (Boston University).
Now, nine of the 31 NHL coaches are former college hockey players, including Mike Sullivan, who won Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.
Up the organizational ladder, 12 general managers have roots in college hockey, the most recent being the Wild's Paul Fenton, who, like Quinn and Sullivan, played at BU.
According to a database maintained by College Hockey Inc., an independent marketing arm for the sport, about 300 former NCAA players are employed by NHL teams as coaches, executives and scouts.
It's hard to imagine there was a time in the 1960s when Tommy Williams was the only former college player in the NHL. Now, a third of the league's players came through the NCAA.
"The sophistication of the game now has required broader thinking, and different levels of thinking, than the sport has ever seen," said Vegas Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee, who played at Bowling Green from 1978 to 1982.
When the Rangers fired Alain Vigneault after last season and committed to younger players, Quinn became a target of their coaching search. Chris Drury, the assistant general manager, who played four years at BU, said Quinn "checked a lot of the boxes" the team wanted in its next coach. Those included broad coaching experience and an ability to develop young players, critical in a league in which the average age is now 27.
Quinn, 52, had coached in the American Hockey League and the NHL, for USA Hockey's national team development program, and took BU to the national title game in 2015.
"I feel like every stop along the way has prepared me for this," Quinn said.
The NHL and college games are now similar in many ways. The NHL eliminated the center red line in 2005, matching college rules. The more recent emphasis on offense, with a de-emphasis on fighting, created more demand for the fast, skilled players college hockey has become increasingly adept at producing.
Tony Granato played and coached in the NHL and became the coach at his alma mater, Wisconsin, in 2016. He said there was a lot more cooperation and communication between the NHL and college coaches.
"Scouts and general managers come to our games, and we send our players to NHL development camps in the summer," he said. "Pro teams are counting on us to develop players they've drafted, so we give them updates and input. So we do now work somewhat together."
Junior hockey leagues, based primarily in Canada, have long been thought to be the most reliable incubators of hockey talent.
Dave Taylor, the St. Louis Blues' vice president for hockey operations, said he remembered when the NHL did not embrace NCAA alumni. Even though he led the nation in scoring in his senior year at Clarkson, he barely received an invitation to training camp with the Los Angeles Kings despite being drafted in 1975. A five-time All-Star in a 17-year career, Taylor became the first former collegian to top 1,000 points in the NHL.
"There wasn't a lot of respect for college guys back then, before 1980," he said.
That year, the American "Miracle on Ice" men's hockey team at the Winter Olympics changed all that.
"Twenty college kids beat the Russians, and the team was run by college coaches," Granato said. "That was a big shot in the arm for American collegians."
Mark Johnson (Wisconsin), Ken Morrow (Bowling Green), Dave Christian (North Dakota), and Mike Ramsey and Neal Broten (both Minnesota) parlayed their gold medals into long NHL careers, drawing more attention to college hockey.
"Every pro team started looking earnestly at college players," McPhee said. "And then it was only a matter of time before they started looking to colleges for management, coaches and scouts."
With NCAA players flooding into the NHL, top college coaches are making the jump directly to the pros again. When the Flyers plucked Dave Hakstol from the University of North Dakota in 2015, he was the first coach to go directly from a college bench to the NHL since the Minnesota North Stars tabbed Brooks from St. Cloud State in 1987. Hakstol needed to wait only three years to be joined by Montgomery and Quinn.
Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., said the perception of college hockey's effect on the NHL long lagged the reality of it.
"What has changed now," he said, "is the perception is much more in line with the reality."