Patrick Reusse: A shift in priorities in college hockey

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2007 - 11:39 PM

Kyle Okposo's early departure from the Gophers is another reminder that today's game places an emphasis on development before team play.

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Kyle Okposo’s midseason departure from the Gophers to the Islanders brought dismay from Don Lucia, whose coaching ability was called into question by New York GM Garth Snow.

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USA Hockey opened a development camp for high school age players a decade ago in Ann Arbor, Mich. A few years earlier, Shattuck-St. Mary's started an intense program for young hockey players in Faribault.

Everything considered, these might be two of the worst things to happen to college hockey.

The Ann Arbor and Shattuck programs annually send a handful of improved players into college hockey, but they also have helped to produce an elitist mindset among these teenage wunderkinds that was dramatically manifested again last week.

Kyle Okposo, a 19-year-old sophomore who played at Shattuck and then in the USHL junior league, gave into the urge that he seems to have been carrying for weeks. He left the Gophers at midseason in order to start his pro career with the New York Islanders organization.

Gophers coach Don Lucia expressed dismay in a written statement. This caused Garth Snow, the Islanders general manager, to contact the Star Tribune's Brian Stensaas on Thursday and bluntly question the merits of Lucia's program.

Key complaint: Lucia wasn't properly "developing" Okposo as a future NHLer.

And there's a derivative of the word -- Development with a big D -- that has become revered among hockey organizers, prospects and their parents, and has become the curse of big-time college hockey.

"When did 'my development' become the goal rather than being on a good team and trying to win?" said Tom Kurvers, the player personnel director for the Phoenix Coyotes. "There's something off-kilter here -- when individual development is more important than winning a state high school championship or an NCAA title, but that's what we're seeing.

"The mantra of 'development' is preached to these kids from ages 12 through 17. And now they get to college and we're surprised that it's still the biggest concern for them?

"We shouldn't be."

Kurvers played four seasons for Minnesota Duluth. He was the Hobey Baker Award winner in 1984. He played 11 seasons as an NHL defenseman. Now, he sees hundreds of games per year.

"The best league in this country is the NHL, obviously, but do you know what's the second-best league?" Kurvers said. "It's the WCHA.

"There are more people in the arenas than you find anywhere except the NHL. There are only two games a week, and that makes the games more intense than in the American League.

"The WCHA is the second-greatest place to play hockey in the United States."

Kurvers paused, then offered this example: "Look at Jack Skille. He scored the winning goal in the national championship game for Wisconsin. He still could be playing for the Badgers, twice a weekend in front of 11-, 12,000 cheering, fired-up fans in Kohl Center.

"Instead, he's 60 miles down the road in Rockford [Ill.] in the AHL, playing three times in four nights in front of a few thousand people ... all in the name of development."

The Coyotes have forward Blake Wheeler, the fifth overall selection in the 2004 draft, when he was at Breck, now playing his third season for the Gophers.

"We have been very satisfied with the coaching that Blake has received at Minnesota," Kurvers said. "Is he everything everyone expected when he was scoring 100 points in Class A high school hockey? Probably not.

"But he's maturing and, yes, developing."

There has been much conversation among college hockey fans that a new collective bargaining agreement (signed after the 2004-05 lockout) between NHL management and the players union has provided the incentive for high draft choices to leave after their first or second college seasons.

"I hear that, too, and I can't figure it out," said Tom Lynn, the Wild assistant general manager. "Financially, there was a lot more incentive to go early with the previous CBA than there is now. The maximum signing bonus today is $87,500, compared to $725,000 [in the prior CBA].

"It's not big money. It has to be something else."

It is. It's the "D" word that has become the mantra of USA Hockey and other organizations, of obsessed parents and of pampered prospects who no longer are afraid to say:

"You keep talking about the team, Coach, but what about my development?"

Doug Woog has been gone from coaching the Gophers for nine seasons. He watches the WCHA as a TV analyst and sees star recruits depart after a season or two (or maybe 1½).

"I'm glad I coached when I did," Woog said. "Most of the players were in it for fun."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

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