Mike Snee had a Philadelphia Flyers-New York Islanders playoff game on the TV last week when a string of last names uttered by the play-by-play announcer caught his attention.
“I swear, I heard four Minnesota names,’’ Snee said. “There were six guys in that game who played in six different high schools, and two of them were two of the best quarterbacks in the state – [Matt] Niskanen and [Anders] Lee. I just thought, ‘Man, these are the glory days of college hockey in the NHL and Minnesota in the NHL.’ ’’
Snee has a special interest in the subject. He's the executive director of College Hockey Inc., a St. Paul-based organization that spreads the gospel of college hockey as a path to the NHL, encourages top players to use that route and helps colleges add varsity programs. What’s been happening since the NHL returned to play with an expanded, 24-team playoff field on Aug. 1 has been music to his ears.
“You turn on one game, and Nate Schmidt is doing something spectacular,’’ Snee said. “And Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are rewriting records books.’’
According to College Hockey Inc., the 24 NHL playoff teams included 218 players from 43 colleges. The University of Minnesota had a league-high 17 alums in the playoffs, with Boston University (16), Michigan (15) and North Dakota and Boston College (14) right behind. The Pittsburgh Penguins led NHL teams with 18 college players on their roster, three more than the Wild, the next-closest team.
The college influence is growing. In 2018-19, 33% of NHL players played in the NCAA. Fifteen years earlier, that figure was 21%.
“There probably was a bias against college hockey in a previous generation, for a variety of reasons,’’ Snee said, pointing to the 1970s and ’80s. “I don’t think that exists anymore.’’
It’s not only the raw numbers that stand out, it’s the impact, too. Two of the most dynamic players in the first two round of the playoffs were rookie defensemen Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks and Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. Both play with speed and skill rather than beef and braun. Hughes, 20, who played two years at Michigan, ranks second among NHL defenseman with 16 points in the playoffs. Makar, 21, who played two years at Massachusetts, had 15 points in the postseason.
“Imagine if they were still playing college hockey,’’ said Snee, above. “It’s so much fun to watch the impact those two have on the ice and how often they are part of the attacking offense.’’
The success of Hughes and Makar, Snee said, bodes well for 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich of Minnesota Duluth, a second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues. Like Hughes (5-10, 170 pounds) and Makar (5-11, 187), the 5-10, 174-pound Perunovich is not large in stature but is big in production. He had 105 points in three seasons in the Twin Ports.
“Maybe if Perunovich were coming out in 2004, there might have been more skepticism because of his size,’’ Snee said. “Now, he looks exactly like a successful NHL player.’’
The four teams remaining in the playoffs are relying on NCAA talent. The Islanders have six collegiate players, including a trio of Minnesotans playing prominent roles – forwards Lee (Edina and Notre Dame) and Brock Nelson (Warroad and North Dakota) and defenseman Nick Leddy (Eden Prairie and the Gophers). Nelson has eight goals and seven assists in the playoffs, while Lee has contributed seven assists, including two in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. Leddy has been steady on the blue line and has three goals and two assists. In addition, Andy Greene (Miami of Ohio) has added grit and veteran leadership.
For Tampa Bay (five NCAA players), veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh (Cretin-Derham Hall and Wisconsin) scored his first goal in Game 1, while fellow blue-liner Kevin Shattenkirk (Boston U.) has nine points in the postseason.
In the West, Vegas and Dallas each have nine NCAA players on their roster. For the Stars, veteran forward Joe Pavelski (8-4-12) of Wisconsin has been the standout. The Golden Knights have received a big boost from Schmidt, the former Gopher from St. Cloud who has two goals and six assists; Alex Tuch (Boston College), who has eight goals and two assists; and Paul Stastny (Denver), who has four points in the past three games. In addition, Bemidji State’s Zach Whitecloud is emerging as a reliable blue-liner.
Snee envisions a day in the not-too-distant future when it won’t be a story that college players are exceling in the NHL. In the meantime, he’s enjoying what he’s seeing.
“It validates our story,’’ he said. “We don’t have to work hard to find the exciting angle, because the players provide it for us.’’