If you were to randomly ask Canadian hockey fans what they thought about University hockey north of the 49th parallel, you would probably quickly discover that very few are even remotely qualified to speak on the subject. To the majority of casual Canuck hockey fans, the Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) level of hockey is little more than the place unwanted junior players go to play out their hockey days. The general perception from south of the border is even less flattering. However, impression and truth are often two very different things and as the knowledgeable CIS follower already knows, Canada’s best kept hockey secret has become increasingly exposed.
A Brief Outline
In the United States, the 58 collegiate hockey schools are split up into six Division I conferences across the north eastern and north central states. Just as there are with major junior, there are three conferences in CIS, but only 31 hockey programs comprise Canada’s University league.
There are eight schools that make up the Atlantic conference (AUS). Four of the schools are located in Nova Scotia beginning with St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, Acadia in Wolfville and then both St. Mary’s and Dalhousie found in the capital city of Halifax. New Brunswick is the home province for Moncton, St. Thomas and obviously the University of New Brunswick (UNB). The last school in the conference is UPEI located on tiny Prince Edward Island.
The Ontario Conference (OUA) covers both Ontario and Quebec, the two most densely populated provinces in the country. There are four divisions and 16 teams in total in the OUA with the most notable teams being McGill and Concordia from Montreal, UQTR in Trois Riviere, Waterloo, York, Lakehead in Thunder Bay and Western in London Ontario.
Finally, in the Canada West Conference you will find seven teams including traditional powerhouses like Alberta and Saskatchewan as well as the respectable programs of Manitoba and Calgary.
As with the NCAA, there is a weekly national poll that ranks the top ten teams in the nation. As of March 8th, the poll read:
Who plays in CIS?
Once it was considered fortunate to have even a handful of players with major junior experience on your CIS roster, but now they are a necessity in order to have a winning team. Thankfully, it has also become a reality for the upper echelon teams that they can ice a line up entirely from players who have graduated from the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).
The Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League have all developed scholarship programs for those players who do not immediately move into the pro ranks once they have completed the eligibility requirements at the CHL level. The scholarship programs these three leagues have instituted have dramatically changed the landscape of CIS hockey.
For instance, the WHL began its scholastic awards program in 1993 and since that time the WHL clubs have provided more than 2,000 scholarships representing an investment of close to $6 million. For each year played in the WHL, graduating players receive a full scholarship with enough funds to cover the cost of tuition, books and fees to any university, college or post-secondary institution of their choice. Currently there are in excess of 150 players in CIS hockey who have taken advantage of the WHL’s scholarship program with others studying at various colleges including a small amount Stateside.
Both the OHL and the QMJHL have similar programs and in all, over 300 former major junior players are skating for CIS teams this year alone.
Jack Birch is currently the Assistant GM of the Florida Panthers, but was once a Candian University coach back in the days when the league was still known as CIAU. Birch began his coaching career as an assistant with McMaster University in Hamilton before taking over the head coaching reins at Waterloo for the 1981-82 season.
“When I was coaching in the league, it was a big deal for us to go out and try recruiting major junior players and some teams were more successful at it than others,” Birch told Hockey’s Future recently. “When I was at Waterloo, if we ended up with three or four ex-major juniors on the team that was pretty good for us.”
“My understanding now is, and when I look through the rosters with the onset of the CHL leagues offering scholarships, the vast majority of the teams are now dominated by ex-major juniors,” Birch continued. “That’s a great sign.”
In fact, the top teams like Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as most of the Atlantic clubs, consist solely of former WHL, OHL and QMJHL players. Many of the players in question are former NHL draftees who did not receive contracts by the end of their junior careers, for a variety of reasons, with the organizations that drafted them.
The 2004-05 edition of the Alberta Golden Bears have five players who were drafted by NHL teams.
Captain Gavin McLeod, formerly with the Kelowna Rockets, was a fifth round selection of the Ottawa Senators in 1998. At the time he was drafted, McLeod was a gangly 6’4 185 lbs but now at 25 years of age and in his fourth year with the Bears, the rearguard is an imposing 6’5, 220 lbs.
Other CIS players are those who finished their CHL careers as free agents and then opt for education and hockey instead of a minor league deal with a lower tiered pro league. Chris St. Jacques scored back-to-back 90-point seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers and would have been a typical CIS player if he hadn’t come to terms with the Toronto Maple Leafs on a minor league contract. Edmonton Road Runner Marty St. Pierre scored 110 points in the OHL in 2003-04 and was set to play for Dalhousie this year until a last minute agreement with the Oilers came to fruition. The Calgary Flames inked former Red Deer Rebel Justin Taylor over the summer and now the center plays for the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL instead of with the Golden Bears where he was likely headed. These are just some examples but the league is packed full of players who weren’t fully developed at the end of their CHL eligibility, went unsigned by pro teams and have since blossomed at a CIS school.
Is CIS a developmental league?
Rob Daum has coached the Golden Bears since the 1995-96 season and he has guided Alberta to an amazing 218-37-25 regular season conference record including a 25-1-2 mark in 2000-01 and a near perfect 26-0-2 record in 2003-04. With a career winning percentage of .823 in conference play, having won the conference Coach of the Year award five times, and CIS Coach of the Year twice, Daum is one of the most respected hockey people in all of Canadian university sports.
Hockey’s Future posed the question of whether CIS is a developmental league to the former Tier II and WHL bench boss.
“The perception is that it isn’t,” Daum began. “You’ve got players that come here out of major junior and they’ve been scouted for four or five years, some of them. But to think a player doesn’t develop after they turn 20 years old is absurd. I mean, what’s the American Hockey League for? What we have here are guys who are potentially late bloomers, some of them mature physically at a later time, and they continue to develop as players; there’s no question about that.”
Daum also agrees that the quality level of today’s CIS player is far greater than years before due in large part to the scholarship programs available to them now.
“It makes players make a decision between the lower pro leagues or if CIS is an option,” the coach explained before saying that there is still improvements that can be made in that regard. “What the CIS schools and the CHL leagues have to do if they’re serious about promoting education is… this is a hell of a league, this is really good hockey. We have to make sure that message gets out there for everybody including the fans and the players. We have to let players know that this is a great league to develop in, it really is.”
“What we’re trying to do is give these players an opportunity to develop as hockey players, obviously while they are taking their schooling, and hopefully open some doors for them down the road to continue playing,” Daum continued. “We don’t look at this as the end of the line, it’s an intermediate step to moving them on. Over the last number of years, every player that we’ve had come out of our program that’s wanted to has played professional hockey at some level.”
There have actually been more than a handful of NHL players who enjoyed long careers at that level after playing some time in Canadian University. Cory Cross played at Alberta then turned pro with the Atlanta Knights of the IHL from where he became a regular NHL defenseman having played with Toronto, Tampa Bay, New York and currently the Oilers over an 11-year career.
Mathieu Darche was a standout at McGill University, scoring 62 points in 26 games in his final campaign, before beginning his pro career where he has since played 342 games in the AHL and 26 in the NHL, mostly with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
Tough guy Jody Shelley skated with Dalhousie University in Halifax for just a single season before the Saint John Flames signed him to an AHL deal. Shelley has played just short of 200 NHL games with Columbus in the past four seasons.
Probably the biggest current NHL name with CIS hockey on his resume is Anaheim’s Steve Rucchin who was a member of the Western Ontario Mustangs for four seasons. Rucchin joined the San Diego Gulls in 1994-95 but finished the year with the Mighty Ducks and has not played a game for any other team since. To this point in his NHL career, Rucchin has recorded 432 points in 616 games with Anaheim.
Past NHL players who partially developed on the Canadian University circuit include 12-year veteran Stu Grimson (Manitoba 1985-87), Brent Severyn (Alberta 1986-88) who played seven seasons with five different NHL clubs, P.J. Stock (St. FX 1996-97) who had a five-year NHL career, Todd Elik (Regina 1986-87) who played for eight NHL seasons, nine-year NHL player Eric Messier (UQTR 1994-95) and finally, five-time Stanley Cup winner Dr. Randy Gregg (Alberta 1975-79) who was an Oiler mainstay for eight years.
One other player who definitely deserves mentioning came from the University of Manitoba where he played from 1983-85 before commencing his 12-year NHL career during which time he scored 758 points in 866 games.
“When I was an assistant coach with the New York Rangers we literally brought in five (CIAU) players at the time,” recalled Jack Birch. “Mike Ridley turned out to be the top name out of that group and he went on to have a great NHL career.”
Is CIS under-scouted?
With the history of great coaching in the league including legendary CIS coaches like Clare Drake (Alberta), George Kingston (Calgary), Dave King (Saskatchewan) and Wayne Fleming (Manitoba), the players obviously have a very high level of instruction to help them hone their skills. As a former Golden Bears coach, Billy Moores is now an assistant to Craig MacTavish on the bench of the Edmonton Oilers, and he certainly feels that CIS is underrated by NHL teams.
“I think CIS is overlooked, I’ve always felt that way, and I think the smart teams are looking at those players,” Moores said before offering his opinion on why scouts look past the league. “The problem is that the better players in CIS have already gone through the major junior route so they have been seen before and I think the perception is ‘we’ve already seen them’ and that’s it. But players develop at different rates and what’s wrong with the development of a defenseman coming out at 24 and still getting ten years out of him?”
The Oilers are a team that often gives local CIS players opportunities at their training camps and the fact that Canada’s top University team shares the city allows the NHL club to see some of the best players the league has to offer.
“With the University of Alberta right here, we talk to Rob Daum about the people coming through,” said Kevin Prendergast, VP of Hockey Operations for the Oilers. “We look at CIS because you never know where players are going to come from.”
Prendergast says that he or members of his scouting staff attend CIS tournaments at the beginning and end of the year and that “we have contacts with coaches throughout the league and we get emails from agents asking us to go have a look at players so we do that just to make sure.”
According to Bob Stauffer, Communications Officer at the University of Alberta, the Oilers are far from the only NHL team that comes calling during a regular year and during this locked out season, it’s been even busier.
“We’ve seen more NHL GM’s and coaches at the various arenas around the country,” said Stauffer.
Coach Daum also feels the league is under appreciated by outsiders but understands why that is.
“If we started having 17, 18 or 19-year-old players in our league then we’d be scouted as heavily as the NCAA is,” explained Daum. “The reason we don’t is two fold; the players who are playing major junior are looking to play pro and the ones who are playing Junior A are looking to get NCAA scholarships. When they don’t get either of those two things, then they come to us.”
“When you’re 18 everybody is focusing on you, but when you turn 20, if you don’t turn pro, they just forget about you and find the next wave of 17 and 18 year old players,” Daum continued. “Are there a lot of players in our league that have been overlooked? Probably not. Are there some? Sure there are and it’s the some that you want to be conscious of. If you can find one or two players that can help your organization, that’s a huge find.”
“There isn’t a wealth of talent there, but there’s players who have fallen through the cracks or that were maybe with the wrong organizations before so we keep tabs on them,” agreed Prendergast.
Not all NHL scouts are as CIS-friendly as the Oilers seem to be though as Jack Birch can attest to from his days with the Rangers.
“The problem with most scouts is that they see a player in his draft year and if they passed on him, it takes a fair amount to get a scout to go back and say he made a mistake when the player was an 18-year-old,” Birch began. “It’s like saying ‘he was a bad skater at 18 so he’s going to be a bad skater at 21 or 22’ and to get scouts to go back and take a second look is tough but the ones who do go back and do it smartly, are the ones that will benefit from it.”
“I remember the argument we had with our scouts in New York when we tried to bring Mike Ridley in; Craig Patrick was the GM at the time and he went to each of the scouts and every single one of them said ‘No, I’ve seen him play and he can’t play’,” Birch continued. “My argument to Craig at the time was, ‘it only costs us a flight to get him here’. Well, after the very first scrimmage Craig was in the office that night asking ‘how do we get this kid signed’? Is that a reflection on past scouting? Potentially. But I think it’s more to do with not seeing the kid for two or three years and if you have a late developer, boom, it’s right there in front of you all of a sudden.”
Of course the cases of Mike Ridley and Steve Rucchin have been few and far between but to some extent that could be simply be just because NHL clubs have been looking past the CIS level.
“I don’t think the CIS is under-scouted in the sense of delivering NHL players, but it’s probably under scouted for delivering AHL players,” said Stauffer before explaining his theory as to why that might be the case. “There is a classic Canadian inferiority complex that takes place; even though the majority of scouts are Canadian, they naturally think the NCAA is a better developmental league, and it is a truer developmental league, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t players in CIS that couldn’t help out NHL organizations.”
As the quality level of the league and its players continue to rise, there is the realistic possibility that CIS will earn the reputation for being able to provide solid minor league talent with the occasional NHL capable player. The argument can be made that CIS is already on par with the ECHL in terms of development as both receive former major junior players and prepare them for a higher level.
“I think there are less players going to play in the lower minor leagues when they first come out of major junior because they’re looking to use their education money rather than lose it by playing in a lower level league,” offered Daum. “Rather than go play in the ECHL, many of them are deciding to get their education now and then see where their hockey development takes them. A player can always go play in the ECHL so why not do that in three or four years after they’ve got their degree?”
“Alberta sent two guys to the AHL at the end of last season,” said Stauffer referring to former Golden Bears Ryan Wade and Kevin Marsh who both played for the Houston Aeros during the tail end of the regular season. Wade has since become the leading scorer for the Victoria Salmon Kings in the ECHL while Marsh and another Alberta alumni, Kris Knoblauch, are spending their professional rookie years in the Central Hockey League with Colorado and Austin respectively.
Eventually CIS may be seen as a source for free agent signings as an alternative to the way NHL teams often draft overage European players. That’s an idea that some find not only reasonable but also desirable.
“I suppose it could happen,” conceded Prendergast. “I would love to see it that way because it would make it a lot easier on the scouting to track them down here instead of Europe.”
“I think that’s really worthwhile looking at, particularly some of the higher end CIS teams,” agreed Billy Moores.
“Is that a possibility with CIS players? Absolutely,” concurred Jack Birch. “We have 30 teams in the NHL and there’s only so much talent in the world and if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that there are lots of good players (in CIS) that just need the opportunity.”
It’s been a long time coming but slowly the indications are that the NHL is beginning to uncover and take notice of Canadian University hockey, the best kept secret that’s been right under their collective noses for years.
In Part II of this series, Hockey’s Future will examine the impact of the Canadian reality TV series called Making the Cut and what the possible long-term ramifications of the program might mean for CIS and professional hockey in general.
Part III will take a closer look at the differences between the CIS and NCAA options from the point of view of the player, the coach and the agent. It will also discuss the historical on ice head-to-head competitiveness between the two leagues.
Comment on this story at the NCAA/CIS section of the Hockey’s Future Message Boards.
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