A fine example of one way that CIS hockey players are proving they deserve scouting attention from NHL clubs is the recent CBC television series Making the Cut. The premise of the reality show was simple; anyone in Canada without a professional hockey contract was free to try out for the show’s hockey camp which at its conclusion, would feature the six Canadian NHL teams “drafting” one of the participants for an opportunity at their next real training camp.
Thousands of men and women tried out for one of 64 spots, the number of participants the show would take with them to Vernon BC for their two-week camp. Of the 64 players who eventually earned tickets to BC, more than half of them had experience playing at either NCAA or CIS schools.
Jack Birch, Director of Hockey Operations for the Florida Panthers, served in that same capacity for the show and was head of the makeshift scouting staff. Birch’s scouting staff for the show included Toronto’s Director of Player Personnel Mike Penny, former NHL star Michel Goulet, Chicago Wolves GM Kevin Cheveldayoff as well as the input from legendary NHL coaches Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan.
With that much knowledge on hand, only those truly deserving of the opportunity would find themselves amongst the final 18 players available for the six NHL teams to make their selections from. In the end, out of the six players drafted, five have résumés with CIS hockey experience on them and three of them are still actively playing for a Canadian University this year.
Dominic Noel, chosen by the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a forward for Dalhousie in Halifax. After filming of the show wrapped up, Noel received a minor league contract offer from the Panthers, which he declined. As a junior with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Noel played in front of Marc-Andre Fleury and totaled 105 points in just 65 QMJHL games during the 2002-03 season.
The Ottawa Senators selected goaltender Michael Mole who backstopped St. Francis Xavier this season. A year ago Mole helped St. FX capture the National CIS crown earning Tournament MVP and Rookie of the Year honors along the way.
Jordan Little was the first overall selection by the Edmonton Oilers. This season the powerful blueliner plays for the University of Manitoba Bisons who will be in contention for the CIS Championship being held in Edmonton later this month.
The Calgary Flames opted for smallish forward Matt Hubbauer who skated six games for the University of Manitoba and 21 in the ECHL in 2003-04, and this season is playing with the St. John’s Maple Leafs of the AHL in 2004-05.
James Demone was originally drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 2000 and was grabbed by the Vancouver Canucks this time around. The defenseman played major junior hockey for Portland and Prince Albert before moving on to the Lethbridge Pronghorns of the CIS for a season. Demone is currently playing for the Texas Wildcatters of the ECHL after accepting a minor league deal with Birch and the Florida Panthers.
“I think there were ten kids there that could have been selected and could have an opportunity; unfortunately we were only taking six, but I talked to two of them afterwards and told them that if they had nothing going to make sure they talk to me in the summertime and we would give them an opportunity at our camp next year because I was impressed with them,” said Edmonton’s chief scout Kevin Prendergast. “Not only with their personality but in some cases we know them from when they played junior or college and you see the big difference in maturation.”
Billy Moores is currently an assistant coach with the Oilers but was once a player and then a coach for the University of Alberta Golden Bears. Moores believes that CIS has plenty to offer a NHL organization for exactly the reasons Prendergast just mentioned.
“When you look at young hockey players, they develop at different rates and what CIS does in a lot of ways is give players an opportunity after junior to keep working on their development,” he said. “I think there are guys there that have the potential to play at higher levels.”
Birch claims that the success rate of the CIS participants on the series came as no shock to him.
“It didn’t come as a surprise to me in any way, shape or form,” said Birch. “When the network people first started talking to me about Making the Cut, my comment to them was that the vast majority of our players would come out of CIS and they did.”
“What we found was that there were so many players that ended up at the CIS level who when we saw them as draft eligible juniors they were the 6’5 guys who were 183 lbs and now all of a sudden they’re 232 lbs.,” agreed Birch. “For the slower developers, the Canadian University scene is the perfect place for them.”
Birch expects to see a much stronger CIS component at the coming season of the TV series noting that last season there were no players from either the University of Alberta or Saskatchewan, the nation’s top 2 ranked CIS hockey teams. That’s something Birch expects to change the second time around.
“We would expect more participation from all the CIS teams as well as the NCAA teams this time; I have been told (rumors) that the University of Alberta is talking about sending all of their players en masse!” laughed Birch.
“I think that it was probably a reflection of when the camps were run last year; we got pushed in to having these camps up and running in a very short period of time. We ran in Calgary but we were expecting to have four days there and it was cut back to two,” Birch further explained. “I think it was because the Calgary camp came up so quick and we didn’t do as good of a job as we should have done to get the word out there to all the teams. That’s not going to happen this year because everybody is well aware of it.”
Some view the show as a gimmick and nothing more but Birch firmly believes that the talent level is out there to be found and that if even some of these players go on to have success, it will tip off NHL teams even more to look towards CIS hockey.
“If you just look at the guys drafted at Making the Cut, in talking with each of the General Managers that night, they were all thrilled that they got the player that was there for them,” said Birch emphatically. “I would suspect that as these guys move in, everybody is going to sit back and say ‘wait a minute, there are a lot of good players here’.”
While nothing has been announced at this early stage, Birch confirmed that tentative plans exist with CBC to renew the series for another TV season. After the dominating performance CIS players displayed during the show’s first run, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see even more Canadian University players vying to make an impression with the hope of catching the eye of a NHL scout or two.
Part I of this series can be found here.
Part III of the series will draw on and off-ice comparisons between CIS and NCAA from the perspective of coaches from both leagues as well as examine the historical head-to-head competitiveness between the two.
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