NCAA: WCHA draftees face tough decisions

By Christa Moore

The potential work stoppage in the 2004 season is a dark cloud that covers more than just the NHL. Many amateur and minor league players will be playing musical chairs in an attempt to secure a spot in the hockey world. Nowhere is this more true than with the stellar crop of recent NCAA draftees. The decision to forgo or end a college career and leap into the unknown is always a difficult one on it’s own. Should a college player finish his education or go for the big money? Is he physically and mentally ready for the big show? Now throw in rumors of a year or longer strike/lock-out and the possibility that some financially weaker teams may not make it though this painful moment in hockey history. There’s no shortage of fans, friends, agents and parents willing to add their opinion to this most important decision. In the end, it’s the player who will make the final call.

The 2002-03 season could possibly be the most notable in WCHA history. With two dominating performances at the Frozen Four, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are poised to pull of the hat trick in NCAA championships. The Colorado College Tigers dominated the number one spot in the polls for most of the season. Often taken lightly in the passed, even Minnesota-Duluth sent a message that they would be a team to contend with right up through the playoffs. Also topping the headlines was the memorable performance of Hobey Baker winner Peter Sejna. To top everything off, the WCHA had a record-breaking year at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Some of the most notable names in the first round came from western collegiate hockey. Here’s a look at a few WCHA players and the issues that will factor into the most important decision of their life.

Thomas Vanek

Current Team: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Year: Sophomore
Position: LW
Drafted by: Buffalo 5th overall

Why he might stay in school: The Gophers have lost very few key players from their championship team. While it’s very difficult for a four-year college to become a dynasty, Minnesota is prepared to do just that. The Gophers know how and when to win and so does Vanek. With a steady pace of wins during the regular season the Gophers hit their stride during the single game elimination tournament. Vanek also stepped it up with a clutch performance in the Frozen Four. At the draft, Vanek commented about the temptation of staying with the Gophers for another year, “Well, that’s gonna be tough. We only lost one defenseman, so the whole team is coming back, and we’re all excited to three-peat. So, you want to come back, but, at the same time, my dream is to move on and play in the National Hockey League. So, like I said, I have to sit down and see what is best for me.”

This native of Garz, Austria would feel more at home than most NCAA players playing in European hockey during a future work stoppage. When asked about his country he replied, “I go home every summer for a few weeks, and there’s been a lot of coverage of what I’m doing. Hockey doesn’t get much attention is Austria, so hopefully a lot of little kids will start playing, and realizing that there is a chance out there.”

Vanek could stay at Minnesota to prove his critics wrong and develop his game at both ends of the ice. When asked what part of his game needed improvement he told HF in Nashville, “The biggest part is consistency. It’s the same for every player here. With 82 games in the National Hockey League season, that’s a pretty good grind in-and-out every night. That’s going to be the toughest part, but I think I can do that.”

With the rights of Keith Ballard being traded from Buffalo to Colorado, the team has less of a chance of losing any more important players over the summer.

Why he might go pro: Buffalo needs scoring now. Vanek knows how to score. Over half of his goals during the regular season were scored in the third period or in overtime. He especially knows how to score at the HSBC arena were he put on a performance to lift his team to an NCAA title. With new ownership, a flashy sniper could be the remedy to rebuild this young club and put fans in the seats. HF asked him at the draft his thoughts on being chosen by the Sabres, “It’s great, you know. I love the rink, I won a championship there already, and I hope there is more to come. I’m happy that I’m in Buffalo.”

Asked about his decision to stay in Minnesota or leaving for Buffalo he responded, “Well, I’ve got the whole summer to think about that. I’ll have to sit down with the organization and the coaches, and we’ll make the decision that is best for me. I don’t want to make the wrong move, and then sit the whole year. I need to still develop, I need games to try to get better somehow.” When asked if money was a consideration, he replied, “Ah, money is not a big deal right now. I’m only 18 years old, so I don’t need a lot of money. I just want to improve my game and help my team win right now.”

Zach Parise

Current Team: North Dakota
Year: Sophomore
Position: C
Drafted by: New Jersey Devils 17th overall

Why he might stay in school: Something to prove. His size is often a problem for everyone but himself and the team that drafted him. Still he must prove to the world that he can withstand the grueling pace of the NHL. At least another year in the NCAA would be most beneficial. He would also stand a better chance of getting the opportunity to return to the WJC where he led Team USA in scoring. Sounding like he’s leaning more toward remaining in North Dakota he told HF, “It looks like I’m going to go back to school right now. Obviously it’s up to the organization. New Jersey, they don’t rush into signing players so I’m most likely going to go back to school.”

Why he might go pro: The New Jersey Devils have a spectacular record of drafting and nurturing their own homegrown talent. This year’s Stanley Cup champs boast a roster of
14 homegrown players from their own drafts and trades. The fact that the Devils traded up to obtain Parise and once again overlooked the size issue would make any player want to show their loyalty immediately. Teammate David Hale recently signed with the Devils and should have no problem securing a spot in the New Jersey organization. Parise also told HF “One of my teammates was a first round draft pick with them, David Hale, and he just signed with them, so it would kind of be neat to hopefully reunite with him one day”

A perennial Stanley Cup favorite with few roster changes could tempt any young player into joining the big show. Reflecting on the Devils impressive history, Parise said, “It’s just unbelievable, they’ve got such a good history. It’s an honor to be drafted by them and to hopefully step into that organization some day.”

Ryan Suter

Current Team: Wisconsin (incoming)
Year: Freshman
Position: D
Drafted by: Nashville 7th overall

Why he’ll go to school: Suter has already made the commitment to attend his first year at Wisconsin. He told HF while at the draft, “I’ve been working out with the team in Wisconsin, just working with the other players, and hanging out with them.”

He will also be following in the family tradition. Both his uncle (Gary Suter) and his father (Bob Suter) honed their skills with at least one year of college hockey. Also the tradition of wearing the red, white and blue will factor in to the equation. Of course his father was a part of the Miracle on Ice team and his uncle has a consistent history of dawning the USA jersey in international competition.

Ryan has already made a name for himself in international play by playing for the USNDT and by turning in a superb clutch performance in the WJC in Nova Scotia last December. A jump to Nashville would make it less likely for him to be allowed to join Team USA in Finland for what could be an extremely impressive line up. When asked if he thought there is any added pressure on him because of his family name Suter responded, “Well, everyone seems to think so, but I don’t, at all. I’m just going out there and having fun, and they don’t put any pressure on me at all.”

Making the jump into the pros is a huge leap for anyone. This is even a more difficult task for a young defenseman going to a team that is still growing on its own.

What could have tempted him to go pro: Turmoil in Badgerland could make it difficult for a young prospect to grow. With a second year coach and the unexpected loss of a goaltender, this once powerhouse team has seen more glorious days. Even teams such as Duluth and Mankato have made a WCHA schedule the most challenging in all of NCAA hockey. Suter could be just what the Badgers need to turn things around, but he could be switching jerseys soon if the results are the same last season.

Mark Stuart

Current Team: Colorado College
Year: Sophomore
Position: D
Drafted by: Boston 21st overall

Why he might stay in school: Again, a defenseman jumping into the pros is a huge and often difficult task. Filling the skates of legends in a city where some of the greatest d-men to ever play the game could be an even more overwhelming task. If Stuart chooses to head east to Beantown he would most certain miss the opportunity to attend and possibly captain Team USA in the WJC. Education is important to the Stuart family. All three brothers have attended Colorado College and their father is a doctor who works in the USA hockey organization. As competitive as the WCHA is, CC has one of the most underrated goalies in the NCAA and has a solid group of veterans ready to prove that they were worthy of their number one ranking through most of the season. Unfinished business in the playoffs and unfinished business in international competition will probably keep Stuart with the Tigers for at least another year.

Why he might go pro: The tradition of a city that breads d-man to the status of gods is enough to lure any young solid blueline to head east. His hard hitting, blue-collar work ethic will be an instant hit whenever he decides to dawn the spoked wheel sweater. After just being picked by Boston he told HF, “I’m real excited. I didn’t really have an idea of where I was going to go or to who. But it was real exciting, especially a great great town like Boston. They’ve got a great organization so I’m real excited about it. I have been to Boston, it’s a great place. I was only there once but I really liked it when I was there.”

Other notables:

The decision for goaltender Michael Brodeur to forego his stint at Wisconsin and sign with the Blackhawks organization was possibly done out of frustration more than anything. NCAA eligibility regulations would require him to sit out one year due to the fact that he played one period of an exhibition game in the CHL last year. This coupled with the probable work stoppage would total two years without a team to play for and would be extremely detrimental to the young player’s career.