The State of CIS, Part 3: CIS vs. NCAA

By Guy Flaming

This third installment of the Hockey’s Future series focusing on Canadian University hockey will examine some of the key differences and similarities between the northern scholastic league and its much larger and well-known American counterpart. Part I of the series offered a brief overview of CIS, its contributions to professional hockey and weighed the importance of NHL teams scouting the league. Part II focused on the recent CBC TV series Making the Cut and its possible role in giving the CIS player far greater exposure than ever before and the ramifications of the concept production.

Schedule differences

Both CIS and NCAA seasons start basically at the same time during the fall of the academic calendar. In Canada, the players begin playing exhibition games in mid to late September, a couple of weeks before the American schools begin doing the same.

In Canada, the AUS and Canada West programs both play 28 conference games in a regular season while the OUA plays just 24. All programs are allowed to book as many exhibition games as they choose, which is why so many CIS schools, especially the two eastern conferences, travel south to play in the States each fall.

NCAA conferences also do not have uniform rules in regards to regular season games. Both the WCHA and CCHA conferences play 28 conference games while Atlantic Hockey and Hockey East play 24. ECAC has just 22 games on its agenda while CHA teams only play 20 games each year.

Unlike in Canada, regulations are very strict in regards to the amount of non-conference games a NCAA program can play. As head coach of the ECAC’s Princeton Tigers, Guy Gadowsky clarified for Hockey’s Future exactly what the U.S. schools are permitted to do.

“We’re allowed one game a year against an international team and that is an exempt game so you can schedule a Canadian opponent, but that will count against the games that you are allowed to play,” explained Gadowsky, whose Tigers did host a CIS school back in October.

“Windsor came and played us this year, I think they toured and played against a number of teams in NCAA. How it works is like this, in the CCHA they play 34 games and 28 of those are league so there are only six non-conference games you can play. If you go to a tournament or something, there go another two so that’s why you don’t really schedule Canadian opponents that much. You would rather play (CIS) just once so they don’t count against your 34 games.”

As an example, the Western Michigan Broncos played a total of 34 games during their regular season of which 28 had to be against conference opponents. The Broncos also played three non-conference schools twice each accounting for their allotted 34 games. However, because they are allowed to play a single international game without it affecting the rest of their schedule, they did so against Brock University (CIS) in the first game of the year.

On the other hand, because there are no such restrictions placed on Canadian schools, the Windsor Lancers were able to play eight games against NCAA opponents, but all of them had to be against different schools. The eight games were played on three consecutive weekends during October.

Both leagues finish their seasons with conference tournaments that directly result in berths and seeding for the year-ending national tournament. The 16-team NCAA tournament begins in late March and ends with the familiar Frozen Four held in one location, which changes each year. This year the Frozen Four will be held in Columbus, Ohio, home of the Ohio State University Buckeyes.

CIS also completes its schedule with a national tournament but there are only six schools represented at the University Cup and unlike the Frozen Four, the host city in Canada only changes every two or three years. For both 2005 and 2006, the Telus University Cup will be held in Edmonton, Alberta, home of the Alberta Golden Bears.

On-ice rule book

When it comes to the on-ice similarities and differences between the two leagues, there are some things worth noting. Both university leagues have opted for the use of tag up off-sides, no-touch icing and neither use the center red line in regards to two-line passes.

The NCAA is very strict when it comes to crease infractions on scoring plays, reminiscent of the NHL a few years ago. Also, both CIS and the NCAA have strict punishments for players who drop the gloves and are involved in fights. In both leagues the combatants would more than likely receive suspensions.

Obviously as the leagues are centered on education, players are expected to uphold certain levels of achievement in their academic studies and can lose their hockey privileges should their scholastic performances fluctuate negatively.

One of the few differences that are noticeable right away is that in the United States, collegiate players are required to wear full cages whereas in Canada the players are allowed to wear visors, except in the OUA Conference where they too have mandated the use of full cages.

Some U.S. colleges play on Olympic sized ice surfaces, but most still play on a standard North American sized sheet. The University of New Hampshire and several WCHA programs like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado College and both Alaska schools skate on the larger surfaces. Aside from the University of Calgary, all Canadian schools use the smaller dimensions in their arenas.

Player differences

Some of the biggest differences between CIS and NCAA are in the players themselves, including the discrepancy in geographic pull and ages.

Thirty-one Canadian Universities make up CIS hockey compared to 58 this year in Division I of NCAA, meaning the American league’s 1450 players are roughly twice as many as in CIS. Approximately 42 percent of stateside collegians hail from Canada, but CIS is almost entirely made up of domestic players.

Traditionally the average age of CIS players has been 23, simply because rookies are generally the 20-year-old major junior player who has gone unsigned by a pro team. In contrast, NCAA player ages can range from the true 18-year-old freshman to the seasoned 25-year-old veteran collegiate. While there is obviously a much wider difference there, recently things south of the 49th parallel have begun to change and ages are slowly on the rise.

“I know the NCAA is asking kids to play junior while they give them scholarships two years ahead of time so kids who have not finished high school are now waiting until they are 19 or 20 years old before they go into college,” reported Edmonton Oilers VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast. “Now you have more 23-year-olds in NCAA hockey, which is basically what you have in CIS.”

“The age difference between the two leagues has narrowed a bit, but the majority of their players are done when they’re 24,” said University of Alberta head coach Rob Daum. “It’s getting closer but [the NCAA] still gets the younger guys.”

NCAA head coach Guy Gadowsky was able to confirm this development from his experience with Princeton and also Alaska-Fairbanks, where he patrolled the bench for five seasons.

“I think that is accurate on the whole, but there are still those players who can step right in after grade 12. But, the trend is that you want more mature hockey players,” agreed Gadowsky. “It depends on a couple individual factors: is a player ready scholastically and if he’s matured and physically ready. There’s no rule on it. There are guys like Al Montoya recently with Michigan who has been very successful, Jonathan Sigalet with Bowling Green is another one, that have actually accelerated their grade 12 and have come in a year earlier than what a true freshman would be. So there are both those players who have been successful coming early and those who have committed to a university but then played an additional year of junior.”

North Dakota’s Travis Zajac is one example from this past season of a 19-year-old freshman, while fellow 2004 draftee Blake Wheeler agreed to play a year in the USHL before joining Minnesota in 2005-06 as a 19-year-old.

“That’s the trend in the last three or four years,” suggested Florida Panthers Director of Hockey Operations Jack Birch. “For the kids that need more strength, it’s better for them to go back to tier II and then the schools can get four good years out of them that way. At the end of the day, it makes so much sense for kids now.”

Birch, a former CIS coach with the University of Waterloo, is one NHL executive that can see the gap narrowing between NCAA and its Canadian counterpart.

“It used to be that the thoroughbreds would always play major junior anyway and then the guys who were hemming and hawing would go the college route, but I don’t think that distinction is there anymore. I think a kid, whether he’s going to be a first round pick or a fifth round pick, he’s looking at major junior thinking it’s the best thing to get him ready for the pros. The NCAA has come in with lots of rules and regulations about how many games they can play and when camp can start and it doesn’t make it as appealing as it used to be.

“I used to tell players that if they weren’t a thoroughbred, be prepared for when their career was over and go the college route. I used to say that the NCAA was the way to go, but nowadays I’m saying with the onset of the major junior scholarship awards that may not be the case anymore. Go ahead and play major junior at ages 16-19, but continue to go to school and be prepared to go play at the CIS level.”

Differences in talent level?

There is no denying that the upper echelon amateur players in North America generally play Canadian major junior hockey starting as early as 15 years old in some cases, but normally at 16. The fact is that the OHL, WHL and QMJHL are the fastest way for an aspiring NHL player to reach that top league. Because of this, many top rated American-born players have opted to go north of the border to play in their prime draft years. Jeremy Roenick (Hull), Mike Modano (Prince Albert) and Pat LaFontaine (Verdun) are three historic examples for today’s Patrick O’Sullivan (Mississauga), Rob Schremp (London) and Matt Lashoff (Kitchener).

In Canada the separation between major junior and tier II is even greater.

“Any player that’s serious about getting to the NHL right now should be playing in the CHL at 16 or 17,” said Bob Stauffer, play-by-play voice of the Golden Bears and host of an afternoon radio
sports show on the Team 1260 in Edmonton. “If they’re serious, they’ve got to go at that age.”

So with most top prospects, or thoroughbreds as Jack Birch referred to them, playing major junior, the next best prospects are playing in either Canadian tier II leagues like the BCHL, AJHL and SJHL or else he is Stateside in a league like the USHL or USHS awaiting an offer from a US school.

Of course there are the exceptions to this generalization like Dany Heatley (U. of Wisconsin), Doug Weight (Lake Superior State) and Marty Turco (U. of Michigan) but in all, Canadian major junior still produces more NHL players than any other league in the world.

In fact, there have been cases of NCAA players leaving their schools and joining major junior teams after relatively short stays. Mike Comrie (Michigan), Mike Van Ryn (Michigan) and just recently Adam Pineault (Boston College) all left the U.S. to play with the CHL teams holding their rights.

Those players who do not opt to follow the major junior route still leave the NCAA with a tremendous pool of talent to draw from when offering scholarships, but as established earlier, the trend is now to get those players at an older age than ever before.

What’s left for the CIS schools? Basically, aside from the unsigned 20-year-old major junior free agents, the Canadian universities will take on former NCAA players who still have some eligibility remaining and they also see plenty of tier II players who didn’t get scholarships in the NCAA. However, because of the CHL scholarship programs, the non-major junior players, including the former NCAA players, are finding it very hard to crack today’s CIS roster.

“If players make the decision to stay in tier II, then they are making the decision to play in the NCAA,” explained Stauffer. “Only if they can’t get a scholarship at a NCAA school does the bottom end guy in tier II then think of going to a CIS school. The problem is that those bottom end guys aren’t better than the guys that are coming to CIS out of the WHL or CHL, not even close!”

The Alberta Golden Bears have a roster consisting of nothing but former WHL players, five of whom were drafted by NHL teams during their days of eligibility. By comparison, the slightly younger Hockey East teams average 4.3 NHL drafted players in 2004-05 with the highest number at Boston University (11) while other schools had fewer, Maine (5), Providence (4) and New Hampshire (8).

Of course, this may be comparing apples to oranges since NCAA players’ rights are still being held by their NHL teams while they are in school, but the comparison indicates that at some point in the careers of these players, NHL teams found these players worthy of a draft pick. The difference is that the CIS players were not signed after two years in junior, and the NCAA players don’t have to be signed until a year after graduation, which might be at age 23. A bad 21-year-old US collegiate who has already proven to be a wasted draft pick is spared being cut loose by the NHL team that drafted him until after he graduates. CIS players weren’t afforded that luxury; they’re only given two years during their CHL days.

The quality of the undrafted Golden Bears is so high that Alberta has two players (Jonathan Hobson and Tim Krymusa) who scored over 30 goals in the WHL in a season currently playing on their fourth line. Harlan Anderson and Perry Johnson, two of the undrafted Bears defensemen, both recorded WHL seasons of over 50 points. There are former NCAA players like Brent Robertson (Northern Michigan), Doug Auchenberg (Alaska-Fairbanks) and Joel Andresen (Nebraska-Omaha) who have not been able to lock down a regular roster spot with the team.

“When people really objectively look at it, they see that teams like Alberta and Saskatchewan have guys that were 75, 80 even 90-point guys in the WHL,” continued Stauffer. “Ben Thomson was a 40-goal scorer and a three-time 70-point scorer as captain in Medicine Hat. Ben Kilgour scored 80 points as the captain in Tri-City, Gavin McLeod was a captain in Kelowna, Brad Tutschek was a captain in Seattle and Alberta has three defenseman who were basically 60-point guys in the WHL. These are all high-end guys; we don’t take guys out of tier II because they can’t play for us.”

Having established that CIS is no longer just a league where unwanted or cast-off juniors end their hockey careers, where exactly does that leave the Canadian University league in regards to competitiveness with the NCAA?

CIS VS NCAA (on the record)

For four years between the 1996-97 and 1999-00 seasons, the NCAA and CIS put one another to the test in the form of All-Star games involving seniors from the two leagues. Originally a competition split between Canadian and American born players, the format was changed to allow the NCAA’s Canadian component to play for the U.S. side in order hopefully increase the competitiveness of their team.

Games were played in both countries, in either Michigan or Ontario, and were known as the North American University Hockey Championships. In all there were six games played over the four years and, interestingly enough, the finally tally saw the series split at three wins apiece.

Depending on which CIS program you look at, Canadian universities have had varying degrees of successes and failures in head-to-head competition with NCAA clubs. As earlier mentioned, these games generally take place in the preseason for both schools and therefore neither side is using its main roster, but instead rotating players in and out as they prepare for their regular seasons.

In the first weeks of the 2004-05 schedule, there were just over 40 games played between the two countries with the NCAA coming away with a dominant record of 37-4-2, suggesting that the quality level of the two leagues is immense.

When asked why he thought CIS schools, of which Alberta was not involved, fared so poorly against their American opponents, Stauffer suggested it could be “because they’re often playing three games in three days, or at least two in two and on the road; they almost never play in Canada. They play pretty good on the first night, maybe go out afterwards, play decently the second night and then get killed the third day which is often a afternoon game on a Sunday.”

“The good programs, like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Acadia, New Brunswick, St. FX, UQTR and Western, those programs are almost entirely made up of players out of the CHL,” argued Stauffer. “It’s made the league far more competitive internally and far more apt to compete against the NCAA teams, if they could actually get to host some games.”

It begs the questions as to why the CIS schools are the ones doing all the traveling. The answer is two-fold; cost and NCAA regulations. The host team of these international exhibitions must cover the travel expenses of the visiting squad and the NCAA schools have vastly deeper wallets compared to their CIS cousins. Then considering the “single international opponent” rule that Guy Gadownsky mentioned earlier, it becomes clear why the American schools don’t come north.

“The CIS teams get invited down because the NCAA schools have far more money and so they’re on the road, and just like the NCAA teams are rotating players through the roster so are the CIS teams,” Stauffer continued. “The overall depth of the NCAA system is far deeper than in Canada but that does not preclude the top 5 or 6 programs from here giving the best NCAA teams a run.”

Going back to our CIS example of Alberta, the Golden Bears under coach Rob Daum actually have a very favorable record of 6-3 against NCAA opponents including some schools that are traditional very tough.

The Daum-led Golden Bears beat both St. Cloud (4-2) and North Dakota (2-1 OT) in 1996-97, the year the Fighting Sioux went on to become national champions. The following season Alberta swept both Alaska teams in two-goal victories. In 1999-2000 the Golden Bears downed Denver 5-4 before earning a split with Yale. Daum’s last two contests with NCAA teams came in October of 2001 and both were losses, one to Denver and the other to Colorado College.

CIS vs NCAA (the debate)

Even if regulations allowed them to, would the better NCAA schools even accept invites to play road games in Canada against the upper echelon CIS programs?

“With the restrictions to NCAA travel right now, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult, but my guess is that they would frown upon it anyway against certain organizations at the CIS level,” said Stauffer. “What would happen if they were to lose against Alberta or Saskatchewan? If they come here and play at Rexall Place and then play at Saskatchewan Place (in Saskatoon), in the fertile recruiting grounds of these two provinces where they’re telling everybody that the NCAA is the way to go, and then two CIS teams of WHL graduates smoke them, what message does that send?”

That scenario might hurt the WCHA’s ability to recruit from Canada’s prospect-rich prairie provinces, but how realistic is that hypothetical outcome?

Asked to outline the NCAA perception of CIS competition, Canadian-born Guy Gadowsky relied on his own personal experience to explain.

“I can’t really comment on what the American thought is on CIS but I was born and raised in Edmonton and went to a lot of those games so I know a lot of the players who went through that program and on to be very successful,” said the six-year NCAA head coach. “I think the UofA could step in and do extremely well in NCAA. It’s a great program, they have tremendous alumni, a great coach and when you look at their record you see that they’ve been very successful.”

Gadowsky argues though that the U.S. programs are still in the better developmental league for aspiring NHL players.

“I think though that NCAA is as strong as it’s ever been; the number of players that we graduate on to the NHL has never been better and we’ve had high profile players and teams doing very well,” he said. “I have great respect for the UofA and know that they would do very well, but at the same time I know NCAA. The fan support that we have is incredible and the exposure and how much we get scouted is tremendous.

“Certainly not all Canadian University teams are as successful as Alberta.”

“I think the top CIS programs are comparable with (NCAA) top programs, no question,” UoA’s Daum said steadfastly. “It’s a bit different game, [CIS] players might be a little older and more mature and there’s a little different playing style. I think we’ve proven that the top programs in Canada, from a playing perspective, would be competitive with the top programs in the NCAA. Would our lower programs be? Maybe not, I think that there’s a bigger difference there.”

For example, Princeton decimated Windsor by a 9-2 score in their preseason exhibition and both schools finished near or at the cellar in their home conferences. However, when asked how his program would match up against the CIS school from his home city, Gadowsky was honest while still respectful of his team.

“This was my first year in Princeton, we’re in a rebuilding process and I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing against them at all,” Gadowsky conceded. “You look at them, they’ve been very successful for how many years now? I think they are an excellent team and I would not feel confident going up against them at all.”

But that match-up would pit a CIS power against a weaker ECAC opponent and not really represent a fair contest either. So the question was asked of Gadowsky to compare the Golden Bears to his old Alaska-Fairbanks squad that he previously coached for five years to more than respectable results and predict a winner.

“Wow…that’s a tough question,” laughed the coach. “You know, I don’t know, but it would be fun to find out! I don’t think anybody could safely say until they actually played.”

That said, perhaps the only true definitive solution would be for the year-end CIS University Cup Champion and the NCAA National Tournament winner to meet in a five or seven-game series. But considering the academic timetable, could such a weeklong event even be feasibly scheduled?

“I know we would love to do that but I’m sure they have regulations against that,” sighed Daum. “Academics come into play too and we have to consider that after our national tournament that we’re not too far removed from final exams, but, there’s some time in there. I’m sure the CIS champion would look forward to that challenge and it would be a big deal, but I’m not sure what the NCAA would have to gain from that.

“I doubt that the NCAA would allow that to happen because they have too much to lose,” argued Stauffer, who still would give the edge to the NCAA in a format of a seven-game series. “Seven out of 10 times it would be NCAA, but if schools as deep as Alberta were to play a series like that, they would give any NCAA team a run.”

“I think it would be interesting!” agreed Gadowsky. “I would love to see the NCAA champ play the CIS champ; I think that would be great.”

Unfortunately, without major restructuring of NCAA regulations, such a dream series will remain exactly that. Until then, both CIS and NCAA will continue to thrive in their current ways and fans of both leagues will have to settle for the ongoing debates and meaningless head-to-head exhibition games.

Part IV of this series will examine a 20-year-old junior player’s decision to move to CIS or minor pro.

DJ Powers contributed to this article. Comment on this story at the NCAA/CIS section of the Hockey’s Future Message Boards.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.