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Canadian contingent, led by Michigan's Owen Power, set for NCAA's Frozen Four

Mel Pearson lists off the benefits of playing NCAA hockey. Countless recruits — including a number of Canadians — have heard the spiel over the years from the University of Michigan's head coach and plenty of other bench bosses across the U.S.
University of Michigan defenceman Owen Power shoots during an NCAA college hockey practice in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Paul Sancya

Mel Pearson lists off the benefits of playing NCAA hockey. 

Countless recruits — including a number of Canadians — have heard the spiel over the years from the University of Michigan's head coach and plenty of other bench bosses across the U.S. college ranks.

Getting a top-drawer education, more practice time, an emphasis on off-ice workouts, a longer development runway and being in the thick of an energetic campus life are all part of the package. 

There's one aspect, however, Pearson and coaches across the NCAA don't have to mention, even though they still do. 

It's on TV every night. 

"The National Hockey League is really our biggest sales pitch," Pearson said. 

A record 333 former NCAA players — Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Nick Abruzzese is the most recent — have suited up in the NHL in 2021-22, a number that's certain to rise following the conclusion of this week's Frozen Four tournament in Boston. 

No fewer than 41 draft picks will take part in the single-elimination event to crown a champion after the field was whittled down from 16 schools. Michigan is set to take on the University of Denver in Thursday's first semifinal before Minnesota and Minnesota State battle for regional bragging rights. 

The championship game goes Saturday. 

The NCAA has been a route for American-born NHL hopefuls for years — Johnny Gaudreau, Chris Kreider, Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser, just to name a few — but more and more Canadians are choosing U.S. college instead of the more traditional path through the country's three major junior leagues. 

Michigan defenceman and Mississauga, Ont., native Owen Power, who went No. 1 at the 2021 NHL draft to the Buffalo Sabres, picked the Wolverines instead of the Ontario Hockey League. The same went for teammate and No. 5 pick Kent Johnson, a product of Port Moody, B.C., out west. 

And they're just part of the latest batch of talent from north of the border to head south. 

Colorado defenceman Cale Makar went from the Frozen Four with UMass in 2019 right to the NHL playoffs with the Avalanche. The Calgary native then won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year the following season and hasn't looked back.

A total of 26 Canadian players — Alberta has the most with eight, followed by B.C. and Ontario with six each — will take part in this year's Frozen Four, including Denver forward and Edmonton Oilers draft pick Carter Savoie. 

"Just the longer process," he said of deciding on the NCAA. "Being in the gym all the time, practising all the time.

"And then on top of it the education." 

As of Wednesday, 85 Canadians with NCAA ties had played in the NHL season.

The Savoie family, however, is a perfect example of there not being a one-size-fits-all path. 

Carter's younger brother, Matthew, figured the Western Hockey League was right for him. He's expected to be a top-10 pick at the upcoming draft. 

The elder Savoie said a smaller frame — the 20-year-old now stands five foot nine and weighs 193 pounds — was among his reasons for picking the NCAA. 

"The extra years are really helpful," said St. Albert, Alta., native., whose Pioneers boast a Frozen Four-high 13 Canadians this spring. 

"A lot of people have success using those extra years." 

That was also the case for Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay. 

"My development path wasn't one where I was going to be a first-, second-round NHL draft pick at 18," said the 24-year-old, who figures to garner plenty of attention after this weekend as an unattached free agent. "I knew I was going to need to take my time, play a lot of games, get a lot of experience before being able to jump into pro hockey. 

"There's no rush." 

Getting the word out to all potential NCAA players weighing options — including the Canadians — is where Mike Snee and his small team at College Hockey Inc. often come into play. 

The non-profit organization's mandate is to promote the NCAA game and offer assistance throughout the recruiting process to families, including those new to the U.S. post-secondary system. 

And there continues to be challenges when it comes to players from Canada, in particular with the NCAA's schedule of roughly 40 games — significantly less than major junior. 

"In certain parts (of the country) there is a perception that maybe you're selling your hockey development short if you play college," Snee said. "We want young, aspirational players to realize you can be all-in on your hockey." 

Snee said 93 per cent of NCAA players graduate, while 100 per cent of the Boston College team that won the Frozen Four a decade ago, including Gaudreau and Kreider, have their diplomas. 

"You can be reaching your absolute full potential on the ice, in the weight room, and at the same time be earning your degree," Snee added. "You don't have to see your hockey through and then go and try to cobble an education together when you're 29." 

Pearson, who saw four of his players selected in the first five picks at the 2021 draft, including Power and Johnson, said it's about keeping doors open. 

"Everybody has a different timetable," he said. "It gives you a little bit more time."

Stars like Makar, and now Power, have made conversations with Canadian athletes and parents sifting through options a little easier. 

"They don't need to be convinced college hockey isn't just for undersized guys or really smart guys," Snee said. 

"It's also for great players." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2022.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press