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From the Pros to College

Sep 17, 2013, 8:59 AM EDT

This summer I made a fairly impromptu decision to take out a sizeable portion of my bank account to buy a standing-room-only ticket on Stubhub for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. So I took a day off work and drove six hours from Missouri to Chicago with my 15-year-old brother to witness a part of the Blackhawks championship run.

The Hawks lost that game 2-1 in overtime – after outshooting the Bruins 19-4 in the first period – dropping my 2013 (and lifetime) sports championship record to 0-2. You can guess what the first game was. Hint: It also featured a dominant opening frame.

But the point of this story isn’t that you should buy me a ticket if you want my favorite team to lose. It’s to help illustrate what it meant for me to see Blackhawks players skating on a rink with an interlocking ND at center ice.

The worlds of college hockey and the NHL are often separated. Almost all NBA and NFL players have a university to call home, but the majority of NHL players don’t attend college before joining the pros.

Yet the trend has moved towards college players over the last several years. In 2007, 24 percent of NHL players came from college, according to In 2012 that number had increased to 31 percent.

This past week the reigning Stanley Cup champions held their training camp at Compton Family Ice Arena, playing to a sell-out crowd for their scrimmages. On Wednesday they opened the camp with a press conference featuring captain Jonathan Toews and alternate captains Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith.

Besides their leadership roles, the three have something else in common: they all played in college.

“Players make it to the NHL in all different ways,” Sharp said. “When I was growing up – I’m a bit older than these guys – it was the major junior route, and now you see guys come from tier II juniors and college especially and all types of different countries.

“I’m certainly proud that I went to school – I went to the University of Vermont. You get the chance to grow up a little bit, to develop as a person and physically as a player. It’s hard to say what route’s better, but I’ve got a daughter at home and hopefully she’s not going up to Canada to play in the OHL. Hopefully she’s going to college.”

The college connection – three former college players talking in front of an ND backdrop – was certainly cool, but for me it wasn’t just about college – it was about my college. I watched my favorite pros skate on the ice while I watched from the same spot in the press box where I’d watched so many games over the past two years.

And all week all the players, coaches and management raved about the facilities and the campus. The United Center for a Stanley Cup final game is a pretty intense atmosphere. These guys know what they’re talking about.

“You watch the football team on TV, you see the progress the hockey team has made the last couple years – it’s a historic place,” Toews said. “There’s a lot of history here as far as sports go. But it’s just a cool place to be. For us who have gone to college for a couple years, it’s bringing back memories of being on a college campus again.”

For some, the memories aren’t too distant. Drew LeBlanc played at St. Cloud State last year, when he led the Huskies to a Frozen Four – after beating Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

LeBlanc ended up winning the Hobey Baker Award for top hockey player in the NCAA. Even if he’s not too far removed from college, he was certainly among the players who enjoyed the collegiate setting.

“It’s definitely a beautiful campus. I haven’t seen a nicer campus around,” he said. “It’s cool just walking around – all the buildings are beautiful. It’s a little nicer than St. Cloud – you can tell it’s one of the best universities in the United States.”

A lot of players make it to the NHL without going to college. But my guess is Sharp represents the norm among those who come from collegiate ranks – they’re proud of their university. Maybe some of them even wish they could go back.

“Well, Duncs went to school and I know he mentioned he maybe wanted to go sit in on a class at Notre Dame,” said Sharp, referring to Keith. “Might be the first class he’s ever been to.”

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