College hockey fights battle for California players

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 9: Jack Eichel #9 of the Boston University Terriers checks Nick Mattson #5 of North Dakota during the 2015 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Frozen Four Championship Semifinal at TD Garden on April 9, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Terriers won 5-3 to advance to the National Championship game on Saturday April 11, 2015. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The battle for young California hockey players takes place at the Toyota Sports Center on a Thursday in late August.

Eric Nystrom, Rocco Grimaldi, a bevy of college coaches along with staff from College Hockey Inc. stand in a cordoned off area of the building and discuss the importance of the college path to several young onlookers.

Nystrom (University of Michigan) and Grimaldi (University of North Dakota) explain how college helped them become better people. Nystrom says, “It goes much further than hockey.” Grimaldi said he met his fiancée in college and learned to do laundry there.

While there was nothing negative said about Major Junior hockey, the perils of this Canadian path are somewhat implied at this CCM College Hockey Showcase. College Hockey Inc., which was a major part of the camp for SoCal boys players born in 1999, 2000 and '01, says its goal is to “encourage elite young players to pursue a college hockey career.”

“There’s so much more that goes to (College),” Nystrom said. “You’re not just playing for the hockey team. You’re representing the entire student body and at the same time you’re going to other sporting events. You’re going to football games and cheering for your school. You get to represent so many alumni. You’re representing so much more than yourself. Your school and your friends – and I think that dynamic gives you that different sense of pride.”

And California is a flash point in this attempt to steer kids on the college path. The state had 25,288 registrations in 2013-14 according to USA Hockey's website.

Hockey playing kids in California know about most collegiate athletics, thanks to the state’s sports happy culture. But there’s no nearby Division-I college hockey team – except Arizona State, which is going to start play this year. Meanwhile the Western Hockey League has teams in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and Portland – spots on the same coast that would be enticing to a young hockey player.

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“The players out here have less personal exposure and awareness of college hockey,” College Hockey Inc. Executive Director Mike Snee said. “We have to come out here and do what we’re doing.”

According to College Hockey Inc., in 2014-15 there were 50 Division I college hockey players from the state of California. That’s up from 20 in 2002-03, though slightly down from 59 in 2012-13.

There are nine players in the WHL from the state of California for the upcoming season per the league.

While the numbers don’t exactly match up, there is indeed competition between the leagues.

Collegiate hockey offers a lifestyle, an education and a chance at a career outside of hockey. The WHL offers pro-style play in hockey mad Canada and a tried and true path to professional hockey.

“Our point isn’t to be anti-Western Hockey League. It’s a pro college hockey message with a, ‘Learn all you can about college hockey,’” Snee said. “Because unlike other sports like basketball, you’re faced with a decision as to what path you want to take.”

Arizona State is at the center of college hockey’s ability to mine talent on the West Coast. Next season it’s going to start playing Division-I and should have some built-in recruiting tools for all college hockey players, not just Californians. From the warm weather to the Pac-12 sports atmosphere it should provide one of the most unique environments in college hockey.

When we asked Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel about ASU, he immediately defaulted to the um … attractiveness of the school’s co-eds.

“There’s a ton of talent here and it couldn’t be better for us with our geographic location to California,” ASU coach Greg Powers said. “It’s our top recruiting priority is to try to get the best players out of this state (California).”

During the presentation, images of successful college hockey players who made the NHL jump flashed up on a screen at the front of the set up. There were shots of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Eichel and Ryan McDonagh.

Californians in the NHL are pretty mixed when it comes to the WHL or collegiate path. Matt Nieto and Beau Bennett both went to college. Emerson Etem played in Medicine Hat. AHLer Jonathon Blum – the first Californian picked in the first-round of the NHL Draft – played with the Vancouver Giants.

Also, with Arizona’s Auston Matthews – the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2016 Draft – opting to play in Switzerland, there could be an entirely new competition spot for elite players out west.

But maybe with the spread of college hockey to Arizona State and possibly beyond, the collegiate hockey choice may seem more prominent. At least that was the hope at Toyota Center on that day.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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