Junior vs. NCAA route was easy for Fowler

Bob Duff, Windsor Star
Yahoo! Sports

When the Kitchener Rangers chose Cam Fowler in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft, Fowler's mind didn't sway a bit.

He was still convinced his destiny was to play NCAA hockey at Notre Dame.

A year later, when he re-entered the draft and this time was selected by the Windsor Spitfires, the team situated in the city he was born in and just a short drive from his home in Farmington Hills, Mich., the wheels in the decision-making part of Fowler's brain engaged.

"It just kind of seemed that everything fell into place once Windsor took me," Fowler said. "I was only 45 minutes away from home, I was in the city I was born in, playing for the defending Memorial Cup champions.

"Everything fit."

Fowler changed his mind, passed on the Fighting Irish and signed with the Spitfires.

"They're both great options," Fowler said. "Notre Dame is a great program, it just didn't suit what I had in mind. In the OHL, I played an NHL-style schedule."

A year later, another Memorial Cup in hand, a world junior gold medal earned with the United States, as well as status as the 12th overall selection in the National Hockey League draft by the Anaheim Ducks, Fowler is confident he made the correct choice.

Even if it wasn't the easiest choice he's ever made.

"The [decision-making] process was a hard one for me," Fowler admitted. "It affected my school work a bit, and ultimately my hockey, as well. But I think I made the right decision."

Every year, players such as Fowler are left to weigh the options, list the pros and cons between major junior and U.S. college hockey, and make a potentially career-altering choice at an age when most kids are still sorting out what courses they plan to pursue in high school.

The parameters of the choice used to be simple -- those wanting to pursue a hockey career first and foremost, travelled the junior path. Those putting education ahead of puck-chasing opted for the college route.

These days, the Canadian Hockey League offers lucrative education packages to its players, allowing them to get a university education during and after their playing days in any of the three major-junior loops -- the OHL, the Western Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

In some cases, these education packages only serve to make a youngster's choice that much harder. For every player, every young man faced with these options, there are differing circumstances that lead to different outcomes.

As adamant as Fowler is that Notre Dame wasn't for him, defenceman Stephen Johns, a Spitfires draft pick who was selected 60th overall by the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the June draft, is certain that the university in South Bend, Ind. is the place that he belongs.

Even though he knows he's got an NHL future on his radar, Johns couldn't be swayed by the Spitfires that junior would get him there the fastest of the two routes.

"Ever since I started playing hockey, I've always watched college hockey and I always wanted to play college hockey," said Johns, a defenceman from USA Hockey's under-18 world title team, who is from suburban Pittsburgh.

"For my parents to give up so much, money wise and time wise, I thought the best way to give it back was to get an education from Notre Dame. When I went there, it just felt like the perfect fit.

"I'm going there for my freshmen year and intend to have a good freshmen year."

These days, for a top prospect such as Johns to turn his back on the CHL is the exception, rather than the rule.

Junior operators, equipped with those strong educational packages to go with their sales pitch that their system and style of game is the closest to professional hockey, believe they have taken the lead over American universities in the ongoing pursuit of talent.

"I wouldn't dispute that," said Paul Kelly, the former executive director of the NHL players' association and since last November head of College Hockey, Inc., a newly-founded organization whose mandate is to sell young players on all the NCAA brand of hockey offers to them.

It hasn't help Kelly's cause that some of major junior hockey's best salesmen are players such as Fowler, who helped broker deals to get forward Kenny Ryan (Boston College), a 2009 Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, and goalie Jack Campbell (Michigan), selected 11th overall by the Dallas Stars in this year's draft, to change their minds and opt for the Spitfires.

"I played with Cam for 10 years and he's been very happy about [his decision]," Ryan said.

Campbell talked to both players before making up his mind. "They gave me their two cents," Campbell said. "That gave me more confidence when I made my decision."

It's this kind of commitment-jumping that alarmed the powers who run the NCAA into taking a proactive approach toward protecting their assets.

"What we want to see stopped is the poaching and harassing of players once they've made a decision," Kelly said. "And that goes for both sides."

Kelly sought to make it clear that College Hockey, Inc. wasn't organized to launch an all-out attack on the CHL.

"It's not an us versus them approach," he said.

In fact, Kelly has met with CHL commissioner David Branch to discuss the issue. "Dave Branch is someone I've known for years and I have every respect for Dave Branch," Kelly said. "We want to work together to make both types of hockey programs stronger."

Kelly recognizes the difficulty of changing a system in which the ages of players being asked to determine their hockey future continues to get younger.

"I don't think the CHL should be drafting 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids," Kelly said. "But do I see that changing? That isn't going to happen."

As players like Fowler, Campbell and Ryan find success in the CHL ranks, it's only going to lead to more top American players opting for major junior as their destination of choice.

"I haven't looked back since coming to Windsor," said Fowler, a sentiment concurred by Ryan.

"There's nothing like skating out of the tunnel [at Windsor's WFCU Centre] and 6,500 fans are there night in and night out," Ryan said. "It's been everything I hoped for."

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