Around the Rink
A Look at College Hockey with Mike Snee of College Hockey, Inc.
College hockey is known for crazy student sections, sellout crowds, high entertainment value and numerous unforgettable moments.
The talent that is pumped out of the NCAA ranks is pretty good too.
From Jonathan Toews to Johnny Gaudreau to Jack Eichel, the number of college hockey players advancing to the NHL is increasing every year, as over 30 percent of NHL players were developed in college hockey, a number that hovered around 20 percent 15 years ago.
Of course, the student-athlete perspective comes into play as well. College hockey proudly boasts a top three graduation rate among men's sports at over 90 percent.
With NHL numbers increasing, stellar graduation rates, scholarship opportunities in abundance and a World Junior title with most of the U.S. players representing colleges across the country, NCAA hockey is riding an all-time high and looking to push even further in its exposure to fans and players alike.
For a further perspective on the growth of college hockey, MYHockey Rankings turned to College Hockey, Inc. Executive Director Mike Snee to breakdown the state of college hockey, potential expansion and the next step for hockey at the collegiate level.
MYHockey Rankings: What do you want people to know about College Hockey, Inc.? What is your mission?
Mike Snee (MS): The true mission of College Hockey, Inc., is to continue the growth of hockey in the United States. That might seem like a big leap, but that's what our long term goal is, to fully leverage NCAA hockey to have as complete and full as an effect as possible on hockey in the United States. What college basketball does for basketball and what college football does for football, throughout the country, coast to coast, border to border, we want college hockey to some day to do the same. We know it can, because where there is college hockey, it does that.
MYHockey: Has that always been the mission, or has it changed over the years?
MS: I think it has been, I don't know if we knew it in the beginning. We accomplished that in multiple ways, and the biggest one I think is we really want to see our top American players playing college hockey. Even though Jack Eichel only played one year at Boston University, he certainly inspired a lot of young people either to play the game, or those that are already playing the game to want to be the next Jack Eichel. To us, it's important for us that a Jack Eichel, a Dylan Larkin, a Brock Boeser, that they play college hockey in much the same way that it's important that any top college basketball or football player is. Because college hockey is unique in the sense that unlike basketball or football, there are different places that a aspiring high end player can be. It's not yet prevalent in all 50 states, so it requires a different type of educational process, a different marketing process, and it's interesting to look at the success the sport is having in our country in making an impact in areas it recently was not making much of an impact. You can point to stuff like Auston Matthews being the first overall pick (in the 2016 NHL Draft). He grew up playing hockey in Arizona. You can look at five, first round picks out of the greater St. Louis area. That's more than Toronto had. Look at the success that NHL teams are having in places like San Jose, Tampa Bay, Nashville and so on and where players are coming from.
You can't deny that it has grown tremendously in the past 20-to- 25 years. The NHL has followed suit, but college hockey hasn't. Up until Arizona State, college hockey had almost no growth outside of its traditional strongholds. But now you're seeing Shayne Gostisbehere coming from Florida, you're seeing Auston Matthews coming from Arizona. We need college hockey to follow suit and follow these players into those areas. I'm always struck by [St Cloud State product] Nic Dowd, who's playing for the Los Angeles Kings and he's from Huntsville, Alabama. He talks about the importance that Alabama-Huntsville and the fact that they have Division I hockey there played on him on either as a kid who went to games, but also because that program is there and has been there for quite a while, it brought a hockey culture to a mid-sized town in Alabama. Because those people were there, there were people there to have kids that were buddies of Nic that got Nic into hockey, they were there to coach Nic when he was a little kid playing hockey and because Nic's skilled and driven, he's in the NHL from Huntsville, Alabama. Would Nic Dowd be in the NHL right now if it weren't for Alabama-Huntsville? Obviously, you can't conclusively answer that, but I think it really had a strong impact. So how do we create more Arizona State's and Alabama-Huntsville's? How do we do that so that college hockey can maximize it's potential impact on the growth and success of hockey in the United States?
MYHockey: I know a lot of eyes are on Arizona State right now to see what they do. Have you heard any new developments or interest from places that don't have college hockey?
MS: We are doing what we can to impact and influence the growth of college hockey and it's a priority of ours. We have had some positive conversations with either schools and their administration or people that aren't within the school but are very interested whether it might be somebody who wants to make a financial gift or perhaps are involved in the club team. These conversations are to varying degrees. I feel really good that the growth of college hockey will continue. Even the biggest optimist, I don't think would've expected Penn State to play out the way it's played out both in terms of fan following and alumni, mostly to alumni when NCAA Division I hockey wasn't there when they were there yet they are connecting with that team. Anyone that was a skeptic about Penn State hockey now is an absolute believer and it empowers them to think, "if they can do that there, we can probably do that here." Arizona State certainly seems to think that way. I think Penn State and Arizona State create a compelling story for any school, administrator, donor, whatever it might be, that can look at that and say, "if they can do it there, we can do it here."
MYHockey: With Penn State and therefore the creation of the Big Ten Conference, a lot of people were upset with what happened with the conference tournaments. In your opinion, is it just going to be a long-term recovery plan for attendance?
MS: I did read an article recently in Sports Business Journal that wasn't sport specific, it was more people buying tickets to sporting events is down across the board whether it's professional or collegiate sports. I think college hockey is not immune to that, it gets caught up in the trends like that. It's fighting that battle just as pro hockey, pro baseball and college basketball probably are too. I do know that there were certain aspects to the old conferences that some fans really loved and I understand why. The new arrangement has changed the look of some rivalries and created new traditions. New traditions, by definition, take a while until something is a tradition and we're in that process right now.
MYHockey: Regarding the never ending battle between NCAA hockey and juniors. Where is college hockey at right now?
MS: We downplay the battle aspect of that. All hockey is good, I love it all. We are a positive organization and we focus on college hockey and we believe so much in college hockey that we strongly feel that if you learn as much as you can about it, it's almost impossible to say no to. If you look at it all and put it together, there aren't many good answers to "no, there's something better out there for me." It's 40 games, but it is 40 playoff-type games and then because of that schedule... it really allows for a tremendous amount of time on the ice practicing and not just practicing for your next opponent, but also skill development. The fact that you are playing fewer games means that you are going to be on the ice more than if you were in a pro type environment in which you're playing 70-to-80 games. Along with that, is plenty of time in the weight room and the opportunity to get bigger and stronger even during the middle of the season as opposed to limiting those activities for the most part to the offseason. When you're done with whether it's college hockey or CHL hockey, or European hockey, your next step, you're going to be playing a lot of 28-year-old men. If anything needs to be prepared for that, it's your body. It's hard to find a better place to work on that than as a college hockey player. It's never been better situated to allow a player to reach his full potential.
There are only, on a given day, 650 spots in the NHL. There's a lot of great players out there. You can't do much about those odds. All you can do is reach your full potential and then hope that that's good enough to earn one of those 650 jobs. But because there's so few of them, the likely outcome is that regardless of what path you chose to pursue your NHL dream, that NHL dream will not come true. If that happens, the degree itself, the network of people that you are surrounding yourself... they will give you such an opportunity and an advantage to have a very fulfilling and productive life regardless of the outcome of your hockey career.
MYHockey: What's the next step for college hockey?
MS: We are fortunate that we're in a spot where it's almost all good. We are trying to address too many bad issues. You have to squint and pick pretty good to find something that needs a lot of improvement. Our academics are off the charts. We are a top three academic sport for men's division I academics. We have the highest apr score, we have one of the highest graduation rates. We have the student part in student-athlete down and that's a testament to our student-athletes themselves and the schools that they attend. On the ice, the caliber of play has never been better, you saw that last year with our record number of first round draft picks. You saw it this year with our U.S. world junior team, where 20 of the 23 players on the roster were college and they won the gold medal. You see that with the production of young NCAA players in the NHL, whether they were superstars from day one like Jack Eichel or players that weren't necessarily "can't misses," but developed into tremendous NHL players like Johnny Gaudreau or Colton Parayko.
The main thing we need to do is keep doing what we're doing. I really want to see college hockey grow because I think the growth of college hockey is the biggest opportunity we haven't realized yet in this country to even further the growth of hockey. The NHL, the 1990s and the 2000s, those were their expansion years. USA Hockey deserves tremendous accolades for the focus they've placed on the growth of hockey and the success they've had from it. They deserve as much credit as the NHL expansion in the new markets with creating hockey players.
College hockey still is in the very beginning of what I believe is their expansion phase. However, as we expand, we're also still in a spot where some of those smaller, traditional schools that do very well in college hockey are still able to compete because it's pretty special when Union can go into a Frozen Four with a bunch of powerhouses and come out as a champion. We have something that is pretty special where the Penn State's and Arizona State's and these powerful, new, high-profile schools see the value of adding hockey. It's a great time to be a fan of college hockey.
As we hopefully add USC, UCLA, Texas, and Florida some day, it would be fun to see Arizona State playing Clarkson in a national championship game, and maybe Clarkson is the favorite.