College Hockey: The ECHL keeps the dream alive

When a hockey player goes to school to get a degree, you would guess that it would spell the end of their professional hockey dreams. However, that’s not the case for many U Sports players who have held onto their Stanley Cup aspirations after graduation. There is one league, and one league only which gives a bit of attention to the hidden talents of U Sports, and that’s the ECHL.

Many teams will scout the high ranking U Sports schools, in hopes of finding a hidden gem who can help them once their degree is done. It’s not always easy to convince good players though, as student-athletes will often want to follow their studies and career, rather than holding on to their ever-fading dream of playing in the NHL. Although, there are still a significant number of players every year who will finish their studies and enter the ECHL, playing for measly money just to be able to play the game they love for a little while longer.

The Brampton Beast and Kalamazoo Wings both boast rosters featuring three former U Sports players. Two schools that have consistently sent players into the league are Ryerson University and the University of New Brunswick, who are also some of the strongest teams in Canada.

Both the Beast and the K-Wings are affiliated with NHL and AHL clubs, making them more attractive to players hoping to one day play at a higher level. This would not be the case with the Norfolk Admirals, the only ECHL team not part of an NHL pipeline.

Despite being very skilled and filled with elite level players, it does not mean the transition from university to the pro game is any easier.

“The travel is the toughest part, It’s like we are always on the bus.” said former Ryerson Ram Kyle Blaney who played for the Toronto school for three years from 2012 to 2016, before joining the Kalamazoo Wings. He is one of the few players who played in U Sports without coming through the major junior ranks, rather playing Junior A in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL). His path to pro hockey has allowed him to adjust without much shock.

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Kyle Blaney with the Kalamazoo Wings (Getty Images)

“Coming from the OJHL, where the travel was little, to OUA where it was more, and now to pro, it’s been an easy transition.” he’s certainly right on the travel point, as the ECHL is one of the most travelled leagues in the world. At one point, the league had teams in Anchorage, Alaska as well as Orlando, Flordia- the longest trip imaginable in North America. Blaney never made that lengthy trip, but it was certainly a possibility.

When he was at Ryerson, he did not have the luxuries of arriving at a city a day before a game. In U Sports, teams regularly will travel on their game day, both to and from the arena. That only changes if the arena is extremely far away, or it is a tournament game where rest will be crucial. The Ryerson women’s soccer team only had one day where they didn’t have on game day and that was the OIUA semi-final, all of the others compacted travel.

That luxury of arriving earlier certainly helps, as the games are also much harder than they are in U Sports. Not only are they more physical, playing with fully grown men; but they are more compact. The Ryerson Rams only have three-midweek games this season, whereas an ECHL team will play multiple times every week.

On the ice, it’s one of the most difficult leagues in North America, and certainly, the hardest competition that Blaney has ever faced. The league is filled with former NHLers, prospects, those who never made it to the top as well as U Sports players. It’s certainly a wide variety of talent in the league, but that is what makes the league so special.

Matt Petgrave, formerly a member of the very well-regarded UNB Reds team, said that his old Reds team could probably play any ECHL team and put up a solid fight. The UNB Reds have also sent the most players into the professional ranks, so that belief is not a surprise.

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Matt Petgrave with the U Sports Championship Trophy (UNB Reds)

The ECHL is a very important league to U Sports, as it is one of the only leagues that give the time of day to the Canadian collegiate game. However, the attention that is displayed by the ECHL certainly does not replicate itself in U Sports general following, which is very small. As for how the league can improve its following, Petrgrave had some thoughts on that “It needs more marketing, the NCAA got it right, so copy them.” said Brampton forward. Whether that strategy would work is hard to know, as Canada is very different than the USA in many regards, especially when it comes to investment in sports.

Most players in the ECHL will never step foot onto an NHL sheet of ice, but the league is an invaluable asset for many athletes, being the only way they can keep their Stanley Cup dreams alive.

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