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College or pro? Hockey's young stars face life-altering decision

Paul Brownfield
BILL KOSTROUN

SARNIA, Ontario -- In the hockey-rich swath of North America that encompasses Michigan and Ontario, the Ontario Hockey League and the newly formed Big Ten hockey conference do not compete just for talent at youth tournaments and junior showcases. They lobby parents about whose system is the better final exam for an NHL career.

Few major sports demand life-altering decisions from their adolescent stars quite the way hockey does. The NCAA regards the Canadian Hockey League's three major junior leagues -- the OHL, the Quebec Major Junior League and the Western Hockey League -- as professional. As a result, top U.S. prospects often face a difficult choice when they reach age 14: stay eligible for college or bolt to major junior hockey?

Anthony DeAngelo, an 18-year-old from Sewell, N.J., leads OHL defensemen in scoring this season, with 46 points through 32 games for the Sarnia Sting. He is projected as a first-round pick in next year's NHL draft.

A hundred miles away in Ann Arbor, Mich., Cristoval Nieves, 19, is a sophomore forward for the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines. A native of Baldwinsville, N.Y., Nieves, who goes by the nickname Boo, was taken in the second round by the New York Rangers in the 2012 draft. After collecting eight goals and 21 assists and playing in all 40 games as a freshman last season, he has one goal and seven assists in 14 games this season.

If not exactly can't-miss prospects, DeAngelo and Nieves are thought to be good bets to be on NHL rosters several years from now. But their potential -- and how predictive their current environments are -- is a matter of considerable debate.

At 14, DeAngelo and Nieves had already been focused on hockey since around the third grade, rising to the top of various age groups. By then, agents or family advisers were in the fold, and a whole conversation was heating up around them: Just how badly, and quickly, did they want to get to the NHL?

"From a parent's point of view, it's disappointingly early," Rafael Nieves, Boo's father, said.

LIFE IN THE OHL

DeAngelo arrived in Sarnia, a small Canadian city on the southeastern banks of Lake Huron, when he was 15. At 14, he had orally committed to Boston University, then played a season in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the Roughriders of the United States Hockey League, which is considered a Division I primer league.

In Cedar Rapids, DeAngelo broke his kneecap blocking a shot, ending his season. He weighed his options. The less attractive one involved a few more years in the USHL, going to school year-round to qualify for enrollment at BU.

"This is the faster route" to the NHL, DeAngelo said of the OHL. "It wasn't really much of a decision, to be honest with you. It was quick."

History is on his side. Canadian major junior leagues, whose players mostly range in age from 16 to 20, have long been a feeder system for the NHL. Anchorage's Scott Gomez chose that route.

The Sting, who are at the bottom of their division this season, are known less for competing for championships than for producing No. 1 overall draft picks Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers.

"I think some guys from this league, if you send them into college, they'd dominate," DeAngelo said.

OHL people refer to college hockey, a little dismissively, as "a weekend league." DeAngelo's regular season in Sarnia stretches to 68 games, nearly twice the number of games Nieves will play at Michigan.

All players live with a local family, or billet, who provide room and board. DeAngelo and a teammate occupy basement bedrooms in the home of Sharron Willock, a retired financial adviser and widow.

DeAngelo forfeited his college eligibility as soon as he suited up for the Sting, even though OHL commissioner David Branch, referring to his league's players as student-athletes, says, "We are very much an amateur league."

As an OHL student-athlete, DeAngelo, who has an agent, is paid $50 a week. The Sting are paying for the high school degree he is pursuing online. As an elite player, he is guaranteed four years of college tuition. But that arrangement has caveats: DeAngelo has to enroll in a college within 18 months of leaving the team, and the money disappears if he signs an NHL contract.

"I could care less about it," he said of his education package, a defiant edge in his voice. "It's just something there in case, God forbid, I get hurt or whatever."

LIFE AT MICHIGAN

Nieves was wooed by major junior hockey teams, too.

"They're pretty relentless when you're younger," said Nieves. "My dad just kept pushing them out the door."

But Nieves was also encircled by Michigan ties by age 15, when he was still too young to sign a national letter of intent. While DeAngelo was playing junior hockey in Iowa, Nieves was at the Kent School, a Connecticut prep school. His coach was Matt Herr, the captain of the 1998 Michigan team that won the national title. His family adviser, Alec Schall, is an NHL agent whose clients include several former Wolverines.

When Nieves was 15, his father took him on a tour of Northeast colleges, a way to reinforce the family edict that skipping college to hasten his arrival in the NHL was not going to happen.

Nieves chose Michigan because he was familiar with Ann Arbor from hockey camps and tournaments. And he liked the university colors.

"A kid like Boo, we recruit him because of his offensive skill and potential," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "And then we teach him how to play without the puck."

While DeAngelo often plays at a half-filled RBC Centre, Nieves plays in front of a boisterous student section, all clad in maize yellow, at Yost Arena, a 90-year-old field house renovated to project the university's well-heeled athletic department.

DeAngelo and his teammates ride buses to away games. Nieves and his teammates take charter flights to most away games, and they eat a catered dinner, high above the ice, after practice.

The college game has been growing, infused by revenue from television contracts and a major realignment that has made this the first season with a Big Ten hockey conference. For Michigan, that means games on the Big Ten Network, ESPN and the NBC Sports Network.

It also means more exposure for college hockey. Over the last decade, the number of players in the NHL who played college hockey has swelled to more than 300, according to College Hockey Inc., the game's chief marketing arm.

Now in his 30th season behind the Michigan bench, Berenson, 74, preaches patience and life after hockey. Compared with major junior hockey, the college game is faster and more intense, he said.

"This is a team that essentially stays together all year," Berenson added. "They're like a pro hockey league. They're trading players and demoting players. We go to school full time. This is a whole different lifestyle."

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Getting there for Alaskans

For Alaskans who have made it to the NHL, the two routes to hockey's biggest stage -- college hockey and major junior hockey -- have been equally successful.

Of the 13 Alaskans with NHL credentials, six went to college, six went to the Western Hockey League and one tried it both ways.

The college guys

Matt Carle

Ty Conklin

Joey Crabb

Tim Wallace

Jason Ryznar

Brian Swanson

The major junior guys

Ty Jones

Scott Parker

Scott Gomez

Brandon Dubinsky

Nate Thompson

B.J. Young

As for Barrett Heisten, he played two seasons for Maine and one season in the Western Hockey League before turning pro.

 


By PAUL BROWNFIELD
New York Times