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College Hockey Recruiting: Pre-Season Exhibitions Force NCAA/CHL Decisions

Kamloops Blazers v Kelowna Rockets Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images

The college hockey season is still about a month away, but junior leagues are beginning pre-season action. The start of inter-squad exhibition games means that many young players this time of year face the difficult decision of trying to make a CHL team or preserving their NCAA eligibility.

Here’s a look at some of those players and how their decisions have played out.


-Ontario ‘00 F Cam Hillis recently committed to Providence. Hillis was a second round choice of the Guelph Storm in last spring’s OHL Draft. Hillis attended Guelph’s rookie orientation early this past summer, though said he was still weighing his options. Obviously the commitment is a good sign that he has made his decision for the NCAA. Hillis was drafted by Youngstown in the USHL Futures Draft, but will head to St. Andrew’s College prep school in Ontario next season.

-Penn State got a commitment from ‘01 Ontario goalie Christian Sbaraglia

And Maine got a commitment from New Brunswick ‘01 F Lynden Breen

Both are extremely talented players at this point. As with any player at that age, who knows how they will pan out in the future. What’s more interesting is the seeming philosophical shift in recruiting.

Going back 8-9 years, when the recruiting of 15-year-old players really started to take off, it was much more common to see Canadian players make commitments(or “commitments”) prior to being selected in their respective CHL Drafts.

In recent years, teams have shifted away from that strategy. Part of that is because it’s harder to keep those types of soft commitments quiet in these days of online and social media without it turning into a big story. But more importantly, the success rate of those players working out was so poor that it just didn’t make sense for teams to invest their time and effort into a player until that player had been through the CHL Draft process and shown a legitimate interest in spurning the CHL.

Now, the pendulum seems like it might be swinging back in the direction of being more aggressive with those younger players. Chalk it up to college teams spending more time in the rink watching increasingly younger age groups searching for the next big thing.

Very Intriguing

Speaking of players turning down the initial offers of the CHL, a pair of first round draft picks in their respective CHL leagues have opted against signing, which instantly makes them top NCAA prospects.

In western Canada, British Columbia ‘01 F Massimo Rizzo was the 15th overall selection by the Kamloops Blazers in last spring’s WHL Bantam Draft, but Rizzo left Kamloops’ training camp with the express purpose of maintaining his NCAA eligibility. Rizzo would only be allowed to play a select number of games with the Blazers this year if he were to sign, and part of the reason the WHL drafts a year earlier than the other two CHL leagues is that they acknowledge it can sometimes take longer to recruit a player to their league.

If Rizzo does stick with the NCAA option, his route seems clear. He participated in training camp with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, who recently produced two first round NHL Draft picks in Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro that have chosen to take the NCAA route.

The other player to keep an eye on is Ontario ‘00 F Jack McBain. The son of former NHLer Andrew McBain was leaning towards the NCAA route until Barrie selected him 20th overall in last spring’s OHL Draft and put on the full court press to sign him. McBain has resisted so far, however, officially signing to play with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens of the OJHL to preserve his NCAA eligibility. Lincoln holds his USHL rights.

Happy Trails...

Meanwhile, a few players have officially given up their NCAA eligibility by choosing to sign in the CHL.

-Western Michigan lost a recruit in ‘99 F Nick Henry, who signed with the Regina Pats. Henry was very impressive last season as a rookie in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, which earned him the scholarship offer from the Broncos. Henry had originally been drafted by Everett in the WHL, but had his rights traded to Regina last spring at the WHL Draft, and the appeal of playing closer to home was enough to convince him to sign.

The Pats also signed Colorado T-birds ‘00 F Bryan Lockner. Lockner missed much of last season due to injury, but was still a high Futures Draft pick by Muskegon in last spring’s USHL Draft.

-One-time Maine commit Baron Thompson recently had his WHL rights, along with the rights of his older brother Ty, traded to the Brandon Wheat Kings. And while the club hasn’t officially announced their signings, it’s highly expected they will.

Thompson was signed to a USHL tender by the Dubuque Fighting Saints last year, but only played in 26 games—far less than the required 50% of games required to retain his rights as a tender—and was marginally effective when he did play. He had his scholarship offer from Maine rescinded and was placed on Dubuque’s affiliate list to start this year. Even prior to struggling last season, it would have been a surprise if Thompson had qualified academically to play college hockey.

-Former Austin Bruins(NAHL) ‘98 D Dalton Gally signed with Medicine Hat of the WHL. Gally is a big, rangy defenseman whose physical abilities drew legitimate interest from some major NCAA programs when he was younger, and gave local NHL scouts an excuse to head out to some NAHL games last year, but never quite put things together to take advantage of his physical talents and be a really serious prospect.

-Arizona Bobcats ‘99 D Jeremy Masella signed with Victoria of the WHL. Masella is a bigger defenseman that was a standout in the NAPHL last season, and was originally scheduled to play for Minot in the NAHL this year before signing a deal at Victoria’s training camp.