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The Best Players to Never Play College Hockey

Chicago Blackhawks v Nashville Predators Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

I don’t remember how this summer project got started. Maybe it was just the realization that I’ve done this for so long that a lot of the old stories that I consider canon are no longer known to most people.

But anyway, the question I set out to answer was this: Who were the best players to commit to a college, but never play NCAA hockey?

Criteria for my list was: 1) the player had to be committed to an NCAA school(This can be a bit muddier going back to the Dark Ages before Twitter, but I had to be able to find at least some reference tying a player to a specific school), 2) the player didn’t appear in any NCAA games(No Duncan Keith, who played a year-and-a-half before signing in the CHL), and 3) the player had to play at least one game in the NHL(so no Angelo Esposito or George Pelawa).

I tried to be as thorough as possible in creating this list. I think I did a fairly solid job within my personal frame of reference which dates back to about 2005, and have a few well-known ones from before that time too. I’m sure there are a lot of older ones I missed.

I should also point out that this isn’t an endorsement of any particular route of development. In going through the archives and researching for this list, the number of players that broke college commitments and then were never heard from again far, far outweighed the ones that made it to the big time. This is more an exercise in looking back wistfully at what might have been.

Grouping what ended up being a fairly long list was a difficult task. I decided to pick one six-player team of guys that I considered to be the biggest losses/best stories, a few other stories I liked as honorable mentions, and then, if you’re still with me a few thousand words later, I broke down the rest into a couple different categories that help explain their situation.

The All-Decommit Team

Eric Lindros, Michigan

Eric Lindros #88 of the New York Rangers skates

The saga of Eric Lindros could probably fill this entire article, if not an entire book.

If Hockey Canada’s Exceptional Player exemption had existed back in the late 1980’s, Eric Lindros definitely would have received it. It could be argued that in the nearly three decades since Lindros came through the minor hockey ranks there have been a few more talented offensive prospects. Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Connor McDavid are the three I would consider. But there hasn’t been anything close to another player that was able to dominate the game both with his offense and physicality the way that Lindros was able to, especially as a youngster coming up through minor hockey in Toronto. This term gets thrown around, paradoxically, about the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin, McDavid, and Matthews these days, but Eric Lindros is the only player that I would truly label a once-in-a-generation player.

So Lindros was seemingly a slam-dunk to be selected first overall in the 1989 OHL Draft, with the pick held by the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds. The only thing standing in the way was Lindros’ notoriously difficult parents. The Lindros family made it clear both to Sault Ste Marie and the general public that Eric would not report if he were picked by the Greyhounds. The official family line was that the long bus rides in the OHL outpost would have a negative effect on Eric’s schooling, though most read between the lines and saw it as code for the Soo being too far away for the Lindros parents to micromanage his career.

Despite the Lindros family telling Sault Ste Marie Eric wouldn’t report—in rather explicit terms—the Greyhounds did end up drafting Eric first overall. He was clearly the best overall player in the draft(#2 overall Jamie Matthews would go on to have a very nice OHL career, but never play hockey after that). But the other reason Sault Ste Marie drafted Lindros, at least according to the Lindros family, was that NHL legend Phil Esposito, who was a partial owner of the Greyhounds, was looking to sell his share of the team and insisted on drafting Lindros to increase the value of the franchise for the sale. As conspiracy theories go, it’s actually pretty plausible. Esposito offered a half-hearted denial at best(''Mrs. Lindros has to understand that junior hockey is a business. What if her son gets drafted by Quebec next year? Where's he going to go, Europe?'', Esposito said, with what turned out to be great prescience) and perhaps tellingly, had sold his share of the team by the following winter.

With Lindros refusing to play for Sault Ste Marie, he started the year with the Compuware Ambassadors of the NAHL and his parents dangling the possibility of NCAA hockey if Eric’s rights weren’t traded somewhere else in the league.

Michigan was eager to jump at the opportunity. Red Berenson called Lindros the best 16-year-old hockey player he had ever seen and was desperate to get the star player. At that point in time, Berenson had started to turn Michigan’s program around, posting two straight winning seasons after three losing seasons, but had yet to earn an appearance in the NCAA tournament. He even had a Michigan jersey with Lindros’ favorite number, 88, printed up for him.(It wouldn’t be until 1998 when Mike Comrie joined the Wolverines that a player would wear a number higher than 35 at Michigan). The Lindros camp began telling people that he was prepared to play at Michigan if the Greyhounds didn’t trade him.

Lindros was slated to graduate from high school on January 15th that year. Presumably, he could have enrolled at Michigan for the second semester of that season. The clock was ticking for the Greyhounds to make a trade and keep the superstar in the OHL.

Complicating matters was that the OHL had a rule saying 16-year-old players couldn’t be traded until a year after they had been drafted; the logic being that if a youngster committed to an OHL program, he wouldn’t have to worry about being shipped somewhere else for at least a year. So OHL commissioner David Branch created a special trading window from January 1st to January 10th of that year for the Greyhounds to move Lindros to a different team. The Oshawa Generals came in with the best offer among teams acceptable to the Lindros clan, and Eric joined the Generals for the second half of the season, where he was instantly an impact player in the league.

The special trading window ended up being a great deal for the OHL as a whole. Lindros’ first 15 games in the league drew a combined total of 22,098 more fans than the average attendance pre-Lindros in those buildings.

As for Michigan, they fell just short of the NCAA tournament in the ‘89-’90 season thanks to a controversial decision by the tournament committee to select Bowling Green, then a national power, over the up-and-coming Wolverines despite Michigan beating the Falcons in that week’s CCHA Tournament. That was one of the factors in the tournament committee moving towards a more strictly math-based approach to selecting a tournament field.

Lindros’ scholarship at Michigan ended up going to Anton Fyodorov, notable for being the first athlete from the Soviet Union to receive an NCAA athletic scholarship and not much else. He played only 18 games at Michigan, scoring a single goal.

Patrick Kane, Boston University

Dallas Stars v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The US National Development Program has undeniably been a huge boon for college hockey. This list would have been a lot longer had the NTDP not provided a high-end two-year program for some of America’s best young players.

But there is one quirk in the program that has ended up hurting college hockey from time to time. The IIHF uses January 1st as their birthday cut-off line, and with the NTDP focused towards international success, they select their teams by birth year(everyone joining next year’s NTDP U17 team will be born in 2001, for example). But the US school system typically uses September 1st as the cut-off date for starting school. That means that while the majority of players that come into the NTDP join as 11th graders, and have graduated high school by the time they age out of the program two years later, those players born the latter quarter of the year typically come into the program as 10th graders, and would still have a year of high school to complete before they were eligible to play college hockey. Some players played an additional year in the USHL while they finished high school. Jimmy Hayes took the unconventional route of staying with the NTDP for a third year, despite being unable to play in any of their international events. And some players accelerate their schooling so they in essence graduate a year earlier and move to college hockey after aging out of the NTDP.

That was the position Pat Kane—a November birthday— was in in 2006. He had developed into a dominant player with the NTDP. He scored 102 points with the NTDP U18s, a program record that would stand until it was broken by Auston Matthews in 2015. He wasn’t quite yet in the discussion to go first overall in the 2007 NHL Draft, but he was quite clearly the top available NCAA recruit at the time—Boston University and Michigan were considered the two finalists, with BU holding a presumed edge—and was also being heavily pursued by the London Knights of the OHL.

Standing in the way of the NCAA route was that Kane still had another year of high school to complete. There was some effort made towards Kane accelerating his studies to be eligible to play college hockey the next fall, but the best-case scenario was that Kane play the first half of the year either with the Omaha Lancers in the USHL, or with the NTDP and then join a college team for the second semester.

Kane didn’t make his final decision until late-August of that year, but ultimately chose the London Knights. It was probably the logical choice to focus on hockey in his NHL draft year, rather than worrying about cramming in a lot of schoolwork just to play college hockey for what would have likely been a very short amount of time. The move ended up working out. Kane was fantastic with the Knights and ended up going from a solid mid-first round pick to the clear-cut #1 overall player in the draft, and an NHL superstar.

Jamie Benn, Alaska-Fairbanks

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A big part of the reason Alaska-Fairbanks has been able to stay competitive in college hockey despite the multitude of challenges brought on by their location has been their incredible recruiting track record in western Canada. Out of the 11 Nanook alumni to play in the NHL, 10 have come out of western Canada(Shawn Chambers is the one exception), including one of the top young defensemen in the league in Colton Parayko. But their biggest find in western Canada never made it to campus.

Fairbanks recruited Jamie Benn as a 16-year-old out of something called the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, a Jr. B league that has had a handful of alumni eventually go on to play in the NHL, but I struggle to think of any other player that secured an NCAA commitment while playing in the league. For good measure, they also picked a commitment from his older, less heralded brother Jordie as well.

The next year, Benn moved up to the BCHL and had a strong season, which led to him being selected in the fifth round of the NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars. Also that summer, Alaska-Fairbanks head coach Tavis MacMillan unexpectedly resigned from his position, and rather than hiring either of his two assistants at the recommendation of MacMillan, UAF chose to hire Doc DelCastillo, who lasted just one odd, tumultuous season in the role(One of the assistants recommended by MacMillan, Dallas Ferguson, would be hired the following summer and held the job until this summer, when he became head coach of the Calgary Hitmen).

Meanwhile, Kelowna of the WHL was putting on the full-court press for Benn’s services, claiming to offer a faster track to the NHL, especially since Benn would have had to return to the BCHL for another year before being able to play for the Nanooks.

Eventually, Benn relented, signing with the Rockets early that following season. After two strong WHL seasons, Benn jumped straight into the NHL and has become of the game’s premier goal scorers.

Having fewer options than his younger brother, Jordie remained committed to Alaska-Fairbanks, but was never able to make it past the NCAA Clearinghouse. He signed into the ECHL straight out of junior hockey, and worked his way up to play over 300 NHL games.

Chris Pronger, Bowling Green

Chris Pronger skates on the ice

This was well before the era of Twitter, where players publicly announce their college commitments, thank everyone that helped them along the way, and then a 52-year-old man races to leave a picture of himself in tights as the first reply so he can sell more hats. It was a simpler, and arguably better, time. So it’s not really clear how “officially” committed to Bowling Green Chris Pronger was, but there was at least some expectation in the spring of 1991 that Pronger would follow in his older brother Sean’s footsteps to play for the Falcons.

I can’t tell you much about the consensus rankings for the 1991 OHL Draft, but the fact that Pronger, who was already enormous and coming off a season where he averaged over a point per game and nearly 3 PIMs per game in Jr. B hockey, and had represented Ontario at the Canadian Winter Games, fell to the sixth round of the OHL Draft leads me to believe that expectation of him playing college hockey was reasonably strong.

Pronger sat down with his family that summer, however and decided to sign with the Peterborough Petes, and that move ended up paying off for him. Pronger would eventually be selected second overall in the 1993 NHL Draft. The first overall pick in that Draft was Alexandre Daigle, who infamously and unfortunately said “I’m glad I went number one, because no one remembers number two”. Daigle went on to be one of the biggest busts ever selected first overall, while Pronger went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Pronger wasn’t a complete stranger in Bowling Green, however. Three days after his rookie season with the Hartford Whalers ended, Pronger was arrested for driving under the influence by the Ohio State Patrol just outside of Bowling Green while visiting his older brother. It was Pronger’s second arrest in less than a month after being one of seven Whalers involved in a 4AM nightclub brawl in Buffalo in late March, the night before a game against the Sabres(which Hartford lost). Pronger pled no contest to the DUI in Ohio for which he was fined $483 and sentenced to three days in jail. Two weeks after being sentenced to literal jail, Pronger was freed from a figurative jail when the Hartford Whalers fired head coach Pierre McGuire(yes, that one) after just six months, for good reason.

Cam Fowler, Notre Dame

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Rumors of money passed under-the-table to top prospects have been around for a long time in the CHL. Most people in the hockey world accept it as one of those things everybody knows, but nobody really talks about. Every once in a while though, the issue flares to the surface and becomes public.

There was a long time that I said Cam Fowler was the best 15-year-old hockey player I had seen. Since then, only Zach Werenski maybe falls into that category. So when Fowler chose to commit to Notre Dame the September of his OHL Draft year, everyone expected there was still going to be a huge fight for his services once the OHL was able to go after him.

The college commitment dropped Fowler to 18th overall in the 2007 OHL Draft to the Kitchener Rangers. Fowler played the next season with the NTDP U17s and the following spring, with Fowler looking poised to play for the U18s the next year, the Rangers released their rights to Fowler in order to get a second round pick as compensation(which they reportedly needed to complete a previous trade). Fowler went back into the OHL Draft pool and was selected 17th overall by the Windsor Spitfires.

By February of that year, Windsor had convinced Fowler to play the following year, his NHL Draft year, with the Spitfires. The Spitfires, led by the likes of Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Ryan Ellis and Fowler would cruise to a Memorial Cup with what is considered one of the best CHL teams ever.

But what takes this from a generic NCAA/CHL battle to worthy of this list is what happened after Fowler de-committed. In mid-March of 2009, shortly after the news of Fowler’s signing with Windsor became official, Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson was quoted in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record as saying “"Mr. Fowler told me himself that Kitchener put together like a $500,000 package for him" and that he was certain Windsor put together a similar healthy offer. (Fowler’s father publicly denied any such remarks ever happened.)

Kitchener and Windsor immediately fired back, threatening to file a libel lawsuit against Jackson for his claims. Sadly, the case never made it to court.

After the Fowler allegations, and amongst other similar whispers and rumors, the OHL hired a retired police officer to investigate such alleged rules violations. In 2012, the OHL announced a $400,000 fine and a loss of multiple first round draft choices for the Windsor Spitfires for two separate violations of the league’s player benefit and recruitment rules and policies.

John Gibson, Michigan

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In late-2010, Michigan had been in search of a true number one goalie for half-a-decade, ever since Al Montoya signed with the New York Rangers in the summer of 2005. An experiment with 17-year-old Billy Sauer was a failure. Bryan Hogan never developed into anything beyond serviceable. And most notably, the team’s presumptive savior in goal, Jack Campbell had opted to sign with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL the previous winter, releasing a public statement saying that he was looking for a faster route to the NHL.(At time of publish, Campbell has played 80 minutes in the NHL).

Those issues finally seemed to be over when Michigan landed a commitment from John Gibson in December of 2010. Gibson had committed to Ohio State at a young age, but chose to re-open his recruitment when Ohio State fired head coach John Markell in the summer of 2010. It seemed like a perfect fit. Gibson was the top goalie at the NTDP and one of the top-ranked goalies for the 2011 NHL Draft. Michigan was an elite program with immediate playing time to offer.

Gibson never gave any sort of indication that the OHL was a possibility at the 2011 NHL Draft, where he was selected 39th overall. But about a month later, Gibson signed a contract with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, and Michigan was left jilted at the altar for the second straight year by a goalie from the NTDP.

Things ended up working out well for Michigan though. Gibson’s departure opened the door for Shawn Hunwick—a walk-on who had made ten starts the previous season out of sheer desperation—to become the full-time starter. Hunwick was tremendous in the role. He was named the CCHA’s top goalie the following season and led the Wolverines to overtime of the national championship game before falling to Minnesota Duluth.

Hunwick would be a Hobey Baker finalist in his senior season and make a three-minute appearance in a game for the Columbus Blue Jackets to cap off an unlikely career that never would have happened had it not been for two late departures to the CHL.

Honorable Mention

Some good stories that didn’t quite make the cut.

Jeremy Roenick, Boston College

After being selected 8th overall in the 1988 NHL Draft, Roenick infamously spent four days enrolled at Boston College, never playing in an actual game, before choosing to sign with Hull of the QMJHL. In Roenick’s own words:

“My college education consisted of going into one class at Boston College and hearing a professor talk about a “syllabus”. I didn’t know what a syllabus was, and I made up my mind then and there that it was time to sign my first professional hockey contract.”

Sam Gagner, Wisconsin

In the summer of 2005, Sam Gagner and Brendan Smith, two of the top prospects on a loaded Toronto Marlboros U16 team, attended tryout camp for the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL with the intention of playing there. Standing in the way was a relatively recent rule by Hockey Canada stating that Canadians had to receive special release if they were going to play junior hockey outside of the country as a 16-year-old. Gagner’s mother was American, so as a dual-citizen, the rule couldn’t touch him. Smith, on the other hand, had to apply for the release and was denied.

So Gagner played in Sioux City while Smith signed on with the St. Michael’s Buzzers in the OJHL, and the two friends both committed to Wisconsin within weeks of each other the following January.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that Gagner, playing in the United States, was more likely to keep his college commitment than Smith, who would constantly have the OHL in his ear playing in Ontario. The opposite turned out to be true.

Gagner had one of the best individual years ever for a 16-year-old in the USHL up to that point, but had a miserable time playing for a bad Sioux City team. That summer, the London Knights offered an assistant coaching position to Gagner’s father Dave(a job he’d only hold for two years), and Sam signed with the Knights. Smith held his commitment and went on to have a nice three-year career with Wisconsin that culminated with a breakout junior campaign in which he was an All-American, Hobey Baker finalist, and helped Wisconsin reach the national title game.

Scott Gomez, Colorado College

Gomez was a scoring phenom as a youngster playing high school hockey in Anchorage, Alaska, and that success continued when he made the jump to play for South Surrey of the BCHL in 1996-97, scoring 124 points in 54 games as a rookie. He was a highly-recruited NCAA prospect and ended up accepting a scholarship to Colorado College. The Tigers were just coming off an appearance in the national title game and had strong Alaska connections. Head coach Don Lucia had previously spent time as head coach at Alaska-Fairbanks while assistant coach John Hill had been an assistant coach at Alaska-Anchorage during Gomez’s time in high school. The Tigers’ star player, Brian Swanson, was also an Anchorage-area native.

Gomez seemed destined to follow the NCAA path. The Tri-City Americans of the WHL had spotted Gomez in a tournament in Seattle as a bantam and selected him in the fifth round of the 1995 WHL Bantam Draft, but relinquished his rights and the following year Spokane took a chance on him drafting him in the 9th round. With Gomez seemingly headed to Colorado College, the Chiefs also gave up their rights to Gomez.

But while in South Surrey, Gomez’s billet family happened to be good friends with Tri-City owner Ron Toigo. Together, they convinced Gomez on the WHL route. Gomez said it took some work to talk his parents into giving up a college scholarship, but he eventually did sign with the Tri-City Americans and went on to a great NHL career that spanned over 1000 games.

Max Domi, Michigan

Domi was a top prospect for the 2011 OHL Draft. All indications heading into the draft were that Domi wanted to be a London Knight, and that was the only OHL team that he would play for.

Standing in the way of that was Kingston and newly-hired general manager Doug Gilmour, who was looking to revitalize the struggling franchise. The Frontenacs selected Domi 8th overall, one spot before the Knights’ first draft choice. Gilmour was perhaps banking on his relationship with his former teammate, Max’s father Tie, to help sway the younger Domi. But the final call on where Max would play was made by Max and his mother, who Tie had gone through a messy divorce with five years prior after Tie was outed for having an affair with a member of Canadian Parliament. And they seemed to have little interest in Kingston.

Twitter was still a relatively nascent medium in the spring of 2011. The “Proud to announce my commitment to (Blank). Thanks to everyone that helped me along the way.” cookie-cutter form had not yet taken hold, so instead, we got this exchange from Domi and some random internet bro shortly after the OHL Draft(all very, very much [sic]):

[Justin Marco:]@max_domi yo are u gonna play for kingston?

[Max Domi:]@jjmarks16 naw man im not playing for kingston... heading down to the ushl and playing for inde i think

[Max Domi:]@jjmarks16 ya man im heading down to michigan u in 2 years

By the end of the week, there were rumors that Kingston had made their pitch, failed, and that had a deal had been worked out to move Domi to the London Knights. Domi deleted the tweets pertaining to the USHL and Michigan, though the internet never forgets.

Kingston held onto Domi’s rights just long enough to officially say he didn’t report to the club and collect a compensatory draft pick. Generally, giving compensatory picks to clubs that top prospects won’t report to is the equivalent of getting free meal coupons from a restaurant that gave you food poisoning. Although in this case, Kingston used that compensatory pick to select Sam Bennett. The collection of draft picks Kingston yielded in trading Domi to London didn’t amount to much, though after using the 23rd overall pick acquired from London in the trade on Dylan DiPerna in the 2012 OHL Draft, Kingston used their own draft pick at 24th overall to select Spencer Watson, who led the team in scoring in 2015-16 when the Fronts finished in first place in their division and won their first playoff series since 1998. That paled in comparison to the big-money Knights though, who won the OHL Championship in Domi’s first year with the club.

And The Rest

Academic Graveyard

Guys that tried to play college hockey, but didn’t have the grades to make it

Keith Yandle, New Hampshire

Yandle was set to join older brother Brian at New Hampshire, but the summer before enrolling, he was denied by UNH admissions. After Yandle couldn’t get in to New Hampshire, Maine made a late push to try to get him into school, but he just wasn’t cut out for college. Moncton of the QMJHL traded for his rights and was able to snag the talented defenseman.

Jason Bacashihua, Michigan

When Jason Bacashihua, a top young goalie, committed to Michigan for the ‘01-’02 season—the senior year of incumbent starting goalie Josh Blackburn—it was a noted departure from Red Berenson’s history of handing his starting job to a freshman, then riding him for four straight years, as he had done with Warren Sharples, Steve Shields, Marty Turco, and Josh Blackburn over the previous 15 years(give-or-take a buckeye nut-induced injury in the case of Blackburn).

That insurance policy turned out to be fortuitous for Michigan. Bacashihua lacked the necessary grades to be eligible at Michigan, so he opted into the NHL Draft as an 18-year-old(back when that was a thing), which forfeited his NCAA eligibility.

Bacashihua was a surprise first round NHL Draft pick, but drafting goalies can be fickle, and Bacashihua only ended up with 38 career NHL games played, winning only seven. Desperate for a starting goalie for the following season, Michigan gambled on an elite 17-year-old in Al Montoya, who went on to a decent NHL career of his own.

Jared Boll, Minnesota Duluth

Boll wasn’t able to get into UMD in 2005. Originally, there was talk that he would defer a year by playing another year in the USHL, but instead, he opted to sign in the OHL, and has since carved out a decent NHL career as a professional face-puncher.

Kevin Labanc, Notre Dame

Labanc committed to Notre Dame at a young age, but after two years at the NTDP, didn’t have the grades for Notre Dame and the school pulled his scholarship offer.

That Extra Year of High School

More examples of players that graduated out of the NTDP program, but weren’t yet eligible to play college hockey that ended up going to the CHL instead.

Peter Mueller, Minnesota

Big and skilled, Mueller was a young hockey prodigy. As an ‘88 birthdate, he joined the NTDP program a year early with the ‘87 age group(a practice the NTDP no longer utilizes). That presented a problem though when Mueller played two years in Ann Arbor, and not wanting to spend a third year with the program, still had a year of high school to complete. Mueller flirted with the idea of playing for Sioux City in the USHL(the same summer of the Gagner/Smith situation mentioned earlier), but ended up choosing to play for the Everett Silvertips in the WHL.

The loss seemed much bigger at the time than it ended up being. When he signed, Mueller was in the early conversation to be selected first overall in the 2006 NHL Draft, but a so-so draft year with Everett dropped him to eighth overall, and Mueller’s NHL career never lived up to its’ considerable promise.

Reid Boucher, Michigan State

This was always kind of a weird one to me. Boucher was a Lansing-area native that committed to the Spartans at a fairly young age. He was selected in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Draft, and even though he had another year of high school to finish up, he seemed firm on playing for Youngstown in the USHL before going to Michigan State, despite this guy from Canadian TV practically begging him to go to the CHL in this draft day interview. Just over a month later though, Boucher was a member of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.

Ryan Hartman, Miami

Hartman attempted to accelerate his schooling by finishing his last two years of high school in his final year at the NTDP, but couldn’t get it done, leaving him with the option of playing his NHL draft year either in Dubuque of the USHL, or with Plymouth in the OHL. Factoring into the choice was that Hartman’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after moving to Ann Arbor with Ryan when he joined the NTDP. Staying in the area with Plymouth allowed Ryan to be close to his mother while she continued to receive treatment at the University of Michigan.

Drafted Then Bolted

Guys that broke college commitments after being taken in the NHL Draft

Sonny Milano, Boston College

Boston College seemed to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat in November of 2013 when, during the fall NLI signing period, it came out that Sonny Milano, one of the top forwards at the NTDP, had switched his commitment from Notre Dame to instead sign with the Eagles, creating a minor controversy about NCAA hockey’s so-called “gentleman’s agreement” to not recruit players already committed to other schools.

There were rumors swirling that Milano was a threat to bolt to the OHL. But Milano re-affirmed his commitment at the NHL Draft in June, and at USA Hockey’s World Juniors summer camp in early August. Less than two weeks after the USA camp, Milano signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets, voiding his collegiate eligibility. Milano spent the majority of the next season with the Whalers in the OHL.

Phil Housley, Minnesota

I’m not sure how formal Housley’s commitment to the University of Minnesota ever was but it was almost guaranteed that if he had played college hockey, it would have been at Minnesota. But plans changed when Buffalo Sabres head coach/general manager Scotty Bowman watched Housley play a high school game, and immediately became convinced to select Housley in the first round of the NHL Draft and decided to insert him in the Sabres line-up as an 18-year-old.

John Carlson, UMass

Zemgus Girgensons, Vermont

Girgensons committed to Vermont at a young age and seemed determined to keep that commitment, passing on serious offers from the CHL and KHL, but after being selected 14th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, Girgensons signed with the Buffalo Sabres. He spent the next season in the AHL, but was an NHL regular by his second year as a pro.

John Moore, Colorado College

JT Miller, North Dakota

Patrick Sieloff, Miami

Technically, Sieloff broke his commitment to Miami by signing with the Windsor Spitfires three weeks prior to the NHL Draft. Injuries have plagued his career since leaving the NTDP, but he did score a goal in the only NHL game he officially appeared in.

Connor Carrick, Michigan

Most of the focus in the summer of 2012 was on Michigan’s other defensive recruit from the NTDP program, Jacob Trouba, who was caught in the middle of a fierce battle between Michigan and the Kitchener Rangers. But one week after the NHL Draft, it was the less-regarded Carrick, who was selected in the 5th round by Washington, that signed in the OHL after Plymouth traded for his rights.

Christian Fischer, Notre Dame

In August of 2015, shortly after Notre Dame’s freshman orientation had started, Fischer signed an NHL deal with the Arizona Coyotes and spent most of the following season with the Windsor Spitfires.

Michael McCarron, Western Michigan

McCarron had one of the more bizarre recruitments in recent history. He committed to Michigan State at a young age. After de-committing from the Spartans, there were strong rumors that he was headed to Cornell to play with his older brother John(I’m not sure he ever officially committed there, as much as these things can be “official”), and then ended up committing to Western Michigan. He was enrolled at Western Michigan and spent the summer before his freshman season working out in Kalamazoo, but after being selected in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, he signed an NHL contract and ended up playing in the OHL.

Connor Murphy, Miami

Stefan Matteau, North Dakota

Matteau had his QMJHL rights traded to Blainville-Boisbriand, where his father was an assistant coach, in January of his final year of NTDP. Matteau announced that he would not be attending North Dakota and would instead play in the QMJHL.

After being drafted late in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Matteau signed with the New Jersey Devils and in a surprise, made the team coming out of training camp, playing 17 games in the lockout-shortened season.

He was returned to Blaineville-Boisbriand for their playoff run, but things did not go so smoothly:

In the quarterfinals against the Val-d’Or Foreurs, Matteau reportedly incited an incident in the post-series handshake line when he pretended to swing a golf club, signifying the start of an offseason of golf for the losing team.

Then, in Game 2 of the semifinals against Baie-Comeau Drakkar, Matteau took what was viewed as an undisciplined penalty which led to the deciding goal.

Unhappy about being benched, Matteau exchanged words with coach Jean-Francois Houle and did not take the team bus home. Both he and his father, former NHLer and Blainville-Boisbriand assistant coach Stephane Matteau, rode home on the supporters’ bus. The elder Matteau said it was because they didn't want to wait for a flight the following day.

Blainville-Boisbriand Armada GM and owner Joel Bouchard released the young winger minutes after the game.

Trevor Lewis, Michigan

Passed over in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility, Lewis had a breakout season in his second year in the USHL. He committed to Michigan just before Christmas of 2005, and steadily rose up NHL Draft rankings until he was selected 17th overall in the 2006 NHL Draft by Los Angeles. Weeks after the NHL Draft, the Kings signed him to a contract and ended his NCAA eligibility, denying Michigan their top recruit.

Later that fall, the Kings traded for the rights to Jack Johnson from Carolina after Johnson opted to return to Michigan for his sophomore season rather than sign with the Hurricanes. Four years later, when discussing Johnson, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi would rip into Michigan head coach Red Berenson for what he perceived as a lack of coaching at Michigan.

Pre-CHL Draft Leverage

Guys that committed to an NCAA school prior to being drafted into the CHL and ended up signing in the CHL. I actually thought there would be more of these, but the Garrett Clarke-to-Matt Duchene ratio here is enormously high.

Matt Duchene, Michigan State

Matt Duchene was already considered one of the best players in the world for his age group when he committed to Michigan State at age 15. Many figured there was absolutely no chance a player of his skill level would hold off on the OHL for two years just to play college hockey. Working in Michigan State’s favor was a connection to the program—Duchene’s uncle, Spartan alum and NHL assistant coach Newell Brown, had connected Duchene with Michigan State—and he was reportedly very academic-minded. But after being selected fifth overall by Brampton in the OHL, Duchene opted to sign in the OHL.

Anthony DeAngelo, Boston University

DeAngelo played in an era when players were allowed to play in junior hockey as 15-year-olds, and in fact, because of his late birthday, he actually played a month for the Cedar Rapids Roughriders as a 14-year-old. DeAngelo made a commitment to Boston University during that season, but the odds of him playing another three years in the USHL just to be eligible for NCAA hockey seemed very unlikely.

When he was finally eligible for the OHL Draft that spring, he fell to the second round and Sarnia, a team he had worked out a deal with and ended up signing with the Sting.

It may have been for the best. Talented as he is, character issues have plagued DeAngelo both through his OHL and pro career. Suspensions for racist and homophobic slurs got him suspended in the OHL and caused him to slip in the 2014 NHL Draft. He’s been suspended multiple times as a pro for similar issues as well.

Austin Watson, Maine

Watson was desperate to get any sort of an NCAA commitment to use as leverage and make sure he landed where he wanted in the OHL. He committed to Maine three months before the OHL Draft, though few believed he would ever actually end up in Orono. Two months after falling to Windsor in the first round of the OHL Draft, Watson signed with the Spitfires.

Anthony Peluso, Nebraska Omaha

During his time as an assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha, Doc DelCastillo was on the forefront of taking younger commitments, and took a lot of high-risk guys that never panned out.(The first player born in the ‘90s to make a college commitment was to UNO, a virtually unknown Norwegian named Fredrik Csisar that never made it to Omaha.)

Anthony Peluso was far from unknown. Already well over six feet tall and pretty skilled as a 15-year-old, Peluso was arguably the highest-profile player to commit to Nebraska-Omaha at that point. But the OHL Draft later that year would be a major obstacle that the Mavericks were unable to clear. Peluso ended up being selected 10th overall by Erie and signed shortly after. He never developed much scoring touch in the OHL—39 goals in 246 career games—but stayed just as big, which was good enough to earn him 142 games in the NHL.

Made a commitment, got good, went to CHL

Guys that committed to NCAA schools before they were big names, but ended up being wooed by the CHL once their stock started to rise.

Ryan Johansen, Northeastern

Johansen was a later-round WHL Draft pick by the Portland Winterhawks. As a 16-year-old, he was invited to Portland’s training camp, but told he wasn’t likely to make the team. Instead he went to play for Penticton in the BCHL, where he put up modest numbers, though showed strong improvement throughout the year, and was given a scholarship to Northeastern.

That summer, newly-hired Winterhawks general manager Mike Johnston convinced Johansen to give up his scholarship and sign with the Winterhawks. It didn’t seem like a huge deal at the time. It was completely off my radar, and I can’t find much reference to it at the time. But Johansen blew up in his rookie year with Portland and ended up being selected fourth overall in the following summer’s NHL Draft. He has since gone on to become one of the better young scorers in the NHL.

Alex DeBrincat, UMass

DeBrincat hasn’t officially made the NHL yet, but the odds look good enough that we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The story usually goes that DeBrincat was plucked from complete obscurity to become an OHL superstar, which isn’t really the case. In his CHL/USHL draft year, DeBrincat was the leading scorer on his Victory Honda U16 team, which played in the very tough T1EHL. He was a second round USHL Futures Draft selection of the Waterloo Blackhawks, and in August of that summer, committed to UMass. He was a very good player, but had been overlooked by the OHL because of his diminutive size.

The next season, DeBrincat went to Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, which is usually about as far off the OHL radar as you can get. But in February of that year, Lake Forest head coach Darrin Madeley—a former Lake Superior State goalie—took his team up to the Soo for a pair of games. While in the Soo, Madeley mentioned DeBrincat’s name to Erie GM Sherry Bassin, who had been the GM or the Soo Greyhounds in the early ‘90s when Madeley as at Lake Superior State(Bassin was the guy that drafted Eric Lindros for SSM). Bassin was extremely impressed with DeBrincat and made it a mission to get him signed to the Otters.

The Otters quietly let DeBrincat slip through the OHL Draft again two months later, then quickly signed him as a free agent two weeks after the draft. DeBrincat put up huge numbers as a rookie playing alongside Connor McDavid, then continued his incredible scoring pace even after McDavid departed for the NHL. He became the second OHL player ever to have three 50-goal seasons, and was named the OHL player of the year for 2016-2017.

Eric O’Dell, St. Cloud State/Jason Akeson, Clarkson

In 2007, the 17-year-old duo of Eric O’Dell and Jason Akeson were tearing up the CJHL together with the Cumberland Grads. Neither had been highly-sought as youngsters. O’Dell was a 10th round pick in the 2006 OHL Draft, Akeson was passed over completely in his first year, then selected in the 7th round by Kitchener the following season after a decent rookie year in Cumberland. But in a league usually dominated by older players, the two players were each in the top seven in league scoring. O’Dell made a commitment to St. Cloud State, Akeson never officially committed but was extremely close to accepting an offer from Clarkson.

But on January 10, 2008, literally hours before the OHL’s trade and signing deadline, O’Dell’s OHL rights were traded to Sudbury and both O’Dell and Akeson, who shared an advisor, signed with their respective CHL teams. O’Dell had a great draft year in Sudbury and made Canada’s World U18 championships team before being picked in the second round of the NHL Draft. Akeson went undrafted, but scored over 100 points in his final year in the OHL. Both players ended up getting cups of coffee in the NHL.

Justin Bailey, Michigan State

Bailey committed to the Spartans, but after a summer time visit to Kitchener, which was relatively close to his hometown of Buffalo, Bailey decided to sign with the Rangers.

Wayne Simmonds, Bowling Green

Simmonds was passed over twice in the OHL Draft. But after a strong season with Brockville in the CJHL, Simmonds was selected by Owen Sound, and they convinced him to pass on a scholarship offer he had accepted to Bowling Green. After a good rookie year with Owen Sound, Attack GM Mike Futa was hired by the Los Angeles Kings as their director of amateur scouting and the Kings selected Simmonds in the second round of the NHL Draft and he broke into the NHL two years later.

Mark Scheifele, Cornell

Scheifele was a 7th round draft choice of Saginaw in the OHL, but was cut by the Spirit as a 16-year-old rookie. After a good rookie season in the GOJHL, Scheifele made a commitment to Cornell, where he was very interested in their physiology program. Scheifele turned down an offer from Saginaw to join their team, so they traded Scheifele’s rights to Barrie, and the Colts were able to convince him to sign in the OHL.


Not everybody is a type

Christian Dvorak, Wisconsin

In hindsight, this was the beginning of the end for Mike Eaves at Wisconsin. For years, people had pointed out the large number of seniors Wisconsin would be losing after the 2013-2013 season, and that the recruits they had lined up to replace them were not of the same caliber. That problem grew even worse in August of 2013 when the top recruit in that class, Christian Dvorak, opted to sign with London of the OHL.

The Badger team Dvorak would have been a freshman on won just four games, and then eight games the following year, after which, Eaves was fired.

Matt Lashoff, Boston University

Lashoff committed to Boston University as a 16-year-old, which by the standard of those days, was really young, probably a little too young in Lashoff’s case. After one season with the NTDP, Kitchener traded for Lashoff’s rights and convinced him to sign that summer.

Matt Tkachuk, Notre Dame

In the fall of Tkachuk’s final season with the NTDP, it was announced that he was no longer committed to Notre Dame. Tkachuk claimed he was re-opening his recruitment, but when pressed on the matter, couldn’t name another school he planned on visiting or even another school he might be interested in. As everyone expected, he signed with the London Knights after his season with the NTDP ended.

Seth Jones, North Dakota

Jones never officially committed to North Dakota, but in the spring of 2012 when he was deciding where to play in his NHL Draft year, he had narrowed his options down to the WHL or North Dakota. When Jones’ WHL rights were traded from Everett to Portland in May of that year, Jones decided to play for the Winterhawks instead of going to North Dakota.

Adam Erne, Boston University

Erne committed to Boston University as a 15-year-old, one week after the Terriers picked up a commitment from Anthony DeAngelo. He was drafted by Halifax in the QMJHL, and after a season, had his rights traded to Patrick Roy and Quebec, with whom he eventually signed.

Most interesting about Erne is how he actually ended up in the QMJHL. A native of Connecticut, Erne was born in QMJHL territory, but moved to Los Angeles as a 13-year-old to play hockey for the LA Selects program. The WHL tried to claim Erne in their Bantam Draft, but the QMJHL petitioned the CHL to classify Erne as being from QMJHL territory and won.

Lucas Lessio, Michigan

Lessio was a first round OHL draft choice of the Niagara Ice Dogs in 2009. In the fall of 2009, Lessio opted to leave their training camp in order to play for the St. Michael’s Buzzers of the OJHL with an eye towards preserving NCAA eligibility. Shortly after, he committed to Michigan.

But the following summer, Lessio’s OHL rights were acquired by the Oshawa Generals, who had recently hired former St. Mike’s coach Chris DePiero. Heading into his NHL Draft year, Lessio had little left to prove in the OJHL after a strong rookie season, and wasn’t interested in playing for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL, so he signed with the Generals.