NHL woes could do college game good

Matt Perkins

The NHL and the Players’ Association are continuing talks but have not yet come to an agreement on labor dispute issues.

But a situation which has been viewed as having a negative impact on hockey might, in fact, be helping deter young high school and college athletes from leaving early to make the big bucks.

It doesn’t hurt that the monetary value of an NHL rookie looks to be drastically decreased when all is said and done.

And with labor disputes delaying any possibility of a 2005 NHL Entry Draft, which was supposed to take place this coming Sunday and Monday, Gophers coach Don Lucia can’t help but notice the benefits.

“I think (the labor disputes) affected our team more last year, because people wanted to go out there and get signed to get under last year’s rookie (salary) cap figures,” he said.

College hockey is just as much a business as the NHL, Lucia said, and high school and college athletes who get drafted early have to weigh the benefits of each.

Currently, NHL owners are against a rookie cap system, which allows incentive-based bonuses to be handed out to rookies across the league, and are looking to change the system during lockout negotiations.

If incentive-based bonuses were limited, restricted or prohibited by any agreement, it could mean more high school and college talent would try and stick around a bit longer before making the leap to the professional ranks.

“If things were different, then my decision to leave early may have been different,” said Keith Ballard, former Gophers defenseman. “If someone tells you that the money doesn’t matter, then I don’t know how much they are telling you. It matters.”

Ballard, who was drafted 11th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, decided to leave for the NHL after his junior year with the Gophers in 2003-04. He was later traded to the Colorado Avalanche.

Other early exits that could’ve played for the Gophers this last year include Thomas Vanek, who was the fifth overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2003 draft, and Jake Taylor, who was drafted in the sixth round by the New York Rangers in 2002.

But Ballard said he doesn’t regret his decision for a moment, even with the lockout’s dark cloud still hanging over the NHL.

“Hockey-wise, I was ready for the challenge,” Ballard said. “You can look at what the team would have been and would have done, but what I miss the most is the locker room and just hanging out with the guys every day at practice.”

The Gophers have three 2005 draft hopefuls in Nate Hagemo and incoming freshmen Jeff Frazee and Ryan Stoa. They have nine players on their roster who have already been drafted and have the opportunity to leave early for the NHL if it returns soon.

But Lucia said he is fairly confident that because of the current negotiations and the situation in the NHL, he won’t lose any non-seniors going in to the 2005-06 campaign.

And junior Danny Irmen, the Minnesota Wild’s third-round draft pick in 2003, agrees completely.

“I really think that college hockey is great,” Irmen said. “Not just the hockey part, but the school and the college life. The guys that don’t play college hockey really miss the college life and all the friends you meet. And with no NHL I really don’t see anybody leaving early to go play in the AHL like the year before.”