Follow The Leader…

Thunderstorms left USHL commissioner Skip Prince stranded for hours in an airport on Friday until he reached his hotel in Pittsburgh for the NHL Draft.

Prince used every cell phone battery in reach to find out how many players in the USHL had been taken. He was talking about the league’s fruitful exhibition in the first round before talking about the second round, which starts Saturday.

“We have high hopes for those players in the second round,” Prince said. “Like Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota). He’s a guy-”

That’s when Prince was informed Schmaltz, the Green Bay Gamblers defenseman, had been taken in the first round. Prince was blown away admitting he didn’t know Schmaltz had been taken 25th overall.

Prince chalked it up to only checking to the 23rd pick.

It was in that moment where Prince, like many, was surprised yet pleased with the remarkable night had by the USHL. A record seven USHL players/prospects were taken in the first round. Dubuque had the strongest showing of any non-NTDP team as it had three players/prospects selected.

Forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and defenseman Mike Matheson (Boston College) were the bread in the Fighting Saints’ draft sandwich. Prospect forward Ryan Jankowski (Providence) was also taken.

It was then reported by The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy that Jankowski, nephew of Montreal Canadiens scout Ryan Jankowski, would play for the Fighting Saints next year. Jankowski will be the second-ever first-round pick to come into the USHL and play a season.

Blake Wheeler was the first when he was drafted by the Green Bay Gamblers in 2004 when he was the fifth overall selection.

NTDP trio Jacob Trouba (Michigan), Brady Skjei (Minnesota) and Stefan Matteau rounded out the seven picks from the USHL to go in the first round. For those wondering, that’s 23 percent or nearly a quarter of the entire first round having ties to a league constantly jockeying against a Major Junior model which is often billed as the faster track to a NHL future.

It is a dominant figure for the QMJHL, which only had one first-round pick this season after having five last season. Werger said this year’s first round surpasses the previous high of four taken in the opening round.

“It is a lot of hard work,” Prince said. “The programs we are talking about needed to be a lot more soundly promoted and delivered to high-end prospects. We think there were others we lost in the last years or so. And hopefully, one of these players taken tonight can show the next 200 or 300 players out there the USHL isn’t the equivalent of the safe school but a power to be reckoned with.”

Prince said repeatedly he hopes what happened Friday is the latest step in showing that the American development model does have its positives.

Depending upon the source, the American development model has had its critics on both sides of the spectrum. Proponents believe the model can compete because it allows players a chance to develop and spend more time in the weight room along with playing against competition which could be anywhere from three to five years older.

Opponents, on the other hand, have said the model should be used for talents who need longer to develop and that the Major Junior model is a more affective plan given its history of producing major stars and the willingness of NHL teams sending their players to junior programs.

“We knew from the beginning of the year this was going to be a strong round for us,” Prince said.

It appeared the USHL could have a strong year as it had a plethora of players listed on NHL Central Scouting’s pre-season watch list with a number which matched that of the OHL, WHL and QMJHL.

Then there was the profile of existing and arriving players.

Girgensons, Schmaltz and Fargo Force defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), a likely late second or early third round pick, were billed as the three players to watch in the latter half of the 2010-11 season by NHL Central Scouting’s Jack Barzee.

The NTDP, a hotbed for first-round picks, were already being considered to have numerous picks given its reputation and the players it already possessed.

Yet the league received a serious jolt when Matheson, a native of Point-Claire, Que., opted against the QMJHL to come to the USHL, a move which was seen as the American model working its way into French Canada.

And of course, came the story of the season when fellow Quebecois Kevin Roy (Brown) chose the Lincoln Stars and went on to have a 108-point season defying the status of the USHL being a defensive-minded league where a 50-point season was considered a success.

Roy is also slated to be taken on Saturday.

“I love what this league stands for,” Prince said. “But like every good Broadway show you need first-and second-rounders who bring sixth-and seventh-rounders in and kids who won’t get drafted but will sign a free agent contract. Today is one of those good days.”

Hell Of A Life…

Regardless of what league it is, you never really get ample opportunities to speak with a commissioner.

Fortunately, I caught USHL commissioner Skip Prince at the right time. He was driving back from Dallas where he was speaking to area youth about the option which exists in the USHL/college model.

We talked about Texas, a place dear to both of us because each of us lived there. We spoke on a subject for a story that’s coming out a little bit later. We then talked about Seth Jones.

If you’ve read or not read this blog or any hockey blog as of late, Seth Jones is a 6-3, 205-pound defenseman who could screw around and be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

Or as Prince put it, “I’ve had people involved in hockey tell me he could be one of the 25 greatest players over the last 50 years by the time he’s done.”

The conversation continued about Jones and Prince brought up how he hopes it all doesn’t become too much for Jones. By too much, he means the media exposure, the talk about being No. 1 overall and being the face of a movement.

Movement, in this case, being the black face of a sport which has been predominantly white.

Or as I put it to Prince, “You mean trying to be the Tiger Woods of hockey?”

Seth Jones hasn’t been drafted. He hasn’t played in the NHL. He hasn’t even played in the WHL yet these are the questions so many have slightly discussed but it seems like no one ever outright wants to say it.

Can Seth Jones bring about an entire change? Can this kid be the one who goes from being a “black” hockey player to just a hockey player?

Even while writing this, I realize it is a hell of a thing to ask of anyone let alone someone who is still a teenager. But let’s face it. That’s the situation he and the rest of us are all looking at.

Let’s assume, even for a minute, Seth Jones is everything we all think he is going to be and more.

He’s going to be that player fans – regardless of race -are going to want to see. He’s going to be the player kids are going to annoy their parents about and eventually bug them into submission into playing hockey.

Call me or this column far-fetched, but that’s the exact impact Woods had on golf when he broke into the PGA what’s been 16 years ago. Golf, for anyone who played it before Woods, was seen as a game for the rich, the stuffy, the privileged and rarely did you see anyone outside the country club crowd playing the game.

Films such as “Caddyshack” and “Happy Gilmore” are proof of how restricted the sport was with its fan base.

Yet when Woods broke in, he attracted everyone to the point where anyone who wanted to play golf could play golf and when it came to youth, his First Tee program gave them options.

To even suggest Jones could have that impact is taking a big gamble, but what if we’re right?

Say what you want but, for now, it appears Seth Jones has all the tools needed to pull this off and bridge the gap. When he was deciding between the WHL and the NCAA, he made it clear to both sides what his intentions were. That alone made many people achieve a respect for him because he was honest with what he was doing and didn’t commit only to decommit, leaving a school in peril.

Covering this league, you hear things about players and no one has ever said a negative thing about him. The only negative I’ve heard even remotely close is, “You wish there were more like him.”

Maybe if there were more like him we’d already be at a point where this discussion wouldn’t need to happen. Where we wouldn’t see hockey try to prove time in and time out it has evolved with diversity only to have incidents such as the one with Joel Ward happen.

But because there is one Seth Jones, it could make what we see even that more impressive.

 

Lift Off…

Scott Monaghan, an official with the National Team Development Program, said Wednesday the program “wasn’t thrilled” with the idea of the USHL introducing its tender system but realizes the objective to strengthen the league as a whole.

The new system allows USHL clubs to acquire what are considered to be the elite 15-year-old players in America a year early in the hopes of recruiting players and keeping them from going the Major Junior route or choosing the NTDP, which is said to be the best program for top American players, as an option.

Fargo became the first franchise to use the system with the team signing defenseman Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) on Monday. Green Bay, on Wednesday, followed suit by signing forward Brendan Lemieux (North Dakota) for next season.

USHL Commissioner Skip Prince said in late December the system was created to allow USHL clubs to compete with the CHL and the NTDP but the program was not designed to be an, “anti-NTDP effort.”

Monaghan, who is the senior director of operations for the NTDP, said even if a player signs a tender, the option is still there for the player to accept an invite from the NTDP. He said doing that, however, puts the player in a tough choice when it comes to honoring a commitment.

“In the big picture, we want to have the best 22 kids,” Monaghan said. “There are going to be some kids in our program who are going to get passed up by guys we didn’t select and that’s because the (USHL) and its teams are doing a good job in developing players. Overall, we weren’t thrilled about it, but we understand they are doing this to augment player development and the bigger push is trying to salvage kids from going north of the border.”

Monaghan said as the league was creating the tender process, the NTDP was made aware of what was going on.

Even Monaghan said the NTDP is a “different animal” compared to other USHL teams. Though the NTDP does get a chance to select the nation’s top incoming talent, it is hindered by other problems other USHL teams don’t face.

The NTDP cannot make trades and players can only stay in the program for two seasons before aging out whereas players can stick with a regular USHL team until they are 20 or in some cases, 21 years old.

Another thing which makes the NTDP so different is their schedule. Both the U-17 and U-18 teams play a USHL schedule but it is also littered with international competition. Or in the U-18′s case, they face college teams in exhibition games.

“We try to stress to them winning games in the domestic schedule is important,” he said. “But it is never to bypass the concept of developing them whether its putting them in a position to score goals, running the power play or getting everyone an equal amount of ice time.”

Another point he made was whether a player goes to the NTDP or another team in the USHL, the goal should be to educate someone on the options they have.

Monaghan said the NTDP, which interacts with 13 and 14-year-olds, often talks about how if a kid does not get invited to the program they’ll still receive good development playing in the USHL.

The NTDP is now in the final year of its three-year deal with the USHL. Monaghan was asked if the NTDP will be part of the USHL fold for next season.

“That’s a Skip Prince question, but I believe we are going to continue going forward with the league,” he said. “Overall, we are happy with it and it is a good thing for us and a good thing for the league. It has raised visibility for the league and it has drawn scouts. On a Friday night when our U-18s play against USHL teams, they are getting exposed to 30 to 40 college and pro scouts. We might be in a goofy, little community rink but at the end of the day, it is about getting kids exposed and that has been very valuable for the league.”

Long Distance Call…

Back for a second time today and that’s because USHL commissioner Skip Prince has got some people talking.

Prince wrote an open letter to “The Pipeline Show” addressing a number of items such as the differences between the USHL and the CHL along with the possibility of seeing a USHL-CHL game.

The letter was written to supplement an interview that was done on “The Pipeline Show” on Saturday with USHL spokesman Brian Werger. Prince said this afternoon that he didn’t expect the letter to take off like it did.

“What spawned the discussion is the continuing sense that the USHL is and will be recognized as Junior ‘A’ hockey,” Prince said. “The Junior ‘A’ leagues in Canada are handicapped by Major Junior but when the Canadian fan searches to find an easy analogy, it is that we are different.”

Prince added later, “I frankly thought it was good to get it from the horse’s mouth.”

Prince, who was at the league office in Chicago, talked for 20 minutes about a multitude of subjects such as the USHL’s image and the possibility of there being a USHL-CHL game of some type.

He admitted that there has been discussions within the USHL at various levels and discussions with CHL commissioner Dave Branch about a USHL team playing a CHL team.

“The Tier I standards articulate promoting in the future, participation in the Memorial Cup,” Prince said. “And that was 10 years ago. It’s not like we’ve been diligently trying to operate a league that will be competitive in the Memorial Cup. We have a system that’s about delivering kids to the 58 D-1 institutions that play college hockey.”

In regard to his talk with Branch, Prince recalled something he once discussed with his counterpart.

“I started with asking him directly,” said Prince, who has known Branch for many years, “What have you got to win and lose here?”

Prince didn’t give a timeline on when and if a game would occur but he did say there would be plenty challenges that would come with it.

He outlined how both CHL teams and USHL teams play different schedules. Though the CHL plays 12 more games than the USHL, it has a quicker season. The CHL also has games that are played in the middle of the week.

The USHL, on the other hand, plays 60 games a season with the majority coming on the weekend. Prince said to get a game going would mean having to alter schedules for both leagues and, in the case of the CHL, a TV date that’s already been agreed upon.

Prince then brought up the point that if a USHL team were to play a CHL team, they’d have to get clearance from the NCAA.

“If we were to play, who’s rules would we play under?” he said. “If we were playing against NHL signees, we’d have to get an NCAA dispensation because we’d be playing pros.”

Nonetheless, Prince said even with those obstacles he’d be for a game between the two leagues in the hopes of taking what he called “the vicious nationalism” out of the game.

Yet there was one theme that existed in the conversation with Prince and that was the USHL’s image.

Prince said that the CHL is a good league that has done a great job of marketing itself while the USHL is a great league that has done a good job of marketing itself.

“The message we have tended to send in the past really has seemed to sound as if the USHL and college is your choice because you don’t think you are going to make it into the pros and this is an insurance policy,” Prince said. “To a 14-or 15-year-old, we talk to them about their choices. Every one of them is elite and they should think they have a shot of making it to the NHL.”

Prince said the league has worked towards explaining to youth that the USHL provides more options because it gives a player a chance to attend college where as the Major Junior route forces a player to put, “all your eggs in one basket” because college eligibility would be surrendered.

The USHL’s top boss was very complimentary of the Major Junior system in regards to how it markets itself and the type of affect it does have.

Prince admitted that because Major Junior has been around and has become so entrenched in hockey culture, that many youth grow up hearing about the system in the United States and Canada.

He then added that the USHL/college model hasn’t had that long-standing history of being engrained in the hockey culture for some like Major Junior.

“There isn’t an NCAA hockey team to follow in Florida, Texas or California where you’re starting to see more hockey players,” Prince said. “We have to introduce college hockey. A lot of it is what people see and read. By the time a kid is 14 or 15 years old, he knows the last two or three Memorial Cup winners and he knows where Sidney Crosby came from. But he may not know the last three winners of the Clark Cup or where John Carlson came from.”

Playing with my delirium…

Every now and again, a subject will run across this blog that makes you wonder.

Thanks to our buddy Yeti over at the Lincoln Stars blog we heard about this incident in Youngstown. The Vindicator is reporting that goaltender Jordan Tibbett returned to the team based on his good conduct despite the fact he is suspended from Mercyhurst for a sexual assault charge.

Tibbett, 21, and a teammate were suspended from the school in November after being charged for an on-campus incident with a female student, according to the newspaper. He goes to trial March 9 and Mercyhurst said both students would not be allowed to return to the school until their legal status is cleared.

Youngstown team president Alex Zoldan told the paper that the team is aware of the incident but has decided to bring Tibbett back because of his time at Youngstown.

Incidents like this are never easy because one can understand a team wanting to help out a former player that’s going through a hard time. But how can one justify bringing back a player that is potentially facing something like a sexual assault charge?

Tibbett will get his day in court and for all we know, he could be found innocent or guilty. That doesn’t matter right now. The important thing is why should he or anyone be playing hockey when their main concern should be their future. Some can argue that playing hockey can take his mind off things, but in this case, that might not be a strong argument.

When I first moved to Texas, there was a high school where three of its players were accused of sexually assaulting a cheerleader and it was such a sensitive subject for obvious reasons. What happened there was pretty bad. The cheerleader was kicked off the team because she refused to cheer for one of the players who allegedly sexually assaulted her.

Not saying that will happen in Youngstown, but it is an example of how when something as serious as sexual assault comes up, the people involved should remain out of the public eye.

USHL commissioner Skip Prince commented on the matter and ruled Tibbett was eligible because it did not violate any policies by USA Hockey.

Even still, this cannot set a good precedent for Youngstown and to a degree, the USHL.

We all know how people in this nation feel about athletes (Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds) who have either been accused of crimes or have served jail time following it. It doesn’t end well and no one walks away a winner.

In this case, walking away from the situation until it is cleared up is the best thing the Phantoms and Tibbett can do.

Werger’s The Word…

Players like Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, a USHL alum, have brought spotlight to the league’s image. But it is people like Brian Werger who are making sure the spotlight continues to stay on the league.

Werger is the league’s director of communications. He’s that guy sending out the press releases about the league or working with the teams to make sure people know what’s going on in the USHL.

The Iowa native took time out of his day to answer some questions. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: How did you get involved with the USHL?

A: I joined the league in April 2009. I got here the last couple of weeks in the season. I grew up in southeast Iowa, which is not a hockey hotbed. Outside of USHL markets, you can count the number of rinks on one hand and still have fingers left. My whole career, I have been in hockey. I worked in minor pro hockey and then worked for an NHL team for a short time. Through some networking, I had a connection that knew Skip Prince and I got the job.

Q: What has the league done to grow?

A: I think it has been a collective effort and I think the league’s profile has grown because of it. It was growing before I got here and I am glad to be part of something that is growing. Regularly are you hearing the USHL in not only local or regional markets, but national markets too. It is important to build that national brand. It is nice to flip on an NHL broadcast and you hear about the USHL or see stories in major publications. That’s a collective effort on the parts of so many people to raise the league’s profile.

Q: What’s Skip Prince like?

A: He’s one of the smartest guys I have ever been around. He works tirelessly and has a great vision of the league. He puts in a lot of hours and he is a good guy to be around. The league is lucky to have someone with the kind of background he has that can take the league to the next level in terms of business, marketing and hockey.

Party in the USofH…

We’ll have something about the game tonight but Wednesdays will be used to profile people rooted in junior or college hockey.

The first Wednesday profile is Chris Peters, an extremely bright individual who might be the most knowledgeable person about American junior hockey out there. Chris use to work for the U.S. National Developmental Team Program’s public relations office. There he got a chance to write about and promote some of the game’s best future talent.

He did that for two years before moving to Iowa where he runs the United States of Hockey blog, a venture that just started. Here’s what our time with Chris was like.

Q: What made you so interested in junior hockey?

A: I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t worked at the National Team Developmental Program. I saw the USHL, the NAHL and a couple of eastern junior teams. Having seen it and getting to know these players, you realize they are the future of hockey in this country and it made me want to find a way to shed some light on those players.

Q: What do you think makes junior hockey in this country so different compared to other sports?

A: I think there are a lot of reasons for it. Hockey is the only sport where you have that alternative option of development where you do not have to play hockey for your high school team and you do not have that localized pride. You get kids from all over the country and its not like the local kids you grow up watching. It is hard to explain that these kids are not getting pad, but they are playing for college scholarships. Fact is, it is hard to explain to the sports fan and that’s the reason why it is a little hard to cover and why you maybe have a less interest from certain places.

Q: How has the USHL changed over time?

A: I think it has made tremendous strides over the last few years benefiting from YouTube and social media. It helps right now and in the longer term. The USHL has marketed itself as close to being a pro league as it can get to building a brand and a guy like Skip Prince, who is a good businessman and can direct a league like that. They have a much bigger picture and they think they can make a name for themselves. Having a guy like Brian Werger as a full-time guy promoting the league helps.

Q: If that is the case, then what can the USHL or junior hockey in America do to compete with the Canadian Hockey League?

A: It’s hard. I think the USHL has done a great job of promoting themselves to players by making it an attractive league to come to. The NDTP and EJHL and the NAHL have done a good job of making their brand something players want to come to and that’s the first and foremost thing. The other thing is the Canadian Hockey League has a very long, long tradition that’s highly prized. They’re all in. They are in smaller markets where the the amounts of money driven into it is unbelievable. That is not something the USHL or any league will approach from a business standpoint. It comes down to competition for players and continuing to make themselves an attractive outlet for a place to reach your goals.

Q: Final question. You’re a Chicago guy with a PR background. What did your hometown Hawks do to become relevant again?

A: Really, the thing they did is made decisions early on when Rocky Wirtz took over the team. They drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and within one year they had two players that they could say were their guys. it took them only two years to become amazing players and faces of the franchise. They also hired John McDonough away from the Cubs and it was the biggest thing they could have done. By hiring a guy who knows how to bring people what they want is great for me to see. I had been in Chicago in their lean years of watching the dreadful teams of Alex Zhamnov and Adrian Aucoin and it did not look like NHL hockey. The media needed something positive too. People there love it when their teams have success and it is a fickle fan base. They’re struggling now and it would be sad to see that goodwill washed away a season after they won the Stanley Cup.

As you can read, Chris is a pretty bright guy and make sure you check out his blog. It’s on Slightly Chilled under the important links tab. Next week we’ll be featuring Nathan Fournier of the World of Junior Hockey.

Until then, have a good Wednesday everyone and we’ll have something up later about what happened with the Force tonight at Omaha.