NHL LOOKS TO SAGINAW SPIRIT AND CO. FOR HOCKEY’S FUTURE STARS
By: Cory Butzin, Digital Media Content Provider
SAGINAW, Mich. – It’s safe to say that almost everyone dreams of reaching the top of their profession, and many people seek out the designated, specialized career paths for the best chance to make those dreams come true.
Aspiring doctors seek to gain acceptance to the best medical schools, while many future business leaders start out looking for internships at Fortune 500 companies.
For young hockey players, that dream is to play in the National Hockey League. And for most, the road getting there runs through the three major junior leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League.
“It’s like a mini-NHL,” said longtime Detroit Red Wings goalie and current partner of the Saginaw Spirit Chris Osgood. “You have tough travel. There’s a lot of games, a lot of back-to-back and 3-and-3s. The CHL is a tougher schedule, tougher games. The OHL helps a player to develop his skills so it prepares you better for the pros while at the same time allowing the player to continuing working on his education just in case professional hockey does not materialize. It was the best route for me, for sure.”
And it has served as the primary pipeline for the NHL for decades.
In the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Arizona native Austin Matthews was selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs after spending last season playing professionally abroad. It ended a streak of nine straight seasons a player from the CHL was picked with the top selection.
Since 1980, all but nine No. 1 overall selections have come from the CHL, including 13 from the Ontario Hockey League. In the 2015-16 NHL season, more than 60 percent of players came out of the CHL with 197 or 25 percent of those being OHL veterans.
It’s not just a recent phenomenon with current stars such as Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Connor McDavid coming out of the CHL.
Wayne Gretzky suited up for Saginaw’s conference rival Sault Ste. Marie during his junior hockey days, while longtime Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman was drafted out of the Peterborough Petes of the OHL’s Eastern Conference. Former Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux played for Laval of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the list goes on and on.
“The way I look at it, because I (played NCAA), and this is what I tell the student players that we’re trying to get to come here,” Saginaw coach Spencer Carbery said. “The OHL is for those high-end players that want to be pros while at the same time, continuing your education. It’s not that when you go to college, you don’t want to go pro, it’s just that these athletes are very, very good hockey players for their age and have a chance of playing pro hockey very quickly.”
Connor McDavid and Aaron Ekblad headline former CHL stars who made the jump directly to the NHL, but it’s not just No. 1 overall picks who make the leap. In 2012, former Spirit star Brandon Saad played with Saginaw in the OHL playoffs and immediately went south after the Spirit were eliminated, dressing in a pair of games for the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Mitch Marner and Matt Tkachuk of the London Knights and Sault Ste. Marie’s Blake Speers are three recent players from the OHL who’ve made the jump directly to the NHL suiting up for Toronto, Calgary and New Jersey, respectively.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” said Craig Goslin, President and Managing Partner of the Spirit. “A player can come here, sign a contract with us and play against the best of the best and develop his skills with top coaching, strength and conditioning, nutrition and more. They play a lot of games, a mini-NHL schedule. If does not sign a professional contract, we set aside education funds so they can pursue a college degree at the university closest to their home. We put a very strong emphasis on the student athlete and their education as they attend Saginaw Heritage High School for our 16-18 year olds and our older players attend Saginaw Valley State University. As a development model, the OHL is the best in any sport for both the development of the person as an athlete and also the development of the person as a student.
“It truly is the best opportunity for an elite student athlete to give it all he’s got to try to achieve his dreams of playing pro hockey. You only live once and the CHL gives the player his best chance to play pro hockey in the future.”
Most coaches at the Canadian Hockey League level have experience coaching or playing at the professional level and many have both, and players receive their tutelage at no cost as a part of the contract they sign with their major junior club.
They also receive access to strength and conditioning coaches, nutritional consultants and a full staff of physicians, therapists and advisors, in addition to ice time and full athletic outfitting as a part of their contract.
“The OHL is a big-boy league for sure,” said Osgood, who is a veteran of the CHL’s Western Hockey League. “There’s a lot of good players and If you’re not working, if you’re not performing, if you’re not improving, you’re going to fall behind.”
But with one shift during a regulation game, each player receives a scholarship for one year’s worth of tuition, fees and books at the university closest to home as a worst-case scenario if a lifelong dream of playing professional hockey doesn’t pan out.
Each contract is different, but as a general rule a player receives a one-year scholarship for each year they play in the OHL. Last year, the OHL Centrally Administered Scholarship Program spent $2.9 million providing scholarships for 315 OHL alumni attending 57 different academic institutions.
Some players opt for the NCAA route, but others such as former Spirit standout Garret Ross and current Saginaw forward Cole Coskey committed to the university game before changing directions and coming to the CHL.
“I thought it would help me overall,” said Coskey, who was committed to Miami (Ohio). “I talked it over with my agent and my family, and they support me in my decision. It’s the faster route (to playing pro).
“In the NCAA, it’s more battling, more physical. When you get here, it’s more skill, more high-end players like Mitchell Stephens and (Alex) DeBrincat. It’s unreal playing with and against some of those guys.”
At one time, Osgood even considered NCAA before deciding the CHL was too good to pass up.
“It came down to, I played for my hometown team,” he said. “That’s why I chose the CHL, and I always thought that would be my quickest way to make it to the NHL.”
Osgood played two and a half seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers before also seeing time with the Brandon Wheat Kings and Seattle Thunderbirds before turning pro with the Red Wings organization.
The CHL’s purpose isn’t restricted just to a player’s accolades on the ice, but rather it also focuses resources towards developing the player as a person.
In addition to concussion management, anti-doping and anti-bullying programs, the league has also partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association to educate players on various mental health issues and provide them with treatment if required. The Saginaw Spirit were lead catalysts in this program after the tragic loss to suicide of Spirit forward Terry Trafford.
The Saginaw Spirit have also adopted the Dale Carnegie Program through Handley and Associates in Saginaw to help develop the Spirit players as a well-rounded participants in their families, communities and future business ventures. The Dale Carnegie programs teach the Saginaw Spirit players the proper ways to lead others while emphasizing values such as respect, honesty, integrity and work ethic.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re raising 23 teenagers and when a players days are done in Saginaw or in any OHL franchise, we all work diligently with the OHL league office to ensure that they are prepared to be better as a hockey player and as a person.” Goslin said.
Players receive a $1,000 reimbursement for offseason training expenses, and they’re reimbursed transportation costs for reporting to camp each season and again for Christmas. Then during the season, they receive a monthly stipend, while also having living expenses provided for by the organization and billet families.
In addition, the players are provided with tickets for their families and an insurance policy against career-ending injuries.
Academically, each player has access to academic advisors and tutors with the younger players finishing work towards their high school diplomas, while the older players take college courses towards their general education requirements with their CHL clubs footing the tuition bill.
And all while playing major junior hockey against players that are the best in the world at their age group. “This is a vital component of the CHL as it allows the player to develop faster than any other route that is available to these elite student athletes”, Goslin said.
“This league is not for everybody, but it’s for the top prospects and those that have the potential to become top prospects”, Goslin said. “That’s why when you review the current rosters of NHL teams, almost 60 percent of them developed their skills playing for a team in the Canadian Hockey League. Having been part of it for 15 seasons, I have not seen a better development model in any sport that can top it.”