Tony Granato photo

"Hopefully, us going (to Canada) lets kids see, 'Holy cow, that's college hockey,' and they think about college," UW coach Tony Granato said. "Because College Hockey Inc. does a great job but we've got to find a way to show our product off."

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — There was a healthy list of reasons why the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team wanted to take part in a foreign tour that the NCAA allows once every four summers.

On the surface, the main prompt was an early start for a team that will be managing high expectations because of an influx of top-end talent. That's what the Badgers will get when they play here Friday and Sunday in exhibition games against the University of British Columbia.

A deeper purpose gets into UW's recruiting preferences and the team's adjustment to new rules that have pushed back when it can make scholarship offers.

Legislation that went into effect in May means NCAA programs can't offer scholarships to players until Aug. 1 before their junior year of high school. That has been a change for the Badgers and other teams that offered players at an early age.

Eighteen of the 29 players on UW's recruiting list for future seasons gave the team an oral commitment when they were either 14 or 15.

Badgers coach Tony Granato said he didn't yet know how the changes will impact NCAA recruiting long term. But he emphasized that college hockey coaches need to show young Canadian players that their route is an option before they commit to major junior teams and nullify their NCAA eligibility.

Using the outreach capabilities of College Hockey Inc., an organization created by conference commissioners 10 years ago to spread the gospel of the college game, can be only one part of the plan, Granato said.

"Hopefully, us going there lets kids see, 'Holy cow, that's college hockey,' and they think about college," he said. "Because College Hockey Inc. does a great job but we've got to find a way to show our product off."

In British Columbia, more than 32,000 boys under age 18 are registered hockey players, according to governing body BC Hockey. The Badgers hope they can make an impression on some of them this weekend.

The volume of Canadian players on UW's roster has waned since coach Bob Johnson made them a staple of his programs in the 1970s, but UW associate head coach Mark Osiecki stressed their importance.

"I think that influx in your locker room brings something different," he said. "It's their way of life. That's what they're born into. And they bring a different element to the bench, to the ice and certainly in the locker room."

The Badgers landed a major recruiting victory when Alberta native Dylan Holloway, a top prospect for next year's NHL draft, committed and stayed committed despite overtures by two Canadian major junior teams for the forward to play with them instead.

He joins junior captain Wyatt Kalynuk, a defenseman, as the only Canadians on this year's roster.

In the Western Hockey League, one of three circuits operating under Canada's major junior system, players can be drafted in the year they turn 15 and can start playing full time the following year.

That leaves a gap where WHL teams can sign top talent before NCAA schools can make an offer.

The college answer has been in marketing, largely undertaken by College Hockey Inc. in yearly events in Canadian provinces and daily social media blasts, executive director Mike Snee said.

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The share of Canadians in NCAA hockey has stayed around 30%, but programs have produced good examples recently of how they can help mold Canadian talent into NHL stars. Atop that list was 2019 Hobey Baker Award winner Cale Makar, a sophomore defenseman who dominated games last year in helping Massachusetts make the Frozen Four for the first time.

Makar then signed with the Colorado Avalanche, who chose him at No. 4 overall in 2017, in time for an NHL playoff run.

Makar's father, Gary, and Holloway's dad, Bruce, are part of the presentation when College Hockey Inc. holds an informational event in the Calgary-area town of Okotoks, Alberta, in September.

"Today's 14- or 15-year-old sees these guys choose this NCAA path and everything that comes before that," Snee said. "And then the outcome is spectactular, so it just feeds itself."

At UW, it was unusual for Kalynuk to be the only Canadian on the roster last season. And it's not much of a stretch to say that the program was built with significant help from Canadians.

Eleven of the 22 letterwinners on the team that won the program's first NCAA championship under Johnson in 1973 were from north of the border. There were 10 from Canada in 1977 and again 11 in 1981.

There were nine for the 1983 championship and only three in 1990 and four in 2006, although the Canadians played big roles in all.

Since the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship 1999-2000 Badgers team was led by Canadian forwards Steve Reinprecht, Dany Heatley and David Hukalo, with Graham Melanson in goal, there have been only 23 players from Canada in the 20 freshman classes that have followed.

Nine of those 23 made it to the NHL, but none since defenseman Justin Schultz in 2012.

Recruiting trends can be cyclical, and UW has landed a handful of high-end players from Canada in recent years, starting with Holloway.

Four more could be part of the next three freshman classes: defensemen Anthony Kehrer of Manitoba, Corson Ceulemans of Alberta and Tristan Luneau of Quebec; and forward Brett Moravec of Alberta.

Kehrer, who holds dual citizenship with the U.S., plays for the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League. The others play in Canadian leagues.

Kalynuk, who left Manitoba five years ago to play in the USHL as part of his route to college, said more exposure to the NCAA game back home is changing preferences.

Academics is a big reason, he said, as is the way that bigger NCAA programs travel. The Badgers make most trips on charter planes; Kalynuk said he has friends playing in the WHL who are on a bus for 10-day road trips.

"I think more Canadians are getting more of an idea of what it's like down here," Kalynuk said. "Obviously, the Western league's always going to be there because it's right there and it's been there forever. But I think people are more considering college hockey."

A trip to Vancouver might steer some of them to the Badgers.


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