Zach Franko backed out of his commitment to play at Bemidji State and has opted to play major junior hockey in the Western Hockey League according to a report Tuesday from the radio broadcaster covering the Kelowna Rockets.
The 17-year-old Winnipeg native committed to BSU last October for the 2011-12 season. He was drafted in the first round of the USHL draft by Cedar Rapids and was expected to play there this season before coming to BSU. Franko is a solid offensive prospect in his age group and had 54 points in 51 games playing for Winnipeg South in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League last season.
Franko’s decision is a bad break for BSU because the staff obviously thought high of him to pursue him at age 16, but Beaver fans should not read too much into the decision. This type of situation happens periodically in the WCHA and all of college hockey.
The good news for Bemidji State is Franko made his decision now. It would have been more problematic if Franko made his decision at this time in 2011. He wasn’t going to play for BSU for at least another year, so there remains plenty of time to go out and find someone new to fill his skates.
Franko’s decision will continue to drive the major juniors vs. college hockey debate over development routes.
Because major junior hockey leagues play more games per year than college hockey, some players feel the extra playing time in actual games is more beneficial to long-term career development. Some NHL teams and scouts feel the talent pool is deeper because major juniors mimic the NHL in playing situations and schedule. Prospects with NHL dreams see major juniors as a direct and faster path to the pros: NHL or bust.
But the perceived direct path is not always that clear and a talented young player player can become buried on a major junior team real fast.
That’s where college hockey remains a strong alternative to major juniors and still makes prospects weigh the decision. There’s an opportunity to gain an education and protect life after hockey. Division I hockey is played at a high level and continues to get better every year across all leagues. The college games do attract NHL scouts and many college hockey players have gone on to successful NHL careers.
Here’s the good news for some of the BSU fans who still trying to grasp what it means to compete in the WCHA. The WCHA is played at such a high level that teams in the league -including BSU – can make prospects think twice about the major juniors vs. college route. The WCHA has produced a number of NHLers: Jonathan Toews, Matt Cullen, Zach Parise, Mason Raymond, Thomas Vanek and Dany Heatley just to name a few.
If BSU was still in College Hockey America, sought prospects like Franko would have little incentive to come to Bemidji. That’s one of the benefits of playing in the power conference that is the WCHA.
I believe you can find more about a hockey player playing in college than in major juniors. Because college hockey has fewer games, the games mean more and there is more pressure in each minute played at the college level. If you want to discover a player’s ability in stressful situations throughout the year (not just playoffs), come watch the college game.
There’s also more time spent on the practice ice to learn the details of the game. Practice is like a classroom. Learning by playing is good, but learning why you made a mistake or succeeded is a big factor in long-term success. That kind of life lesson also applies outside the world of hockey.
Wayne Gretzky once said: “A good player plays where the puck is, a great player plays where the puck is going to be.” Because more time is spent studying the game in practice, I think college hockey players visualize the game better than players in major juniors.
I don’t disagree the exceptional major junior player may have better skill compared to the exceptional college hockey player at age 23-24. But the exceptional college player by that age can close any kind of talent gap quickly to adapt to the pros within a year or two – and have a hockey IQ fully developed in the college game to supplement a lasting career.
Major juniors and college hockey can develop an exceptional young player to the professional game. It’s just a matter of perception and, for now, that perception is driven by the scouts in the NHL and is filtering down to the under 18 prospects and their families. Of course it influences their decision, who doesn’t blame a kid at 17 for having NHL dreams?
Success at the college game today is about retaining more players with solid fundamentals to build around a few exceptional players. A more important factor to a good season is the leadership a core group of committed upperclassmen bring to the rink.
Not the commitment of a prospect still a few years away.