During his playing days, Red Berenson was a pioneer in the game of hockey. 

He grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, when college hockey was still in its infancy. At that time, top hockey players — especially top hockey players from Canada — simply didn’t play college hockey. In fact, it was actively discouraged. 

“(Montreal Canadiens GM Frank Selke) would say to me, ‘Son, if you want to play hockey, you shouldn’t go to college. You may never make it to the NHL if you go to college,’ ” Berenson recalled. “And then someone else would say, ‘Well, you’ll never even be a pro if you go to college,’ and someone else said, “Well, you might play a game in the NHL or something, but you’ll never make a living in the NHL.’

“ … Nobody said, ‘You’re doing the right thing. You can make it if you’re good enough.’ ”

For reasons that seemed to defy all logic, Berenson turned down the Canadiens — who had drafted him right out of high school — and decided to play hockey at Michigan. Because he couldn’t afford the trip from Regina to Ann Arbor, he hitchhiked with his roommate to Chicago, where they found a bus that took them the rest of the way. As a player, he would set records that still stand today.

Fast forward to 1962, after the Wolverines’ NCAA semifinal loss. Immediately following the consolation game, Berenson caught a ride to Boston, where he would suit up for the Montreal Canadiens the next night. 

He had proven Selke wrong, and in the process became the first player to go straight from college to the NHL. 

***

These days, there’s not much pioneering left to do in hockey. 

Berenson’s success in college and then the NHL helped hundreds of talented young men recognize college hockey as a viable option. Nowadays, Canadians don’t have to hitchhike 2,200 kilometres to join a college program. Instead, the college teams seek them out. 

“We’ve always had a strong presence in western Canada,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Even from the days when Red Berenson and his crew from Regina, Saskatchewan, all came down to play here. So we’re trying to maintain that, but we just obviously want the best players.”

As a result, college hockey is becoming a more logical option for players outside the United States. According to College Hockey Inc., around 30% of college hockey players today are Canadian, and more than 100 players in the 2018-19 season came from Europe. 

Still, for many high-level players, major junior hockey is the preferred route to the NHL. For the uninitiated: major junior hockey is made up of three leagues — the OHL, WHL and QMJHL — that together comprise the CHL. Together, about half of all NHL players come from the CHL each year, according to Elite Prospects

Proponents of junior hockey, like Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, point to the 68-game schedule as better preparation for a full 82-game NHL season. Whereas college players play a 34-game schedule and typically get five days of rest and practice between weekend series, junior teams often have to hop on a bus and get ready to play again the next day. 

That grind is part of what makes the growth of the college game so frustrating to junior hockey advocates in Canada. In 2014, former Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry fired off a pair of tweets attacking the Maple Leafs for signing an undrafted New Hampshire graduate, taking a spot from a junior player “slugging it out on the buses.” 

While we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the opinions of Don Cherry, it is worth noting that many Canadian players are surrounded by similar sentiment. Despite college hockey’s growing relevance, junior hockey remains the go-to route for the majority of talented young Canadians. Part of that is because it’s what they grew up around. Canada — especially Ontario and southern Quebec — is littered with CHL franchises, many of which draw crowds of several thousand on a nightly basis.

“We basically have a junior team like every hour away from our house, and I got drafted by the team that’s from where I live,” Michigan forward Thomas Bordeleau, who lived in Terrebonne, Quebec, said. “ … Definitely a lot of people tried to convince me to stay, but at the same time, the people that were close to me, they just understood that I had to do what’s best for me.”

Broadly speaking, player development is stronger in the college game than in major juniors. A number of factors — from better facilities, to larger coaching staffs, to more practice time — contribute to this, but none are as significant as the age range of the two paths. While major junior players fall between 16 and 20 years old, college players range from 18 to 24 years. 

The effect of this higher age limit is twofold. First, it allows late bloomers — players who maybe weren’t ready for the NHL in their draft year — more time to refine their abilities and potentially sign as an undrafted free agent after graduation. Second, college players go up against bigger, stronger and more experienced opponents, offering younger players a more physically challenging game than they can get in juniors. 

“I believe in college hockey … because, one, you play against men,” Seth Appert, coach of the AHL’s Rochester Americans, said. “You play against 18- to 24-year-old men, and I think that that gets you ready to play pro hockey.”

That physical brand of hockey gives college players a leg up when they reach the NHL. It allows players like Quinn Hughes to contribute as soon as they step into the league. 

Or take defenseman Torey Krug. After going undrafted in 2009, he spent three years at Michigan State, where he picked up all-CCHA honors twice and earned an entry-level deal with Boston. In the following eight seasons with the Bruins, he turned into one of the league’s best defensemen, and this offseason, he signed a seven year, $45 million deal with the St. Louis Blues. None of that would have been possible without his time with the Spartans. 

“(College players) are gonna be playing against some 24-year-old guy from Flin Flon, Manitoba,” Pearson said. “He doesn’t care where you’re projected to be drafted. He’s just there to make it tough on you all night. He’s gonna cross-check you, maybe elbow you a couple times and make it tough on you.”

Torey Krug isn’t alone. In 2019, the NHL had 325 former college players on rosters. That’s 33% of the league, up from just 21% in 2003. 

Like it or not, college hockey is growing. 

***

Hockey today is vastly different from the game Red Berenson walked into over half a century ago. The NHL has gone from six to 31 (soon to be 32) teams. Players are faster, and the game is safer than ever before. 

But the weight of the decisions young players have to make remains the same. Even for those who can make the league, the average NHL career lasts just five years. Players have to consider how to maximize those years and what to do when that time is up. 

For both issues, college hockey is the right choice. It can prepare elite players for the physicality of professional hockey. It can propel late bloomers into previously unlikely NHL careers.

That’s not to say juniors doesn’t have its benefits. But there are hundreds of NHL players who have college hockey — and a decision that Red Berenson made 60 years ago — to thank for their careers.

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