When you ask sophomore Andy Hilbert “the question” he gives you a quick grin and politely responds in a quiet, innocent voice.
“Right now I”m not worried about that,” Michigan”s top hockey forward says. “I haven”t made my decision.”
Hilbert is referring to the rampant rumors of him forgoing his final two years as a Wolverine, that as of late, have engulfed the media and fans surrounding Michigan hockey.
The Boston Globe reported this week that “it”s all but a certainty that Hilbert will turn pro when his sophomore season at Michigan is finished.”
The Boston Bruins, who own Hilbert”s rights after taking the 20-year old in the second round (37th overall) of this past June”s draft, probably need a bib to absorb their saliva.
One of the most promising NHL prospects in college hockey, Hilbert leads the CCHA and is second in the nation in scoring with 21 goals and 33 assists.
If Hilbert bolts for the NHL, it”s been said that he may be able to immediately step into a third or fourth-line center position to cure an ailing crop of forwards in Boston.
The Bruins smell a bounty and are surely knocking on Hilbert”s door with probably some hot baked beans to boot.
But at the moment, Hilbert is keeping his hand to himself. And when fans and media stroll quietly up to him to pop the question, Hilbert responds with his trained and prepared answer: “You come to college to stay for four years I have two years to play.”
Holding all the cards, he has to say nothing more regarding his announcement to go pro before the end of the season.
And why would he want to? The last thing Hilbert wants for his team, currently playing its most inconsistent hockey of the season, is to confound unity with an announcement of his professional intentions.
Hilbert admitted the pro talk bothers him.
“It”s a little bit of a distraction,” he said. “I don”t want it to be (one).”
Watch Hilbert with linemate Mike Cammalleri and one can”t believe Hilbert might leave. One look at is bright smile as he relishes a playful game at the end of the practice proves he bleeds maize and blue. He hates to lose so much that when he misses a shot in practice he slams his stick against the boards.
No one doubts Hilbert”s on-ice intentions his off-ice ones are what everyone”s worried about.
In the past, some college hockey players have left quietly for the pros, but nowhere near the magnitude that could affect the Wolverines this season.
In addition to Hilbert, junior defenseman Jeff Jillson is also likely to leave at the end of the season for the San Jose Sharks. And rumors of goaltender Josh Blackburn”s early exit rose up this past summer.
The Wolverines already lost two players in the past two years to pro hockey defenseman Mike Van Ryn and center Mike Comrie.
Three early exits after this season would border on the dangerously ridiculous.
This isn”t the basketball team is it?
No, it”s college hockey and unlike basketball today, some past hockey players have dealt with their professional prospects a little differently.
“I had to decide the same thing with me,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Every season (the NHL) wanted me”
Scouts laughed at Berenson when he stayed at Michigan for four years. But the legendary player and coach came to school not only to develop his talents on the ice, but to ensure himself a life after hockey with a business degree.
His ideology of education and development in college molded several great Michigan student athletes that thank him every day.
One thankful Berenson prodigy was Brendan Morrison, who like Hilbert was at the top of the nation in scoring his sophomore year. Morrison turned down NHL cash for two years, and won a national championship and a Hobey Baker Award as a result. He is now a star playmaker with the Vancouver Canucks.
“When he left he was ready to make the next step,” Berenson said. “And he had his degree (to fall back on).”
Hilbert could follow the Morrison model as well. Hilbert is an excellent student and with two more years of maturity, could enter the NHL in the best possible position, diploma in hand.
But with the current opening of the floodgates to the NHL, Hilbert and the rest may choose otherwise. When the pros are begging for you, it”s sometimes to hard to say no.
Berenson has been applauded for making Michigan hockey a four-year institution. But the future doesn”t look like it”s going to echo the coach”s strongest principles.
Will Berenson”s battle end in failure when players like Hilbert and Jillson start leaving in droves?
For Michigan”s sake, I hope that doesn”t happen.
Mark Francescutti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.