Summer College Hockey Roundup: Hockey City Classic, Bjugstad Stays in School, UMess & More

Though the Kitchener v. Michigan Daily kerfuffle has consumed much of the blog of late, there has been plenty of other significant goings on in college hockey the last few weeks.

From another announced outdoor game to a mess of a coaching search at UMass to one of the best players in college hockey announcing he’ll return to school, there’s been a lot to get to.

Though in comparison to last summer’s blow-everything-up bash that was realignment, this year is a bit tamer in terms of news, unless you’re a big fan of libel lawsuits.

Coming up after the jump, some thoughts on the importance of the recently announced Hockey City Classic, Nick Bjugstad returning for junior season at Minnesota, Zemgus Girgensons’s tough decision, the UMass coaching search and other links.

Hockey City Classic More Than Just Another Outdoor Game

Wednesday it was announced that Chicago’s famed Soldier Field, home to the greatest football team ever created in the history of football playing, the Chicago Bears, would host a pair of high-profile outdoor games. The doubleheader, called the Hockey City Classic (official website) and hosted on Feb. 17, 2013, will feature Wisconsin meeting Minnesota and Notre Dame taking on Miami University.

While we’ve been getting our fill of outdoor games from every league under the sun, this one may be worth a special amount of attention.

First off the location is an important one. The State of Illinois has no Division I college hockey team to call it’s own (RIP, UIC), currently. However Chicago is home to a gigantic alumni base for all schools competing in the games and is, as the event’s title expresses, a hockey city. There are NHL, AHL, USHL, NAHL, NCAA Div III, and ACHA hockey teams, not to mention other amateur levels, but no D1 teams in the Chicago area.

With the creation of the Big Ten’s hockey conference, that could change one day. This event should draw pretty well considering the city’s love of hockey and Soldier Field. It might not end up selling out, though organizers are quite confident it will, but it should still be a significant showcase for college hockey.

With Minnesota and Wisconsin among the most storied programs in college hockey and also headed to the Big Ten in 2013-14, the Hockey City Classic may be a terrific opportunity for the folks at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois to get a good long look at the impact of college hockey.

The Hockey City Classic is college hockey’s showcase to Chicago on a big stage, with four extremely successful program to put on a good show. It might not convince folks at Northwestern or Illinois to consider adding hockey, but it could at least open their minds to it a little bit.

The Big Ten will have six member clubs in 2013-14. Should the league, and particularly Penn State (will they even have an athletic department still?), have success financially and gain more exposure, other schools may fall in line. This event will give that process a bit of a head start.

Either way, it’s a cool event that should be a lot of fun for all the people in Chicago and a lot of college hockey fans that won’t have to travel too far. Expect a good crowd and a great atmosphere in February.

Bjugstad Coming Back to Minnesota for Junior Year

Nick Bjugstad was one of the best goal scorers in college hockey last season. As a 2010 first-round pick of the Florida Panthers, some expected he might turn pro after his 25-goal season which helped him nab second-team All-America honors.

The fears of the Golden Gopher fan base were put to rest Thursday.

Through the University, Bjugstad released the following statement:

“This is the right spot for me,” said Bjugstad. “I am going to be close to finishing my education and hopefully can accomplish the goal that I have had ever since I was little, which is winning a national championship. We are going to have a good team this year and hopefully get another chance at the national championship and make a run there. I feel I can develop here and become more of a leader on the team as well. Hopefully, I will have a good season.”

Bjugstad is right. The Gophers are going to have a pretty good team next year and should have a shot at making a run at the national title. Six of its top eight scorers return, while Minnesota also adds a recruiting class that includes a pair of high-end defensmen in Brady Skjei (NYR first-round pick in 2012) and Mike Reilly, who had 83 points in the BCHL last season.

While the big forward was going to be given a shot to make the NHL club, he apparently has a chance to finish out his degree next year after just three years in school. That’s pretty impressive in itself considering the hockey schedule.

Bjugstad sticking for another year isn’t going to hurt his development much either. He was never quite the same last year after suffering a shoulder injury that clearly affected his performance at the World Juniors. That said, he got stronger as the year went on and showed flashes of his insane start.

He has all the tools to be an impact player at the NHL level and soon. Sticking around and being the go-to guy for one of the best programs in the country should help Bjugstad seize the spotlight a bit this year. A lot of eyes will be on him and expectations couldn’t be higher.

To Sign, Or Not To Sign? Zemgus Girgensons Weighing Tough Decision [UPDATED — TO SIGN]

According to Bill Hoppe of the Tonawanda News, Vermont commit and Buffalo Sabres first-rounder could reach a decision on whether or not he’ll sign with the team that selected him 14th overall a few weeks back by Friday.

UPDATE 7/13, 12:52 a.m. EDT: Per the University of Vermont, Girgensons has signed with the Buffalo Sabres.

From the second he was drafted, TSN analyst Bob McKenzie had mentioned Girgensons could be a player that gets signed immediately. He is, at the very least, AHL-ready.

After a stellar two-year career for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, Girgensons already has pro size and strength and his game is advanced for a player of his age. The Latvian has been said to hold education in a very high regard, having fended off a heavy push from the Kelowna Rockets to stay on the NCAA path.

That said, it’s a lot different when an NHL team offers a contract. Girgensons told Hoppe that he hopes to know something more official by today.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier told Hoppe, “We’ll talk to him about his desire to turn pro. Really, it has to be his decision.”

Odds are, Buffalo would give Girgensons a chance to play on the big club in training camp, but most likely he’d head to Rochester in the AHL to adjust to the pro pace. Both his USHL coach Jim Montgomery and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff sounded optimistic about Girgensons’s readiness for pro hockey next year.

Rochester beat writer Kevin Oklobzija, who has been on site at Sabres development camp, seems to believe it is likely Girgensons will sign.

UMess at UMass? Search for New Head Coach Not Going Great

The mutual parting of ways between Don “Toot” Cahoon and the University of Massachusetts raised plenty of eyebrows. The timing was a little funky, the circumstances a little strange.

Then the national coaching search got underway and pretty soon thereafter, Quinnipiac bench boss Rand Pecknold was reportedly offered the job and sounded to be on the verge of accepting it. That was until Qpac made an offer the coach couldn’t refuse and he turned UMass down. Strike one against the Minutemen.

Next up, the job was offered to Paul Pearl, head coach at Holy Cross College. He turned it down, too. Strike two.

Last week it sounded like UMass was interviewing just about everyone, which is actually a sign that the school was doing its due diligence, which it probably should have done prior to making offers to Pecknold and Pearl.

Some coaches expressed frustration with the process, leading Boston College assistant Mike Cavanaugh to reportedly withdraw his name from consideration. Among others reportedly interviewed Yale associate coach Red Gendron, Vermont assistant John Michelleto, Cedar Rapids Rough Riders head coach (and part-owner) Mark Carlson, Air Force assistant Mike Corbett and UMass assistant Len Quesnelle.

There is one unconfirmed report that Mark Carlson has been offered the job, but prying him away from Cedar Rapids could be difficult as he is a part owner of the team has put in more than a decade at the helm of one of the USHL’s most successful organizations.

It’s been a bit of a public embarrassment for the UMass program which, in theory, should be an attractive place to play and work. As a Hockey East program, you think the line for the head coaching position would be pretty long, but revelations from Cahoon that the school may not sufficiently support the hockey program could have scared some folks away.

As the college hockey world gets more competitive and it gets tougher to keep up with the big programs, this is a definitive hire for the UMass hockey program and whoever gets it will come in knowing they were at best, the third choice for the job. What a way to start.

UMass hockey blog Fear the Triangle has been doing awesome work following and reporting on these developments.

LINKS

— Development camps are great for players to familiarize themselves with their NHL clubs, but the camps might be terrifying for the schools that have players participating. A good performance in that camp could help lead to a contract offer from the big club. For instance…

Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune reported that would-be Boston College junior Kevin Hayes may have a shot at cracking the Blackhawks lineup should he sign with the club. The Hawks have been known to sign players earlier than most other teams would. It’s possible, but I’d think Hayes going back to BC to play a featured role after a couple years as a bottom-six player would be better than getting buried on a depth chart. We’ll see how that plays out.

— Remember Schultz Watch? That was fun, right? Soon-to-be Wisconsin sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe shared what it was like to have a front-row seat to Schultz Watch as he was living with the newest Edmonton Oiler, Justin Schultz this summer.

— The ugliness at Penn State coming out of the release of the Freeh Report could have an impact on the entire athletic department. How it will affect the hockey program, which is set to launch its first NCAA Division I season next year as an independent before going to the Big Ten in 2013-14, is unclear. Not the best circumstances to start a program under regardless. (via Paisley Hockey)

— One of the top 1996-born players in the country, Jack Eichel was selected in the first round of the QMJHL Draft earlier this year by the Halifax Mooseheads. A source close to Eichel informed me soon thereafter that the Boston University recruit remained committed to the NTDP, where he will play for the next two years, and BU. Today, Willy Palov, who covers the Mooseheads, reported Eichel informed Halifax he is sticking with the NTDP and would not report to the Mooseheads. Expect Halifax to keep the full court press on going forward. This recruiting battle is far from over, but it gets a break the rest of this year.

— Former Boston College commit Brandon Shea was back in the news as a report surfaced he will be traded to the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL. Shea signed a player agreement last summer to play at the NTDP, but backed out to play for the Moncton Wildcats. Halfway through the year, Shea, reportedly unhappy with his ice time, left Moncton and spent the remainder of the year at home. Earlier this summer, it was reported that Shea would play for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL, despite rumors that he’d be back in the Q if he got traded to the right team. Sounds like that happened, but we won’t know officially until August 1 at the earliest, when QMJHL’s official trading period reopens. This has been one of the weirdest roller coaster rides I’ve seen.

That’s it for this edition of the College Hockey Roundup. Coming up next week, I’ll have a feature about UConn’s hockey program moving up to Hockey East and making an impact with the You Can Play Project.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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