Summer Sends NCAA's Top Hockey Talent To NHL Camps

Vegas Kruse

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Summer Camp is an American tradition: school is out and we send the kids to camp. College hockey is no different, except the camps being attended by NCAA players every summer are hosted by NHL teams. 

This is yet another oddity in the peculiar relationship between the NCAA and the NHL, something college football and basketball programs would never consider attempting under the nose of compliance officers. But hockey remains an outlier.

Despite the incongruence, all parties appear to benefit from NHL Development Camps, starting with the colleges. According to College Hockey Inc.’s tireless number crunchers, 445 current and former NCAA players are attending these week-long camps getting indoctrinated into the professional ranks: photo-ops, wearing NHL jerseys, getting plenty of instruction on and off the ice. 

The NCAA has given up trying to monitor if any amateur rules are being violated. Their official stance is that NHL-financed travel to their camps is permissible for first-timer players only, and that the student-athlete has to pay his own way home if he stays longer than 72 hours. There is no record of any punishment ever being handed out for this frequent camp violation. When it comes to enforcing these nebulous NHL camp rules, the Feds have essentially gone fishin’ for the summer. 

Campers consist of both draft picks and free-agent invitees. There is more emphasis on teaching the kids how to eat and train properly than there is on competition, but there is plenty of on-ice coaching. Shark’s assistant general manager Tim “Trigger” Burke insists on strapping on the blades to teach his future charges the “San Jose Way,” their preferred fundamentals, especially the one-time shot. Bowling Green’s Connor Ford, invited to San Jose as a free-agent, is getting the full “Trigger treatment.”

The WCHA has a total of 17 active players distributed over 14 NHL camps throughout North America this summer. Notable exceptions to that list include Minnesota State’s irrepressible German tandem of Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie, who were last seen in their native Germany enjoying summer in the Fatherland. The reigning WCHA champs have two other players taking advantage of NHL hospitality, however: junior Jared Spooner (free agent) is in Pittsburgh, and incoming freshman Nathan Smith (draftee) is in Winnipeg.

The WCHA school with the most NHL campers is Bowling Green with six, as junior sniper Brandon Kruse (draftee) returns to Vegas for the second consecutive summer. He will be joined in Sin City by sophomore D Tim Theochardis (F.A.). Fellow Falcon soph Taylor Schneider (F.A.) gets to bask in the Blues’ Stanley Cup glow in St. Louis (no ring for Schneider, alas), while Max Johnson takes his magic scoring wand to the Big Apple, an invitee of the New York Rangers. An hour east out on Long Island, Falcons sophomore D Will Cullen (F.A.) will be evaluated by hockey’s supreme elder Lou Lamoriello.

Five Michigan Tech Huskies will be wearing NHL laundry this summer, as sophomore Colin Swoyer (F.A.) will get to battle Schneider in the Blues’ three-on-three scrimmages, a potential WCHA playoff preview. Teammates in summer, enemies in winter, a common scenario in camp life. Two of Tech’s goalies get to sample “The Show,” as Matt Jurusik goes to Pittsburgh and Robbie Bedoun goes downstate to Detroit, both as free-agent invitees. Huskies junior defenseman Seamus Donohue got invited to sample the NHL good life this summer (Philadelphia), as did Brian Halonen (Dallas).

Northern Michigan senior defenseman Darien Craighead (F.A.) will be experiencing the delights of summer in British Columbia with the Canucks, Ross Armour (F.A.) of Bemidji with be in Music City with the Predators, and Bruins pick Cameron Clarke (Ferris State senior) will be back in Boston, enjoying Lobster Rolls and the Red Sox, New England’s summertime perfecta.

And in breaking news from the Blackhawks camp, Lake Superior goaltender Mareks Mitens (F.A.) will be in Chicago getting a look-see between the pipes.

College hockey has a plethora of potential free agents—late bloomers that have escaped the scouts’ eyes during their years of draft eligibility. These development camps are extremely useful for NHL clubs trying to establish relationships with potential signees down the road. As long as the NCAA doesn’t break up the summer party, this peculiar institution—development camps hosted by pros for amateurs—will roll on to everybody’s benefit.

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