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Passing on preps to skate in Canada

By DAVID La VAQUE, Star Tribune, 01/23/12, 8:32PM CST


Forgoing their Minnesota high school teams, they play in paid junior leagues.

Ben Walker passed on being a captain for Edina to play hockey for Victoria in the Western Hockey League. Players receive $180 to $600 monthly depending on age.

Marie Corbett expected to spend this winter watching her son, Cody, captain the Stillwater High School hockey team.

Instead, she brings her laptop to a nearby McDonald's or her mother's house to get Internet access and watch webcasts of Cody's games from Canadian cities such as Edmonton, Calgary or Red Deer.

Cody Corbett is one of three Minnesota high school players who left school this year to play for Canadian major junior hockey leagues and what they believe is a better ticket to a professional hockey career.

Ben Walker passed on captaining Edina's team as a senior. Travis Wood left Hill- Murray after his freshman season.

They are adjusting to a faster, more skilled brand of hockey, playing with and against others who have signed NHL contracts. Back home they would be competing against many players whose hockey careers will not exceed the varsity level.

Such departures have been rare in Minnesota, where most top hockey stars head to Division I colleges after high school, the U.S. Hockey League or the National Team Development Program. Even Holy Angels defenseman Erik Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NHL draft, postponed joining the pro ranks to play one season with the Gophers.

Cody Corbett's interest in major junior hockey left his mother "upset for at least three days because I had it in my mind like every other parent, you go to college," she said.

In part because they are being paid, however, the trio playing this year in Canada have lost their NCAA eligibility.

But they also know that of the 211 players selected in the 2011 NHL Draft, 101 came from teams in major junior leagues.

"It's time to let players know there are other options beyond Division I hockey at Minnesota," said Tyler Boldt, manager of player development and recruitment for the Western Hockey League.

His league promotes its on-ice development of players as well as a scholarship program for those who do not sign a professional contract.

Putting college on hold

Marie Corbett thought her son would lead the Ponies as a senior defenseman under the tutelage of Ponies coach and former NHL standout defenseman Phil Housley. Wisconsin and Minnesota State Mankato were showing interest.

But Cody weighed other factors. Draft-eligible in 2012, Corbett wanted to elevate his profile. As for playing college hockey, Corbett admitted his "grades weren't exactly top-notch."

Parents and the former high school coaches of all three players agree, as Marie Corbett said, "not everybody wants to go to college right out of high school."

Should the players' professional hockey dreams fall short, they can access college scholarships funds through the leagues. For every year of service, players receive a one-year scholarship, including tuition, textbooks and related fees, to a post-secondary institution of their choice. Players who sign professional contracts forfeit their scholarship.

Since 1993, the Western Hockey League, where Corbett and Walker play, has awarded more than 4,300 scholarships to graduate players, funded by a contribution of more than $13.5 million from the league's clubs.

"The scholarship program cancels the education argument," Boldt said. "Now we can talk hockey."

'Day and night hockey'

Corbett plays for Edmonton, Walker for Victoria. One of three major junior leagues making up the Canadian Hockey League, the WHL is where all Minnesota residents are geographically obligated to play. Wood, from Hudson, Wis., plays in the Ontario Hockey League. He plays forward/defense for the Pennsylvania-based Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League. The third league is the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Players receive a monthly stipend from about $180 to $600 depending on their age.

The arrangement is different for Mario Lucia, son of Gophers coach Don Lucia, who plays for Penticton of the British Columbia Hockey League. Players there maintain NCAA eligibility because they do not receive cash allowances above room and board.

Walker, who gave up playing with his younger brother, Jack, said, "Up here, everybody can skate and everyone has some size to them."

Teams play more than 70 regular-season games, roughly three per week, from late September to mid-March. Games are 60 minutes. And players typically train before and after school during the week.

"It's not the easy way out," Marie Corbett said. "The easy way out is to be the headliner here at your high school and play 25 games and not have to work out so hard."

Corbett, Walker and Wood joined their teams at different points of the season but all are earning consistent ice time. Through last week, Wood has played in all 45 games for Erie.

Different lifestyles brings challenges, such as getting to know new teammates and enduring long bus rides. The teenagers live with billet families; Walker did his own laundry for the first time.

Their focus remains on the rink.

"Day and night it's just hockey," Wood said.

Local concerns

Local high school coaches question the need to invest in major junior hockey, especially at the price of one's NCAA eligibility.

In conversations with Corbett, Housley said he "tried to sell him on being a captain and being the guy everyone is leaning on. At the next level, you're one of many players and you might not get that opportunity."

Edina coach Curt Giles and Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner said they never had the opportunity to offer their players any input.

"We believe we have a program that will support a kid with a dream anywhere from playing high school hockey to going to the NHL," Lechner said.

Giles, who grew up in Manitoba and later played college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth and professionally for the North Stars, does not worry about high school hockey diminishing but noted: "Major junior teams are starting to recognize some of the quality players in high school."

Defections to Canada likely hit Duluth East coach Mike Randolph hardest of all. He lost four players in six seasons from 1996 to 2002. But he downplayed any talk of high school hockey's date with the wrecking ball, saying "I don't think anything will kill high school hockey."

"It's the reality of where sports are at and where parents are at," Randolph said. "The more you try to fight it, the more frustrated you get. You worry about the kids you have and wish those who leave the best."

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