Article by Susannah Nichols
Potential pros not frustrated by dismal lockout
Michigan Wolverines captain Eric Nystrom is one the last off the ice for practice at Yost Arena. As he and a few teammates wheel around under last year’s CCHA victory banner, their laughter and slapshots seem to dissolve the pall that has settled over so much of the hockey world in the past few weeks.
With a season cancelled and no end in sight to the lockout, uncertainties surrounding the NHL might depress college players like Nystrom, who will be entering the professional hockey sector this summer. But while Nystrom, a 2002 first-round draft pick, recognizes the frustrating situation, he is keeping his focus on the present.
“I want to end on the highest note possible,” Nystrom says. “[Michigan’s season] is too important to me.”
He’s not alone in his perspective.The attitude of focusing on the now rather than wondering about the future is prevalent among some of college hockey’s other top prospects.
A.J. Thelen, a Michigan State sophomore who was a first-round draft pick for the Wild last summer, still has his eyes on an NHL career but is putting his energy toward the Spartans’ success.
“You just have to keep your head on straight,” he says optimistically, asserting that his current priority is to “help MSU win games.”
Michigan sophomore T.J. Hensick, who is eligible for the next draft, concurs.“I know as much as you,” he says, citing multiple scenarios for the NHL’s future and his place in the quagmire. He realizes that what’s going on over his head is something he “can’t control”—what he can control is his contribution to Michigan’s success this year.
Whenever the NHL resumes action, its rookies will be in a unique situation—there will be significantly more of them, since 2004’s class never got an opportunity to play. When asked if this would create an increasingly competitive atmosphere among younger players, Thelen acknowledges that "it's a packed league,” but balances this with basic hockey logic that no lockout will change: “it’s everyone’s goal to play in the NHL… You’re always competing for your job.”
Fellow Spartan sophomore Drew Miller (a 2003 draft pick) claims he will take advantage of his remaining time at State to “keep working hard to improve” his game so he will be ready to compete on a larger stage.
While there will be an amplified level of competition, the increased level of attention that college hockey has gotten due to the lack of the NHL has given some players an unexpected level of exposure—from Sports Center highlights to increased broadcast coverage. Hensick cites more attention from major-league GMS, creating more opportunities to make impressions: “you always have to bring your A-game.”
Not that Hensick, nor any of the other players, has needed the presence of a GM to bring his A-game.
It’s almost impossible to escape the buzz that hockey will never recover and fans will abandon the sport. However, most of the players interviewed believe that the sport will be fine.
Hensick cites the exposure that hockey has gotten through other venues in the NHL’s absence and believes that fans will return.
“It’s something we’ll overcome as a society,” states Hensick.
Nystrom agrees, though recognizing that some people outside of hockey’s “niche cities” may not be as committed.
Drew Miller also recognizes this disparity among fans. “Some understand. Some don’t.”
Overall, the players seem most mournful of the season because it means they won’t be able to watch games for inspiration and relaxation, not because it limits their career horizon.In the fog of negativity that surrounds hockey these days, the college players offer a refreshing perspective emphasizing hard work, ambition, confidence—but most of all, a vigorous commitment to helping their teams succeed.
Of the NHL, Nystrom says, “That’s the next step. But we’re not done with this step.”