By Kyle Whitney
In an attempt to prepare for the upcoming hockey season, the Northern Michigan Wildcats have dipped into a largely untapped NCAA talent pool: Sweden.
Erik Gustafsson, who played last season at Sweden's Superelit level, is currently the only NMU recruit to have signed and returned a National Letter of Intent.
In the last two seasons, Gustafsson played 79 games for Timra and posted 10 goals and 17 assists. For his career, he picked up 16 goals and 20 assists.Although Gustafsson is the only player to have signed an NLI thus far, NMU head coach Walt Kyle would not rule out the possibility of more European players joining next year's squad.
"One of the things we tried to do this year was we tried to make in-roads into a couple of countries in Europe," he said.
Kyle said European hockey is a high-skill, fast-paced game. It is also played on an Olympic-sized ice sheet, exactly like the one in the Berry Events Center, and in that regard, the transition should be seamless.
The switch to American hockey, however, can still pose a challenge for incoming European freshman. Such was the case with former NMU goaltender Tuomas Tarkki, who came to Marquette from Finland in 2001. After three years on the bench, Tarkki became an all-American and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist in his senior season.
"With these guys, it is probably a longer learning curve than with the other guys," Kyle said. "They are going to have to come over here and adjust to culture as well as hockey."
An adjustment must also be made by the NMU staff members, who have put a great deal of time into establishing connections and a positive rapport throughout European hockey. One of the most attractive aspects of the European hockey scene is the fact that very few NCAA clubs are currently scouting it, said Kyle, who sent assistant coach John Olver overseas on a recruiting trip.
"I don't think very many schools are in there right now," Kyle said. "John Olver told me, 'What a treat to go over and watch games in Sweden and to be sitting in the stands and be the only college guy there.'"
This is a stark contrast to the heavily scouted games in the United States, where there will sometimes be as many as 30 scouts in the stands.This sheer number of scouts is one of the reasons that Northern is finding it more and more necessary to search for their talent overseas, Kyle said.
Although the Wildcats have had a winning record in nine of the past 10 seasons, they will likely never achieve the type of reputation held by the larger Michigan schools.
"Northern Michigan is not going to have the same profile as Michigan or Michigan State," Kyle said. "Do we hope to have as good or better of a program? Yes. Do we think that our institution and our academics are every bit as good? Absolutely. But we're not flashed across national television every time there's a basketball game or a football game. When you're dealing with young kids, that's the stuff they see. We're going to always fight that battle."
Kyle said that he hopes to close the gap between NMU and the larger schools in the coming years and that one way to do that is by recruiting players one and two years in advance. The coach said that this has been a growing trend in college hockey for many years and that Northern is finally catching up with the rest of the pack.
"Quite honestly, when I was here before as an assistant [recruiting years ahead] wasn't a part of college hockey," Kyle said. "It has become part of it and it has taken us a couple of years to get involved in it. We've been able to do it this year and we're real happy with our recruiting right now."
From The North Wind, April 19, 2007