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Hockey Notes

New college initiative is ready to put Kelly at the head of the class

Coach Joe Sacco has hardly looked like a greenhorn behind the Colorado bench, as he guides a young and energetic group. Coach Joe Sacco has hardly looked like a greenhorn behind the Colorado bench, as he guides a young and energetic group. (Darryl Dyck/Associated Press)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
November 22, 2009

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Paul Kelly, given the heave-ho Aug. 31 as boss of the NHL Players Association, will be named again as an executive director Tuesday afternoon in a news conference held in the shadows of Harvard Stadium.

But this time, Kelly will be named executive director of College Hockey Inc. His mission: raise the profile of Division 1 NCAA hockey and spread the word, mainly to US and Canadian-born youngsters, that the college game is a viable alternative, if not a preferred option, to playing major junior hockey in Canada. It can also be the route to the NHL.

“Like one Division 1 coach said to me recently,’’ said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, “it’s like they’re selling Edsels in Canada and we’re selling Cadillacs down here in the US. But the problem is, they’re selling more than we are.’’

Kelly, meanwhile, gains some separation from the clunker he was dealt by the Players Association, which remains in disarray after the ham-fisted decision to fire him just prior to Labor Day. It has since become obvious that he was the victim of a carefully crafted palace coup, which has subsequently led to the resignations of the many, shall we say, characters who were eager to inherit control of the NHLPA.

While the NHLPA tries to right its listing and rudderless ship, Kelly now will attempt to bring more positive attention to the US college game - a challenge, he said, that he is eager to tackle.

“Not only do I love the challenge,’’ said Kelly, “but I love the idea that I get to build this initiative from the ground up. I knew I wanted to remain in hockey in a meaningful way.

“I suppose I could have gone back to law, be that with a big firm or just hang my own shingle and start taking cases. But I love the game, and after getting a taste of it with the PA job, it wasn’t something that I wanted to give up. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.’’

College Hockey Inc. will be headquartered in Newton, not far from Kelly’s home in Needham, and he soon will hire a staff. Much of the mission will center around a marketing campaign, one that no doubt will be directed at the parents of teen-agers who begin to make important career/education decisions around hockey as early as age 14.

Under NCAA rules, a prospect must be 16 before a college can recruit him, which means, in many cases, the top Canadian junior programs have a two-year advantage in the process. College Hockey Inc. will try to neutralize that edge.

“As soon as that kid plays junior,’’ reminded Bertagna, the former Harvard goalie, “he’s lost his eligibility ever to play in the NCAA. Not all players or their parents are aware of that when they’re making their decision. So, sure, it’s in our best interest that they know that, but it’s also in the interest of that player and his parents.

“Obviously, there are kids who are making the right decision to go the major junior route. If they don’t have an academic bone in their body, and their dream is to play in the NHL, then that’s fine for them.

“But we’ve proven over and over in the college game that the good players will still make it to the NHL, and if they don’t, they’ll have had the experience of playing top hockey, and they’ll have that college degree for the rest of their lives.’’

Kelly, said Bertagna, proved to be the best candidate from among some 30 very strong applicants for the position. The funding for the job, which will have Kelly speaking on behalf of the 58 Division 1 college teams in the country, is coming from USA Hockey, which is re-purposing funds it was granted by the NHL to boost hockey interest and awareness in the US.

“A lot has changed in the college game over the last 10 years,’’ noted Bertagna. “For instance, there are 42 Division 1 players playing this year from California. That’s an unbelievable shift. A 14- or 16-year-old kid from California doesn’t know Seattle from BU, which isn’t the case of a kid from, say, Minnesota or Massachusetts - they know the culture.

“The Canadian junior programs simply do a better job selling their programs, and they’re now competing for kids from all over, including Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and New England, and everywhere else.’’

According to Bertagna, 10 years ago, there were 181 Massachusetts kids playing Division 1 NCAA hockey. A decade later, that number dropped to 129. New England-wide, the number fell from 288 to 197 over the same span. Going back just four years, only 65 Americans were playing in Canada’s major junior program. Last season, that number stood at 111.

“All the Division 1 commissioners are thrilled to have Paul aboard,’’ said Bertagna. “He brings credibility, skill, contacts, and personality to what we believe is a vital position.’’

LINING UP A CHECK
Some hits and misses
With a quarter of the season in the books, a brief look at some of the good, the bad, and the curious thus far:

THE GOOD

Anze Kopitar - Here in the Hub of Hockey, we don’t get to see nearly enough of the Western Conference, but Kopitar, now in his fourth season, has blossomed into one of the game’s stars. He’s big (6 feet 3 inches/220 pounds) and slick, a lefthanded-shooting center who, headed into yesterday, led the league in points (32). He averaged nearly 70 points in his first three seasons with the bottom-feeding Kings and could boost that to 110-120 this season. Born in what was Yugoslavia, he was the No. 11 pick in the ’05 draft. The 204 points he compiled in his first three NHL seasons nearly double Joe Thornton’s 108.

Joe Sacco - The rookie bench boss in Colorado, plugged in when Patrick Roy opted not to return to Denver, has managed a surprising revival in the Rockies. Headed into yesterday, the 13-7-3 Avalanche stood second overall in the West. The former BU standout has energized and emboldened a young, inexperienced lineup, and journeyman goalie Craig Anderson has his blocker and glove in the Vezina balloting.

THE BAD

Lightweight sticks - They break much too easily (note the number of times they shatter when a player receives a pass). They cost far too much. They diminish puckhandling skills. Contrary to initial belief, they have not added to scoring. The worst part: With nearly everyone able to rip off 100-m.p.h. slappers (often earmarked for Bobby Schmautzville in the second balcony), more bones are being broken. Marc Savard has missed a month with a broken bone in his left foot, compliments of a slapper. Brian Gionta last week exited the Habs lineup, the broken bone in his foot - courtesy of a slapper - to keep him sidelined for a month. Time to go back to the future with wooden sticks.

The NHLPA - Buffoonery of the highest order. Late last week, the union had a court order served on its ex-ombudsman, Buzz Hargrove, the one-time head of the Canadian Auto Workers. Earlier this month, Hargrove resigned his post, only hours before the PA planned to can him (much like his predecessor, Eric Lindros, was, shall we say, nudged off the same job earlier this year). Reason for the court order: The PA wants to make sure that Hargrove has returned/surrendered all material in his possession that belongs to the PA. Now they have Donald Fehr, the outgoing boss of the Major League Baseball Players Association, guiding them in recrafting their constitution. It was Lindros and the union’s ex-general counsel, Ian Penny, who originally courted Fehr. Will these guys ever get it right, or do they just enjoy self-mutilation?

THE CURIOUS

Coaching stability - Game No. 325 of the 1,230-game schedule was wrapped up last night, and all bench bosses remained in place across the Original 30. Meanwhile, headed into yesterday, the likes of Toronto, Carolina, Minnesota, Anaheim, and St. Louis had won but 29 of their 102 games. Consider Randy Carlyle (Ducks) and Andy Murray (Blues) the most vulnerable on that list.

Quebec City - The good mayor, Regis Lebeaume, had a few discussions/feelers with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about bringing back the NHL and is on record that he wants his beautiful city to build a state-of-the-art arena to replace Le Colisee. This can’t happen fast enough. If the bricks and mortar get in place, the league has to send its weakest link, Phoenix, to Quebec faster than a Boom Boom Geoffrion slapper.

ETC.
Teammates can eat up his hospitality
Bruins winger Shawn Thornton is a Canadian boy, but he and his wife fully embrace the American Thanksgiving holiday. This Thursday, they will open up their Charlestown home to any team member who doesn’t have family in town for the annual food fest. Mark Stuart, Byron Bitz, and Marc Savard are among the invited. “My first year pro, Thanksgiving was two turkey pot pies and a six-pack of Labatt’s for me and my roomie, Ryan Pepperall,’’ said Thornton, thinking back to his days as a bachelor. “Pretty said, huh? I said that day, if I ever got married, I’d have it at my place and open it up to everybody.’’

Chance for an assist
Brendan Shanahan, whose training-camp dalliance with the Devils proved to be only that, finally packed it in after 656 career goals. Such a bounty seems a little excessive after watching the Bruins struggle for goals this season. Shanahan, 40, will have his pick of the litter for his next career - be it in TV, working with a team, or for the NHL or NHLPA. Provided he’s up for it, he would be a tremendous addition to the PA, especially now that the players have begun to reshape the union’s constitution. He can always do any of those other gigs, and no doubt be good at any of them. But the union’s need has never been greater for a smart, respected, high-profile player to come aboard in a position of weight and authority. If not Shanny, then maybe the equally respected Gary Roberts.

Loose pucks
Rumor has it the Blackhawks are close to finalizing long-term extensions for core young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, both of whom may average upward of $6 million a year. That means someone has to go, and the likeliest targets would be ex-Boston prospect Kris Versteeg (cap hit: $3.1 million), Dustin Byfuglien ($3 million), and Brian Campbell ($7.14 million) . . . Entering yesterday, ex-Bruin Joe Thornton (24) and Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf (20) led the league in assists. Next in line was Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle with 20. Had Boston GM Peter Chiarelli been able to consummate the trade in June for Phil Kessel, Kaberle was the roster player headed to Boston. Those 20 assists would look pretty good on the Boston back line right now . . . According to old pal John Shannon, who now writes for Rogerssportsnet.ca, the Jan. 1, 2011, Winter Classic will have the Capitals facing the Rangers at the new Yankee Stadium. The Capitals were supposed to play at Fenway for the upcoming Classic, but a late switch had the Flyers instead headed to the Back Bay . . . Look for the Igloo in Pittsburgh to be razed around September 2010, just as the new Consol Energy Center is about to open its doors to the Penguins . . . Wow, $9 million approved to build a footbridge over Route 1. Tremendous. Naming-rights deal sure to follow. Must mean the collective geniuses atop Beacon Hill any day now will rubber-stamp the long-awaited monorail that will connect North and South Stations, bringing consumers in droves to the many commercial/residential towers that have sprung up on those empty lots around TD Bank Garden. Oh, wait . . .

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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