VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks have a very educated dressing room.
And those players will college degrees will tell you their time in the halls of higher learning has resulted in more intellectual exchanges among teammates.
“It goes without saying,” defenceman Kevin Bieksa said with a wink. “The conversations are a little more interesting around here. It’s not always just pure hockey talk.
“Don’t get me wrong. There are still a couple of dummies in this room. Not everyone is interesting. A few guys you stay away from on the road.”
Goaltender Roberto Luongo is the highest paid Canuck, earning around US$10 million this season. He never went to college.
“No kidding,” deadpanned Bieksa.
So what sort of things occupy the educated Canuck players when they’re not concentrating on preparing for Game 2 of their Western Conference quarter-final series with the Chicago Blackhawks, which goes Friday night?
Nuclear fission? Advance calculus? Economics?
“Crossword puzzles,” said Bieksa. “Scrabble.”
Nine current Vancouver players attending colleges in the U.S.
Bieksa, a native of Grimsby, Ont., went to Bowling Green in Ohio. Goaltender Cory Schneider, of Marblehead, Mass., attended Boston College. Tanner Glass, of Craven, Sask., went to Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H.
“It helps to be a smart guy to understand the game,” said Glass. “That’s not to say the guys who didn’t go to college aren’t smart guys.”
All the talk about college produced an eye-roll from defenceman Aaron Rome. The Nesbitt, Man., native worked his way into the NHL after playing in the Western Hockey League.
Rome scoffed when asked about Glass’s education.
“I sit beside him on the plane,” said Rome. “He’s probably not the smartest guy, especially for going to an Ivy League school.
“We play Scrabble sometimes. It’s embarrassing actually.”
Defenceman Keith Ballard, who attended the University of Minnesota, said the other players turn to those with a college degree in emergencies.
“Any problem solving, find a college guy,” said Ballard, of Baudette, Min. “He can figure it out.”
On a more serious note, players agree going to college has become a more acceptable path to the NHL.
“A while back there was a stigma that college guys didn’t translate into good NHL players,” said Ballard.
“Since the lockout, there’s been an emphasis on speed (and) on skating, which is a huge part of the college game. That is kind of where the game has transcended a little bit.”
Smaller players like Brian Gionta of the Montreal Canadiens, Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils and Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning all came out of college and excelled in the NHL.
“Those guys kind of paved the way,” said Ballard. “Guys who have proven you don’t need to be a six-foot-two power forward to be successful.
“Now you are seeing (teams) have those smaller, shifty, speedy guys. When you can’t clutch and grab in the neutral zone, they are so hard to handle.”
Rome said many young players on the fast track tend to play junior hockey.
“For the guys who didn’t develop as early, they go the college route,” he said. “That’s a great route, too.
“It gives you a few extra years to develop. You get lots of practice time in college and you come out a man.”
One of the challenges for college players is making an adjustment to the grinding NHL schedule.
“Junior prepares you in the way you play,” said Rome. “You get away from home early. You get used to the grind of playing two or three times a week.
“You find out if you want to play right away or you find out if you don’t want to play.”
Bieksa said the quality of college hockey has improved.
“It’s competitive now,” he said. “You see a lot more college kids getting drafted.
“The exposure they are getting, you pair that with the education, and it’s a no-brainer for me.”