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John Gibson and the Exodus of Elite Talent

A stoic John Gibson calculates the number of girls he's going to get now that he's playing major junior instead of at Michigan.
A stoic John Gibson calculates the number of girls he's going to get now that he's playing major junior instead of at Michigan.


Shawn Hunwick. Adam Janecyk.

These are the names of the two goaltenders for the University of Michigan Men's hockey team. Hunwick is a fifth year-senior, and stands 5'7.'' He is also the younger brother of former Wolverine and current Avs defenseman Matt Hunwick. The younger Hunwick lurked in the shadows of the Michigan program for several years until then-starter Bryan Hogan was injured in the spring of 2010. But despite being a last-ditch option for a desperate team, Hunwick carried the Wolverines through the 2010 CCHA playoffs and into a NCAA tournament berth.

However, his primary claim to fame comes from his play in the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four, when he blanked North Dakota's potent offense in the semifinals. (I watched the game, flabbergasted, and expected North Dakota to score at any moment. It never happened). Unfortunately, Hunwick's season would end two days later, after an OT Minnesota-Duluth goal hit the back of his net in the championship game. But the impression had been made. Hunwick, who was once a peripheral figure in the Michigan hockey program, was now a bona fide starter. Janecyk, Hunwick's current backup, is a largely unknown quantity. He's only played 1:32 minutes of college hockey, and that 1:32 was in relief action in a March 12 game against Bowling Green in the CCHA Quarterfinals (Michigan won, and Janecyk made one save). Coach Red Berenson and his players were expecting a third goalie to arrive on campus this fall, Ducks prospect John Gibson, but Gibson defected to the OHL in this past July.

Gibson's departure has left Michigan scrambling. Berenson and his assistants have been reduced to scouring the ranks of Michigan's club hockey team in an attempt to find a third goalie. This is not an ideal situation for the program, which hoped to count the gold medalist (and Best Goaltender) from this year's Memorial of Ivan Hlinka (U18 Tournament) among their ranks. Gibson's 6'4'' frame and elegant butterfly style were intended to complement Hunwick's gritty, Tim Thomas-esque goaltending. Instead, the younger man will be taking his talents to Kitchener.

The sting of Gibson's departure is intensified by the fact that this is the second year in a row that Michigan's elite goalie recruit has decided to bolt for the CHL. However, the previous defector, Stars prospect Jack Campbell, notified Berenson and his staff ten months before the season started. This would have been enough time to pursue another recruit for the 2010-2011 season, but Michigan chose to put all their efforts into recruiting Gibson for the 2011-2012 season.

Gibson's bad timing - and the Letter of Intent that he already signed - has also produced hard feelings among Wolverine fans, and the Gibson rumor mill churns aggressively. Scan the comment section of this post, and you will observe a multitude of accusations about the Ducks prospect: he ordered Kitchener pads a month before decommitting to Michigan, his agent told him to go to the CHL route, and the most brutal - the Ducks organization encouraged him to leave Michigan so that they could monitor his development more closely. Similar rumors surrounded Cam Fowler, who verbally committed to Notre Dame at age 14 before decommitting at age 17 to play for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. Fowler was projected to be a Top 5 (Top 3, really) draft pick in the 2010 Draft, and luckily for us, he fell to Number 12. This worked out in our favor, but it has always been rumored that his precipitous draft fall was ‘punishment' for decommitting to Notre Dame.

The Gibson and Fowler rumors have never been substantiated, but the hard feelings that their departures produced suggest that changes could be made in the way that young hockey players are recruited for both NCAA teams and the CHL. I believe that 14-15 year old players should not be obligated to commit firmly to colleges that they will not be attending for several years. They should be kept away from predatory, "Jack Reilly"-esque agents (to quote a commenter on The Blog That Yost Built), and organizations like the CHL should represent benefits like ‘education packages' accurately. But after that, the decision becomes the player's. Decisions to bow out of college commitments should be made in a timely fashion, and before signing a letter of intent. But after the decision has been made, a player should not be demonized for it.

Even though I believe that the NCAA should not take drastic steps to lure (and retain) elite players, I would still like to see the college game gain a wider audience. Organizations like College Hockey Inc are beginning to market NCAA hockey to young players in Canada, where it is gaining interest. In a June 2010 interview with College Hockey News, College Hockey Inc's Executive Director Paul Kelly also expressed a desire to broadcast a college hockey ‘game of the week' in Canada. These steps may not lure another Jonathan Toews-caliber player to North Dakota, but they are a start. (These steps can also be applied in America, especially in non-traditional markets like Southern California).

Several members of the AC staff (including myself) believe that Gibson should have stayed with Michigan, but college hockey teams - and fans - should be prepared to adapt to roster changes, and should not feel betrayed by players who decommit. That is easier said than done, of course, but each player's ultimate goal is to play in the NHL, and he must determine what his path to the show will be. Fowler's rookie season was near-Calder worthy, and I don't think that his game would have benefited from a year or two at Notre Dame.

Later in the interview, Kelly also argued that 16 year olds who play ten or fewer games in the CHL should be allowed to maintain their NCAA eligibility. This caveat would be designed primarily to protect major junior draftees who "don't make the big club right away," but are called up to play a handful of games, which destroys their collegiate eligibility. Many college coaches are opposed to allowing CHL players to maintain this eligibility because of the assumption that elite players will bolt to the north and hurt the level of play in college hockey. But as the Gibson case has shown us, it is hard to predict what elite players will do. I'm sure that the Taylors and Tylers of the world will continue to flock to the CHL, but Zach and TJ are talented, too, and they decided to take the college route.

I would extend Kelly's suggestion even further, inviting players between the ages of 16 and 18 who are not satisfied with the CHL (regardless of games played) to join a college hockey team. This might bring in an influx of the dreaded ‘burnouts,' but it might also lead to the discovery of another Hunwick, or a solid - but not necessarily elite - goaltender that could be a 4 year contributor to a college hockey team. It hurts to lose a Gibson-caliber talent, but college hockey teams do not need to be filled with blue chip prospects to play at a high level. My Yale Bulldogs do not currently have any first or second round draft picks on their roster, but they've made three NCAA tournament appearances in the last three years. And if NCAA hockey left the door open for players who are not ‘stars,' then Michigan might have a third goalie right now.

But we should still hope that Adam Janecyk is prepared to stand on his head.