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CIS hockey improving at combining hockey and higher education, while some just promise it

Former Saskatchewan captain Kyle Ross (left) played 10 years in the WHL and Canada West (The Canadian Press file …

Perhaps Canadians would not jump for the dangling carrot — major junior players being eligible for the NCAA — if the country's own brand post-secondary puck received its due more frequently.

Whatever becomes of those agitating for a union in the Canadian Hockey League in the name of education, education, education, remains to be seen. (In the wake of Tuesday's bombshells, one does wonder who would sign a  membership card furnished by a group  facing serious allegations about its spokesman's identity and past.) During all this tumult and shouting about the CHLPA, though, it's often been overlooked that Canadian Interuniversity Sport is already holding up its end of the bargain on helping junior grads combine a high calibre of hockey with higher education.

The dream-factory economics of developmental hockey in Canada, selling hope, dictates CIS players often perform in front of crowds a fraction of the size of what they experienced as teenagers in the CHL. But the ever-improving quality of play is undeniable. Perennial Top 10 CIS squads attract players who opted to use their junior-league education packages instead of trying their luck with an AHL contract.

The What Should Be — what if CHL grads could go to the NCAA? — is sexier. But let's give the What Is that is the upper echelon of CIS hockey its due.

"The level of play, over the last decade, it's not even comparable between Year 1 and Year 10," says Saskatchewan Huskies coach Dave Adoph, whose team is ranked No. 1 in CIS and will host the University Cup in March, fewer than two months before the WHL's Blades host the MasterCard Memorial Cup. "It's so far superior it's unbelievable.

"It used to be the major junior guys were reluctant to go to university at first because they had been brainwashed from age 16 to go be pro hockey players," adds Adolph, who noted it's possible to play a combined 10 seasons in the CHL and CIS. "That's all they thought of. Now they're required to go to school while they're playing and there's a push to take [university] classes. They're thinking about 'what if I can't play the NHL?' Now the CIS is a good alternative and they can always go play in the Coast league [ECHL] with a degree [after graduating]."

By almost all accounts, that comes back to all three Canadian major junior circuits improving the education packages for former players. Some teams also offer more money to a player who was a hot commodity when he came into the league, which can be problematic. While CIS doesn't offer full athletic scholarships, it also provides assistance to student-athletes who maintain a good academic standing. It's not necessarily a full ride, but it can be one.

Halifax Mooseheads grad Bryce Swan, whose former team is facing legal actions from the proposed Canadian Hockey League Players' Association, was one of the highest NHL draft picks ever to choose CIS. At age 20 in 2008, two years after being taken in the second round of the NHL draft by the Anaheim Ducks, Swan decided to play for the St. Francis Xavier X-Men ("I didn't want to be thrown into a system where I'd be thrown out," he said at the time). He also turned down an AHL offer from the Minnesota Wild to keep playing and studying in Antigonish, N.S..

"At that point, was it worth it to turn down another year of school paid for to go and dip a toe in the water to see if you could make it?" says Swan, who is now skating for the powerhouse UNB Varsity Reds after a four-year run with St. FX. "You don't know where you're going to end up, maybe in the Coast. If it was a year earlier, probably I would have went pro, but after playing a year of CIS and knowing how good it was, I knew it was worth it to go back.

"Every year I've been in the league someone has signed so I knew my chance could come, but I'd also have my education. I don't regret my decision."

Come next spring, the 25-year-old Cape Bretoner will have a MBA in his pocket. Thanks to using his education package from the QMJHL and the Mooseheads, while getting additional support at St. FX, Swan will have relatively little student debt compared to most new graduates in Canada.

"For myself, after two degrees, including a masters' degrees, I'm going to end up with $10,000, $15,000 in student loans," says the North Sydney, N.S., native, whose five years in school exceeded his four in the Quebec League. "When you think about that, that's pretty great compared to some people."

'Came here to get better'

That is far from the exception. Gardiner MacDougall, UNB's coach, recalls when current AHL veteran Darryl Boyce demurred from signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, instead waiting another year before turning pro.

"It was a $60,000 contract and I said, 'are you sure?' " recalls MacDougall, whose Varsity Reds are ranked No. 4 in the country. "And he said, 'Coach, I came here to win and we didn't win last year, plus I came here to get better and I can get a better contract next year.'

Every year a player or two, often from either Atlantic University Sport or Canada West, manages to land a pro shot.

"It's going the uncharted route," MacDougall concedes. "But now it's so competitive that if you're on a two-way American League contract, maybe school's a great option and you can become a better player and get your education — or at least part of it — and then play some pro hockey."

No reason for change

The Big Hypothetical of NCAA eligiblity for major junior guys is pie-in-the-sky to CIS guys. There's already a good working relationship that perhaps shouldn't be jeopardized.

"I know the NCAA has full rides, but when you look at the education packages that are provided by the individual leagues and the assistance they're getting from the CIS schools, a lot of kids are getting a good chunk of their education paid for," says Brad Peddle, the coach at No. 7-ranked St. FX. "And we as coaches are getting real good players. It's something I can't see why anyone would want to change it."

There's also the benefit of staying in Canada, where a lot of Canadian players who end up in the NCAA might end up settling.

"The [education] package as a whole is as good as the NCAA if not better," Calgary Dinos coach Mark Howell says. "But it's also the whole experience, building a [professional] network, within the school and the city. Calgary has a booming economy and our graduates are coming out with terrific opportunities."

MacDougall, whose V-Reds' average attendance of 2,600 surpasses many CHL teams, reasons the lack of recognition for the CIS game might be because, "As Canadians, we don't hype our product as much as we should." Like the CHL, university sports has its nooks and crannies of intense fandom, but isn't national like the NHL. University hockey only gets national TV exposure once a year when Sportsnet covers the University Cup. It also lacks that push-the-needle performer, its own Connor McDavid. The style of play is a more structured north-south game, but it can make for gripping in-person watching. And it's impossible to step right in from major junior and dominate.

"What gets lost in all this is that the hockey is good," says UNB rookie defenceman Adrian Robertson, who played five OHL seasons in Peterborough, Windsor and Sarnia. "I didn't know what to expect coming into it. To be honest, the quality of hockey's even better than major junior. It lacks the high-end skill players, but the hockey is good and that's something I think few people realize — the fact you get to play another four years of really good hockey. I'm playing with and against good players who are 25, 26 years old. Plus there's a lot of great schools in Canada to choose from.

"All the glamour would be drawn to the NHL or the NCAA," adds Robertson. "But the average player here was a good player in the CHL. Coming in, the first few games caught me off-guard, 'oh, this is good.' There's not the first-round pick that the media is drawn to or that the fans go crazy over."

So what if, presto-chango, the NCAA did opens it doors to players with major junior experience? Howell, whose Dinos are ranked No. 10 in CIS, is not so sure he and his counterparts would be hard up to recruit capable performers.

"That's beyond us, we'll have to see how all of that unfolds," he says. "In the end, I don't think there's enough places for all these players to go anyways, There's still great situations in the CIS regardless. There's NCAA kids from Europe and more and more U.S. kids. There's fewer and fewer opportunities for Canadian kids and that's why I think more of them are looking at major junior. It's a viable place to develop and then you've got the scholarship program."

Which is precisely the point. Again, who knows what will become of the CHLPA. Just know there's a brand of hockey which isn't as attuned to the entertainment business as a junior team or a major NCAA D-1 athletic program. The revenue streams might be piddly, but it is uniquely entertaining while maintaining its first goal is graduating students. It is not perfect, but it's more workable than some have portrayed it over the last two months.

"In the CIS you don't have the budget of a NCAA team," Swan, the future MBA, says. "But those teams are driven by making money and CIS teams are more about the student-athlete.

"You definitely learn a lot about yourself. I think it really prepares you for life."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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