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Is The CIS An Underutilized Resource?

Half of the CIS Alumni currently playing in the NHL.
Half of the CIS Alumni currently playing in the NHL.

When the Edmonton Oilers signed Hunter Tremblay to a two-way contract back in April, Scott Reynolds noted how rare the signing of a Canadian Interuniversity Sport player by an NHL team has been in recent years.  As evidence, he looked at recent high scoring placers to come from the CIS: "There aren't a whole lot of CIS players that end up coming through the ranks to the NHL, so a look at a couple of the recent top five scorers in the Atlantic University Conference might be instructive. Marc Rancourt, for instance, was second in scoring in 2009-10, and has been a point per game guy for the Landshut Cannibals in the German second division. Justin Donati was a top five guy in 2008-09, and he's torn the cover off the ball in the ECHL for the last two years, finishing second in the scoring race in 2009-10, and leading the league in scoring this season. If Tremblay is in that range, he may well be a useful player in the AHL right now. And it's not like it's impossible for the player to turn out. Joel Ward came through the University of Prince Edward Island to the pro game, played a couple of years in the AHL, and then found his way to the NHL at age 28."

"There aren't a whole lot of CIS players that end up coming through the ranks..." caught my eye.  It's odd to me that a league larger than any of the junior or minor leagues, a league filled with players possessing 15-20 years of experience each, a league filled with players in the midst of their last chance, a haven for late bloomers, wouldn't send more players to the NHL.

CIS Alumni who have appeared in the NHL include: Bryon Baltimore, Wade Campbell, Colin Chisholm, Cory Cross, Randy Gregg, Ian Herbers, Dave Hindmarch, Kevin Primeau, Brent Severyn, Don Spring from The University of Alberta; Jack Borotsik, Tim Lenardon from Brandon University; Ross Cory, Dan Lucas, Barry Wilcox from the University of British Columbia; Ron Fischer, Terry Johnson, Scott Robinson from the University of Calgary; Jim Corsi, Glenn Tomalty from Concordia University; Paul MacLean, Jody Shelley from the Dalhousie University; Ken Lockett from the University of Guelph; Ken Richardson, Dave Tataryn, Jack Valiquette from Laurentian University; Larry Carriere, Chris Hayes from Loyola College; Clint Albright, Andy Blair, Art Chapman, Tom Cook, Jimmy Creighton, Stu Grimson, George Maneluk, Morris Mott, Murray Murdoch, Don Raleigh, Mike Ridley, Gus Rivers, Jack Ruttan, Wilfie Starr, Ron Talakoski, Justin Larkins from the University of Manitoba; Nels Crutchfield, Mathieu Darche, Jack Gelineau, Jack McGill, Johnny Peirson, Reggie Sinclair from McGill University; Gary Inness, Don O'Donoghue from McMaster University; Charlie Bourgeois, Claude Vilgrain from the Université de Moncton; Ross Yates from Mount Allison University; Darryl Boyce from the University of New Brunswick; Dave Cameron, Gerry Fleming, Joel Ward from the University of Prince Edward Island; Morris Mott from Queen's University; Ken Lovsin, Ross McKay from the University of Saskatchewan; Bernie Wolfe from Sir George Williams University; Dale McTavish, P.J. Stock from St. Francis Xavier University; Mike Backman, Mal Davis, Doug Doull, Bob Warner from St. Mary's University; Mike Boland, Nelson DeBenedet, Andre Hidi, Larry Hopkins, Gary Inness, Paul Knox, Darren Lowe, Chuck Luksa, Hank Monteith, Dave Reid, Kent Ruhnke, John Wright from the University of Toronto; Steve Rucchin from the University of Western Ontario; and Rob Dopson from Willfrid Laurier University.

There are a handful of career NHL players on the list, and a number players who spent a couple of seasons in the league.  Edmonton Oilers' fans are quite familiar with The University of Alberta's Randy Gregg, Edmonton's greatest hockey hero.  Gregg remains CIS' (then CIAU - Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union) greatest alumnus and most famous face with Mike Ridley in second place, though NHL fans should recognize Darryl Boyce, Mathieu Darche, Jody Shelley and Joel Ward - the only CIS alumni active in the NHL today.  Considering that Gregg's Golden Bears had three future NHL players on the roster during his time there, four CIS players in the entire NHL today seems to be a terribly low number.

With 34 teams and over 800 players competing each season in CIS hockey, odds are a few players should be able to play hockey at the high pro levels.  In recent years, nearly all players on CIS rosters come from the CHL thanks to various CHL scholarship programs.  For example, in the WHL:

For every season a player plays in the WHL, they receive a full year guaranteed Scholarship, including tuition, textbooks and compulsory fees, to a post-secondary institution of their choice. For example, players graduating from a four-year WHL career are eligible to receive four years of scholarship funding.

Players who aren't drafted into the NHL or signed as overage players by professional teams take advantage of the scholarship dollars made available to them through their years of CHL service.  They get a "free" education, but they also get a unique opportunity to continue their development as hockey players.  While undrafted, unsigned CHL players aren't typically thought of as developmental projects, players of the same age in the NCAA, AHL and NHL are thought of as such.  Rob Daum told Guy Flaming that the CIS is most certainly a developmental league:

"The perception is that it isn’t.  You’ve got players that come here out of major junior and they’ve been scouted for four or five years, some of them. But to think a player doesn’t develop after they turn 20 years old is absurd. I mean, what’s the American Hockey League for? What we have here are guys who are potentially late bloomers, some of them mature physically at a later time, and they continue to develop as players; there’s no question about that."

If the players are still developing in the CIS, there remains a chance that at least a few of them are going to put everything together and be able to make the jump to the next level, a la Boyce, Darche and Ward.  Late bloomers are typical in the NCAA, consider players like Taylor Fedun, signed by the Oilers out of Princeton, and Brayden Irwin, signed by the Maple Leafs out of Vermont.  Both developed solid games and developed physically as they completed their eligibility - the same thing probably happens in the CIS, but is anyone around to notice?

A number of observers have told me that NHL scouts are an occasional presence at CIS games, but not a regular presence.  One scout told me that his team had no one responsible for covering CIS teams, but that if they get a tip, they'll drop in on a game or two to follow-up.  A survey of NHL team sites and scout biographies turned up no one who had direct responsibility for CIS teams.

In spite of the lack of scouting, there are opportunities available to CIS players, though those opportunities are limited mostly to summer development camp invites. The Oilers brought Tremblay's UNB teammate Kyle Bailey to their developmental camp, and each summer about 20-25 CIS players are invited to developmental camps throughout the NHL.

CIS teams have plenty of talented players, players who prove it by playing extremely well in various professional leagues.  However, there isn't enough talent for NHL teams to devote more resources to scouting the league.  It's an ideal situation to use advanced stats to delve deep into the league without spending a large amount of money.

It's possible that a well-connected network is enough to keep NHL teams informed of what's going on in the CIS, but if there are inefficiencies in the scouting and signing of CIS players, it makes sense for an NHL team to exploit the opening.  But even if there are some uncovered gems there has to be enough excess value in those gems to make a financial investment in extended scouting or a full-time scout worthwhile. 

There's no way that CIS teams carry enough excess value for all 30 teams to spend scouting resources on the league.  NHL teams are better off requesting detailed stats from the 34 member teams so that they may do advanced statistical analysis in order to unearth the value in the league.  Beyond that, development camps will remain the best, and cheapest, method of finding CIS talent.