Defenseman Grant Hutton often feeds forward Josh Melnick for transitions out of Miami’s defensive zone. Melnick may dump the puck and forward Karch Bachman will use his speed to try to make space in the offensive zone. Forward Carson Meyer may then jump off the bench for a line change and, if defenseman Louie Belpedio is pinching, Meyer might find Belpedio in front of the net.
Sometimes the puck goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes 18- to 20-year-olds are drafted by the National Hockey League, sometimes they’re not.
Regardless, every Monday through Thursday, 28 guys will trickle into Goggin Ice Center before 1 p.m. Twenty-eight hockey players lace up their skates for practice around 2 p.m. and spill onto the ice at the Steve ‘Coach’ Cady Arena. Four are goalies, eight are defensemen and 16 are forwards.
Three are drafted to the NHL. Twenty-five are not. They treat each other the same. The coaches treat them all the same. You can’t tell who’s who.
“I don’t really think about that too much,” Melnick says. “I just come to the rink every day and am excited because it’s my passion. I love to do it, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
At the rink, Hutton, Melnick, Bachman, Meyer and Belpedio are the same – skating the same drills, blocking the same shots, loving the same game. All quietly aspire to play in the NHL. All of their teammates do too.
“Obviously, that’s the end goal,” Hutton says. “You want to play in the NHL, you want to win the [Stanley] Cup.”
The NHL dream
These five guys laced up their skates for the first time when they were just three or four. Not long after, they started dreaming of playing in the NHL. Melnick can’t remember when it happened exactly, but he remembers that it did.
There’s no fast track to the NHL. Kids can play youth hockey until they’re 16. They’ll often play junior hockey throughout high school until they’re 20-years-old. Then, hopefully, they’ll play in the United States Hockey League for a Tier I team.
When hockey players turn 18, they’re eligible for the NHL Entry Draft. At the draft, every franchise in the NHL has the opportunity to claim the rights of any eligible hockey player. When players turn 21, they’re ineligible.
Hockey players make their way to college campuses when they’re 18, 19 or 20. When they graduate, they hope to make their way to the NHL. They hope to play for minor league teams.
His NHL dreams led now 22-year-old Melnick to play youth hockey, then play for a private high school in his home state of New Jersey and then for the Tier I junior team Youngstown Phantoms.
“You want to put yourself in the best position you can to develop yourself,” Melnick says.
Hutton’s dad put him in skates as soon as he could walk, and skating became second-nature. As he grew up, nearby Indianapolis was becoming a competitive hockey hub. Once he exhausted his resources in Indiana, Hutton played for four junior teams from Texas to Wisconsin.
“When you’re playing juniors, I don’t think you’re necessarily thinking of what NHL team you’re going to play on,” Hutton, also 22, says. “You’re thinking, ‘What college do I want to go to?’”
In a small town in Indiana, the lake in Bachman’s backyard would freeze over every winter. Bachman, 20, started playing hockey on that lake when he was 3-years-old. Since then, he’s played junior hockey in Michigan and at Culver Military Academy for high school.
Belpedio, 22, was born in Chicago, but eventually moved to Plymouth, Michigan to play for the United States National Development Under-17 and Under-18 teams.
In Meyer’s hometown of Columbus, he played for the AAA Ohio Blue Jackets until he was 17. He took a year to play in Kearney, Nebraska for the Tri City Storm before coming to Miami University when he was 19. He’s now a sophomore.
The hockey world is small. Bachman and Belpedio each played several years at the same high school. Hutton and Meyer both played for the Tri City Storm. There are archived pictures of various Miami players playing junior hockey against each other.
All five have won championships, broken records and nabbed league honors.
Like them, most hockey players plan to play AAA youth hockey, then play for a Tier I USHL team for their junior career – the highest level of junior hockey in the country.
And then, Meyer says, “Obviously, you want to play [Division I] if you want to go to the NHL.”
And, all of them do want to go to the NHL. But wanting, working hard and even choosing a top-tier college program like Miami’s isn’t always enough.
The NHL reality
Thirty-one teams make up the NHL. Twenty-three players make up each team. That’s 713 active players, not counting those who signed NHL contracts to play for affiliate teams in the American Hockey League or Ontario Hockey League.
Sixty Division I teams and 88 Division II/III teams make up the NCAA. If each team averages 25 players, that’s 3,700 players eligible for the NHL. That means 2,987 hopeful hockey players will never play an NHL game.
Dave Starman, CBS Sports Network analyst and part-time professional scout for the Montreal Canadiens, knows how to get to the NHL. And, he knows how hard it is.
“For these kids,” Starman says, “a lot of them know when you crunch the numbers and there are only X-amount of spots at the NHL level, they realize that college hockey is going to be the apex of their careers.”
Watch a Miami hockey game, or even practice, and you wouldn’t be able to tell. Up and down the roster, players are physical and determined and they’re great play-makers.
There’s Melnick evading defensemen along the boards, somehow staying on his feet. And a shift later, Hutton’s shouldering off opponents before dutifully passing the puck to Bachman for a rush up the ice. Belpedio blasts pucks through traffic and Meyer weaves through clogged neutral zones.
These guys wow ‘Coach’ Cady Arena crowds. They hope they’re wowing the NHL scouts – each hopes to become one of the lucky few.
What it takes
But it’s not just luck, however. Scouts can’t tell when players get lucky, but they can tell when a player has “hockey sense.” After scouting for the Canadiens for years, Starman knows when a kid has “hockey sense” – the NHL equivalent to the “it factor.”
Starman knows when a kid can make a play – a kid moving at a fast pace, making a decision at top speed. He notices the kid who battles for loose pucks, who can win a one-on-one battle and the kid who rolls with the punches, not letting a bad play get to him.
Add statistics – numbers impressive enough to catch a scout’s eyes. Starman shifts his attention to the ice, because stats aren’t everything.
“When you look at a guy’s numbers, they tell you part of the story,” Starman says. “The eyeball test and your knowledge of the program and the product will tell you a whole lot more about that player and why his numbers look the way they are.”
Then, skating ability – how, and if, a player can get the puck out of his skates and then onto his stick to take a quick shot.
Add skill – skill that can compete with the abundant skill inundating the NHL. It can be a first-line guy, making replay worthy plays almost every time he’s on the ice. But it can also be fourth-line guy playing 12 to 13 minutes of good, gutsy hockey.
That’s all a college kid needs to make it to the NHL.
Still, it can be done. Seven former RedHawks play in the NHL: notably, Alec Martinez of the Los Angeles Kings, Andy Greene of the New Jersey Devils, Reilly Smith of the Vegas Golden Knights and, most recently, Sean Kuraly of the Boston Bruins.
It can be done
Sean Kuraly started skating when he could hardly balance on skates, pushing around a chair for help, much like Melnick. He skated on a frozen pond whenever his family would visit his parents’ hometown of Toronto, like Bachman. He played for the Columbus Blue Jackets until he was 17, like Meyer and then he went to Indianapolis to play in the USHL, like Hutton. He would eventually captain the RedHawks, like Belpedio.
Now 25, Kuraly played for Miami from 2012 to 2016. Much like the current RedHawks, he aspired to play in the NHL.
“You don’t know how realistic your dream is. It’s hard to tell,” Kuraly says. “But it was definitely a dream.”
Kuraly’s dream came one step closer in the summer of 2011 when he was 18. The San Jose Sharks drafted him 133rd in the NHL Entry Draft. It was a relief – he felt like the Sharks had given him a little bit of credibility that weekend in Minnesota.
Some drafted players never play an NHL game. Even so, Kuraly was happy to hear his name called.
He played another year for the Indiana Ice before accepting an offer to play collegiate hockey at Miami. It was a no-brainer for Sean, whose dad Rick played for the RedHawks from 1979-1983.
Sean Kuraly began to make his mark at Miami. He played almost every game during his freshman year. He only missed two to win a gold medal for team USA in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.
The next year, he ranked third on Miami’s team with 29 points. The year after that, he helped the RedHawks to an NCHC conference championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Kuraly was rolling. In the summer of 2015, he was in Oxford with his teammates, already preparing for the next season. Then, his agent called one night and told him his rights could be traded. The agent called back the next day at lunchtime and told Kuraly he belonged to the Boston Bruins.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Kuraly says. “It caught me totally off guard. It was quite a shock and you’re not really ready for it.”
After the news sank in, Kuraly had a choice to make: play his senior year at Miami or play for Boston’s AHL affiliate team.
Kuraly was practical. He decided to take a final year to both develop as a hockey player and to finish his degree.
He doesn’t regret it.
“I was really lucky I got traded to a place that wanted me and had plans for me and my career and were always honest with those plans and realistic,” Kuraly says. “So far, I think it’s worked out pretty well for both sides.”
He played his first game as a Boston Bruin in November 2016. He was in and out of the line-up during his first year, but Kuraly is tall, quick-thinking and dependable. His efforts have led him to hold a spot on the Bruins’ roster for this 2017-18 NHL season.
Kuraly averages 12 minutes a night with five goals and six assists on the season, and centers Boston’s fourth line. It’s working out, he says, thanks in large part to Miami’s program.
Dreaming the dream
Kuraly is one of the 27 players Miami’s Enrico Blasi has seen signed to NHL contracts during his 18 years as head coach. Blasi’s name popped up as Kuraly rattled off the benefits of playing hockey at Miami.
“To me, it was the people I was surrounded with on a daily basis that pushed me,” Kuraly says. Then he pauses. “I wouldn’t say pushed me, actually. I was always fairly self-motivated, but to help me along my way.”
And Blasi’s coaching staff is determined to help their players along the way, even though it isn’t easy convincing 28 young players to buy into a common goal. But it is exciting, and it’s why Blasi does his job the way he does.
Blasi pays close attention to the changes 18-year-old boys go through to become 22-year-old men. He knows how valuable it is to have a roster of malleable players. His staff values working with hockey players who don’t think playing hockey is a job.
“You have their attention, so it is a little bit different coaching college as opposed to pro and it should be,” Blasi says.
Some players are drafted after a couple years playing collegiate hockey – some opt to sign entry-level contracts and leave their Division I programs. Jack Eichel did it. Jonathon Toews did too. Two years ago, Miami’s Jack Roslovic inked a contract with the Winnipeg Jets and has been playing for the Jets and their affiliate team ever since.
College hockey players who aren’t drafted still earn the attention of NHL scouts. Scouts know the value of a college education. Not necessarily the value of what is learned in the classroom, but the value of growing up.
“To me, I like the college development,” Starman says. “I like that an 18-year-old kid can go in and come out a 22-year-old man in terms of emotional maturity and physical maturity and mental maturity and the ability to train – I kind of like that.”
College hockey is supposed to make better players and better people. But Kuraly, Starman and Blasi all agree that it doesn’t work for everyone.
Once a RedHawk with his own NHL dreams, Blasi knows he’s likely coaching 28 individuals who want to become NHL-worthy hockey players. His players are determined, and he’s determined to help them get there.
Playing under pressure
NHL scouts typically watch a player for just one night of a Friday-Saturday series. On Friday, a player’s determination to reach the NHL may lead to undisciplined penalties. Yet on Saturday, that same determination might lead to a multi-point game.
Starman says that’s the hardest part of his job – only being able to watch a player for one night before driving or flying to watch another player in another city the next night. There are things that a full weekend can tell you that one night cannot.
In just one night, scouts may not see the little things that make a player’s game complete. They cannot see if a player maintains impressive play from Friday to Saturday. And they can’t see a player’s resiliency on Saturday after a disappointing Friday.
“You wouldn’t be human if it wasn’t in the back of your mind that a bad shift could leave a lasting impression,” Starman says. “Or, vice versa, a good shift could also leave a lasting impression.”
Junior hockey players are used to playing 60 games a season. Miami hockey only plays 36. That’s 24 fewer games to score goals, make saves and finish hits. Every game counts a little bit more.
Twenty-three hockey players make up a junior team’s roster. One or two may be scratched. Of the 28 guys on Miami’s roster, six to seven could be benched on game nights. Not only do hockey players face competition from the other end of the ice, but college hockey players compete for limited roster spots.
“I think guys are a lot harder on each other to stay in the lineup,” Belpedio says. “Even practice days [are] kind of like a game and you have to play hard every day and earn your spot on the weekend.”
If you don’t play, you don’t get seen.
With nothing untouched by technology, the process of scouting NCAA players has changed. Lasting impressions are easier to overcome with the advent of college hockey broadcasts. A college hockey player can now be watched on a screen. Starman and his colleagues are able to watch condensed versions of games and take note of who makes the highlight reel.
Scouts are always watching now – whether at the rink or behind a screen. You would think the pressure blankets the game ice, but Miami hockey players are just playing hockey.
“The great teams and the great players are the ones that can limit those distractions and turn that bad pressure into good pressure,” Hutton says.
Those great players use pressure to better themselves, and to better their team.
Though the players work to tune out the NHL, Coach Blasi is ever aware of NHL aspirations. When Blasi and his assistant coaches recruit kids, it becomes Miami’s responsibility to make good on their promises – promises of development and promises of having a shot at the NHL.
It keeps Blasi up at night.
“There’s lots of nights where I stay up wondering what’s going on,” Blasi says. “’Did we do the right thing? Did we say the right thing?’ To me, I always tell people I have two daughters that are my own and I have 28 sons pretty much every day of the week. I don’t really think about anything other than, ‘That’s my family and I have to take care of them.’”
Days turn into weekends and weekends into months. Players work harder. Games are more important as a post-season approaches. Games are even more important as a season passes, taking with it opportunities to be watched by future NHL employers.
“I would have to think yeah, it’s probably on their mind,” Starman says. “I would also have to think that they’re well coached enough, and they’re well advised enough that they have learned, you know what? One bad turnover in a big game is not going to cost them an NHL career.”
The guys who make it
It’s nearly impossible to tell why one great college player gets drafted and another doesn’t. NHL franchises only release general statements with general comments about the teams’ drafted players.
Last year, Carson Meyer stayed at home and kept himself busy during the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. In his final year of draft eligibility, he knew he would go in a later round. He hoped he would go in a later round.
Then, the phone rang. The Columbus Blue Jackets were calling. Meyer was drafted 179th on a Saturday in June and went to development camp that Sunday.
“You don’t really, I don’t think anybody really, sits back and enjoys it,” Meyer says. “You just take the next step and try to start getting better.”
Karch Bachman went to the 2015 NHL Entry Draft in Sunrise, Florida. His name was called and suddenly he was a Florida Panther. The crowd cheered for the newest addition to its home franchise.
“All these guys who would say, ‘It’s only the beginning,’ and it doesn’t really mean anything,” Bachman says. “Every guy there is trying to get to the next level. It was a cool experience, but it doesn’t really set us apart from anyone else.”
When Louie Belpedio was drafted 80th to the Minnesota Wild in 2014 at the NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia, Belpedio smiled at his family, and they grinned back.
“’It’s only the beginning’ doesn’t necessarily mean anything besides the fact that we’re only signed with one team now,” Belpedio says. “But it was cool, and it did feel good to know that all of your hard work has finally paid off.”
On those draft days, Meyer, Bachman and Belpedio’s names were on the lips of the NHL if only for minutes. On those draft days, thousands of other hockey players saw no return on the years of their investment.
The guys who don’t
The NHL entry draft is not the only way to make it to the NHL. Josh Melnick and Grant Hutton know this. Alongside their drafted peers, they’ve had equally good days and sometimes better games.
They are both assistant captains to Belpedio. Melnick has 25 points on the season and is third in the NCAA with three game winning goals. Hutton has logged 20 points – his eight power play goals rank third in the NCAA.
“[I’m] sort of taking it year-by-year,” Melnick says. “Not really thinking ahead too much, just staying in the moment. I think I can speak for both of us, and we aspire to play at the next level and we’re just focusing on bettering ourselves now and being the best we can every day.”
They’re playing hard and working harder. They hope their best selves will be noticed by one of the NHL’s 31 teams.
But, with greater uncertainty comes more options. While one team owns a draft pick’s rights, an NCAA “free agent” can be scouted by any team.
Many free agents opt to attend organizations’ invite-only development camps. Melnick has been to the Boston Bruins’ and the Vegas Golden Knights’. Hutton went to the Knights’ too, then to the Toronto Maple Leafs’.
At development camps, the teams learn about the players and the players learn about the teams. If nothing immediate comes from the camps, players return to their college organizations more mentally and physically developed.
“I think it’s just good exposure,” Hutton says. “What we have going [at Miami] doesn’t change the fact that we still have dreams to play in the NHL.”
The guys who make it and the guys who don’t
Melnick and Hutton may be part of the 2,987 who will not make it to the NHL. Meyer, Bachman and Belpedio may be part of the 2,987, too.
Being drafted by an NHL team doesn’t change an individual’s skill level, “compete level” or “hockey sense.” Being drafted is a foot in the door, sure, but drafted hockey players will play alongside undrafted players after college.
Kuraly is one of the 713 active NHL players. Being drafted led him to believe he had a greater shot at making it. Seeing his teammates from his 2013 World Juniors team sign contracts gave him even more of a reason to believe. But at Miami, Kuraly knew he had to be just as hardworking as his drafted or undrafted teammates.
That hard work always comes from a love for the game.
“If you’re coming to the rink and you don’t want to play hockey, it’s going to be a miserable four years if you’re at the collegiate level,” Hutton says. “Aside from whatever’s coming after college, whether it’s in the workforce or if it’s playing a professional sport for a living, it comes back to just having passion for the game.”
For Miami players, being drafted doesn’t change the mentality or energy guys bring to the rink every day.
“I think when you start thinking about next year, two years from now, stuff like that, it kind of gets in the way of your everyday development and mindset,” Belpedio says. “I think it’s unfair to yourself and your teammates to put your future in front of what’s going on right now here.”
It doesn’t change how the players are coached.
“I don’t think, ‘oh geez, I’m going to treat this guy different because he’s going to play in the NHL or this guy different because he’s not going to play in the NHL,’” Blasi says. “We’re trying to reach a common goal here and I’ve said it in different ways over the years and lately it’s been, ‘Be where your feet are. Be in the moment. Be present, this is where you’re at. Let’s make the best of every day and be your best.’
Twenty-eight guys take the ice every day, six days a week for Miami.
Three are drafted. Twenty-five are not. You can’t tell who’s who because being drafted to an NHL team doesn’t help Miami hockey win championships.
“It would be selfish of us to focus too much on ourselves because we have our team around us, as a collective unit, looking to win championships and that’s our main focus,” Melnick says.
For the most part, the 28 guys disregard the NHL logos next to their teammates’ names on game sheets. Focusing on Miami’s team goals for better power plays and penalty kills, process play and consistency leads to individuals passing better, executing smarter and hitting harder.
Sometimes the puck goes in, sometimes it doesn’t. Some Miami players are drafted by the NHL, some aren’t.
“You don’t really look at yourself as any better than anyone else. You’d like to think [you are] sometimes, but you know in your heart it’s not the truth,” Kuraly says. “It’s just one or two people’s opinion for the reason you’re drafted, and it can also be one or two people’s opinion you’re not.”