- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
After playing for the Canadian team in the world junior championship in the Czech Republic, Wisconsin Badgers freshman center Kyle Turris is back in the college game. He returned with a gold medal and memories that will remain worthy of a couple pages in a scrapbook, even if he plays in the NHL for 20 years.
Turris can also smile about the "college boy" teasing he took as the only member of the Canadian team to be playing NCAA hockey on the other side of the border this season.
"Everybody gave me a hard time," he said. "But everyone realizes why I'm here and nobody put me down because of it. I understand it's a different route, but nobody put me down for it."
A native of the Vancouver, British Columbia, suburb of New Westminster who turned 18 only last August, Turris wears No. 19, in homage to Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, and Turris' father, a former pro lacrosse player. The Phoenix Coyotes took him with the third overall choice in the 2007 draft, behind Patrick Kane and James vanRiemsdyk. Turris then stepped aside, at least temporarily, as he followed through on his plans to play for former NHL forward Mike Eaves at Wisconsin.
With the Badgers, Turris got off to a fast start, netting five goals in his first four games before hitting a lull and then rebounding. Going into the Badgers' weekend home series against their biggest rivals, the Minnesota Gophers, he has nine goals and 15 assists in 20 games.
"He came on the scene and it was unbelievable, the production he had right away," Eaves said. "And then we started [Western Collegiate Hockey Association] play and teams focused on him and he was an 18-year-old playing against 23- or 24-year-olds. He got rocked pretty good. You can see that he's playing on a high level now."
Even before Turris set foot on campus as a freshman, the speculation began.
Well, how long is he going to stay?
Long enough to make his first trip in Madison to The Plaza for a Plazaburger and the world-famous (and highly secret) sauce?
"I don't know," Turris said. "I'm just going to take it one step at a time, and learn as much as I can from coach Eaves. I'm having a great time. I'm loving it. I couldn't be happier. I've learned so much, and I'm having a great time with these guys. We have great facilities, a great school, and I'm really enjoying it."
Turris said he is "definitely following" the Coyotes. "They've been playing really well, and playing an open style of hockey," he said. "It's great to see."
Turris has enlisted Denver-based player agent Kurt Overhardt as a "family advisor" and said he hears "from a couple of guys in the organization quite a bit -- text messages and that sort of thing. We've kept in contact and they're letting me have a good time."
But for how long?
Coyotes GM Don Maloney said last week that Turris "is right on schedule. He's played well for Wisconsin, and it's been a great experience for him playing against more mature players. He was one of the go-to players with Team Canada, the top center on the top line, so we're really pleased with what he's done to date."
Wisconsin fans hope Turris sticks with college hockey at least as long as Blackhawks rookie Jonathan Toews, another prized Canadian prospect who turned his back on major junior and opted to play NCAA hockey. Toews played for Canada's back-to-back world junior champions the past two seasons as a freshman and sophomore at the University of North Dakota, and then signed with Chicago.
Because Turris was one of the younger members of the '07 draft crop and has a slight 6-foot, 180-pound frame, it's not unreasonable, or completely selfish, to make the case that he would be better off in the long run playing at least two seasons for the Badgers. The success of the smaller Kane (the Blackhawks' other prized rookie is only 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds) might seem evidence in a counterargument, but he is nearly a year older than Turris.
"Oh, I always have to physically bulk up," Turris said. "It's been that way since I've been 14 years old and it's going to be that way until I'm 21, 22. I'm not too worried about it."
Said Maloney: "If you look at Kyle and you say, 'What's going to stop him from getting to the National Hockey League?' I don't think it's anything other than just maturing physically, letting nature take its course."
Turris and Toews are in a minority, since most top Canadian prospects still play major junior. The minuscule stipend-like paychecks make the players professionals in the eyes of the NCAA, so if a top player makes the major junior choice at 16 or 17, the only way to change course and play U.S. college hockey is a seldom-used appeals process that has about 18 layers of red tape.
But the reverse is possible: Players can, and often do, leave NCAA hockey to play major junior, sometimes at the encouragement of NHL teams that have drafted them and believe the pro-style rules and schedules will aid their development.
Many American-born players also take the major junior path, playing in one of the three leagues under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella, whether north of the border or for the handful of U.S.-based CHL franchises. The Coyotes' standout rookie, Minnesota-born Peter Mueller, played two seasons of major junior with the Everett (Wash.) Silvertips.
It all means that NCAA coaches sometimes feel as if they're fighting off both the NHL and major junior.
Eaves had a full career with the Badgers before playing 324 NHL games with the Minnesota North Stars and Calgary Flames. Eaves' son, Patrick, played three seasons at Boston College before signing with Ottawa. The problem, as Eaves and other top NCAA coaches see it, is when the NHL puts pressure on draft choices to leave before they're ready.
The new NHL collective bargaining agreement has complicated matters, with its lower threshold for initial free agency and other issues giving NHL teams increased incentive to sign prospects sooner. Coupled with the disquieting trend of some NHL executives arguing that even non-NHL-ready prospects should leave school to be indoctrinated to the pro game in the American Hockey League, or even leave school for major junior, it means the tenuous relationship between NCAA hockey and the NHL has gotten messier.
"We don't have any leverage, to be honest," Eaves said. "We can go and express our concerns, but we have very little leverage with [NHL teams]. They're in a business, a big-time business, and if they think a player is going to help them, they're going to go and sign him. We certainly hope that we're part of the discussion.
"We don't want to hold anybody back. When they're ready, we want them to go because it's their earning potential. They have one time in their life to make this kind of earning potential. If they're ready, god bless 'em, let 'em go. But if they're not, as with our son, well, they wanted him after his sophomore year, and he wasn't ready. He was going to play in the minors. He waited one more year, he had another year of growth -- emotionally, mentally, physically -- and then he was ready to make that step. He didn't spend as much time riding buses as opposed to being with the big club."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly appeared at the American Hockey Coaches Convention last year to address the issues and listen to the coaches' views. The league has also formed a committee to communicate with college coaches and study its relationship with the NCAA programs. The Islanders' recent signing of Kyle Okposo, who left the University of Minnesota squad in the middle of his sophomore season, and especially Islanders GM Garth Snow's blast at UM coach Don Lucia, raised the tensions.
"It's certainly a concern that one or more of the elements of the CBA may be working to facilitate the earlier signing of college players, and to the extent that's happening, it's obviously not consistent with the intent of the parties," Daly said last week. "We are committed to working with the colleges and with the [NHL] Players' Association to monitor signings and trends, and to try to address these issues in a positive way, if at all possible. It's very important to the league to maintain a good working relationship with collegiate hockey coaches and administrators for the good of the game, the players and hockey fans everywhere."
Turris is such an elite prospect, the issue isn't NCAA versus major junior or even minor league pro. It's NCAA versus the NHL, and it comes down to deciding when he's ready to be productive in the NHL. The good news for Wisconsin is Phoenix's No. 1 pick from 2004, Blake Wheeler, is a junior at Minnesota, and the Coyotes have not objected to him sticking through at least three seasons in the Gophers' program under Lucia.
With Turris, Maloney said, "It's an ongoing process with us, and it's not one-sided. It's Kyle, it's his family, it's his advisor, it's the school and what's best for his long-term development. We're certainly watching him and at the end of the year we will do another evaluation of where he's at. He is the one who is going to have to decide if he's ready for the next step. And does it make sense, long term for us."
Maloney also wanted to make clear that he's a fan of NCAA hockey.
"Wisconsin has a terrific program, and there are no issues whatsoever from my experience when it comes to development of players at the college level," he said. "I do think every case is different.
"But certainly a guy like Kyle, he needed to go this route. It's been good for him. In our case, what might make us think a little harder about bringing him in earlier is our coach [Wayne Gretzky]. He's terrific with young players, he plays young players, he puts them in situations to excel. Seventy-five percent of the teams around the league, you'd say no. Young players just don't play. My experience with Wayne, well, all you have to do is look at Peter Mueller. He's playing on our first line as a 19-year-old. If in fact Kyle Turris were to come to us next year, hypothetically, the only reason we'd ever consider that is that No. 1, he's going to be here and play. I don't mean be on the roster, but take a regular shift. A lot of things have to happen before that's going to happen."
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."
Kyle Turris believes he's doing the right thing by playing college hockey. The issue, of course, is for how long? Even he says he doesn't know the answer to that.