Blog: Too Cool For School?

With more and more players arriving in Belfast from the NCAA system, Patrick Smyth discusses the merits of the University deals and recruitment from North American colleges.

The Ulster University have for a long time been a strong partner of the Belfast Giants. The ability to have a player that may financially be out of reach for the club, be subsequently acquired due to the ability to complete their schooling at UU is an edge over a few other clubs that has allowed us fantastic talents in teal.

Likewise some have seen it, occasionally, as a restrictive crutch for the club. There have been players who have not performed at the level required for the Giants to succeed, yet their roster spot appeared secure in the organisation. The place in University has at times appeared to be so valuable to the club that to jettison the player could limit future numbers in the dual position within the Giants.

So the question is, are the places worth it, and with the ongoing cooperation with the NCAA, has the recruitment policy of the Giants began to swing in a direction that subsequently brings more youthful talent into club via the Uni links?

Mark McCutcheon.

There, I’ve said it, the name that a lot of people throw in the air when discussing the perils of the university deals. McCutcheon’s numbers in Europe had at times been solid, but his sojourn in Belfast was, to be frank, disappointing (I can hear Neil “The Coach” Russell’s ‘I told you so’ from here).

The discussion at the time, and during McCutcheon’s multiple lay-offs through injury, was that the connections to the university in his contract were all that was keeping him in a job. The Giants have often been reluctant to sack a player regardless of contract scenario. Yet as the season was falling away for the Giants and the fans clambered for change, McCutcheon and his degree were, rightly or wrongly, held as a scapegoat for the stagnation of that season.

For every McCutcheon, however, we have a Jeremy Rebek, Austrian league champion, Austrian National Team D man and two-time World Championship Gold Medal winner. Rebek would become an Elite League winning Captain for the Giants. Arguably a player who at that time was out of the Giants financial reach, yet the carrot held out to an experienced and talented player in the twilight of his career brought him to the Odyssey Arena and aided the Belfast in their title-winning year.

“The twilight of his career”, did you pick up on that?

Yes, the Giants have been accused of using the university places on too many occasions to bring in the more, lets say, “experienced” players. It’s hard to argue that point as for the last few years the rosters have been toward the upper echelons of the EIHL age scale.

That can bring forth the discussion that “age is but a number” when it comes to hockey players. But steering away from that for now, this season sees the Giants dig further into their links with the NCAA and Adam Keefe’s recruitment brings a healthy balance between youth and experience, not least through schooling.

You see, the carrot of a university place has become more common in the EIHL, a lot of teams have developed links with local schools, be it the Storm with the University of Salford or the Blaze with Coventry University.

This has strengthened the depth of the talent pool in the Elite League, though it has also brought a level of parity to the incentive that wasnt there when these positions were first offered in Belfast.

Credit must therefore be given to the links the Giants have created with the NCAA Hockey system. The ongoing success of the Friendship Four has not only provided the Belfast public with an experience in North American hockey not seen anywhere else on these islands, it has also strengthened the Belfast Giants brand AND provided the team with a strong player pool to draw from.

Darcy Murphy is a prime example of the green shoots this link has brought. A Friendship Four alumnus with Colgate University, he dipped his toe in the ECHL and AHL before the offer came from Belfast. When I spoke to him last year after joining the Giants he was quick to highlight both his experiences in Belfast with Colgate and the opportunity to continue his schooling at the University of Ulster.

Darcy Murphy – Chief Scout (Pic: PressEye)

Murphy, after an admittedly slow start, became one of the seasons outstanding talents in teal. He has subsequently become one of Adam Keefe’s chief recruiters with the likes of Kyle Baun being drawn to the club by his friend and, likewise, the incentive of schooling.

Baun, another Colgate Alumnus, was able to draw on the recommendations from both Murphy and from Spiro Goulakos, who’s own sparkling Giants season was aided in his recruitment by the ties to the University of Ulster.

The links of the Friendship Four have certainly began to bear fruit and when utilised alongside the cooperation with the University of Ulster, have given Adam Keefe and the Belfast Giants the ability to put together more balanced rosters.

I hasten to say “more youthful” as this is not the full story. The value in the experienced players such as Jim Vandermeer, Patrick Dwyer, Colin Shields and Jonathan Ferland, to name but a few, remains high. Youthful exuberance also needs a calm head to guide it.

As this season transpires and the new feel to the Giants make-up competes, we will see just how effective the links to the NCAA and UU have been in the quest for silverware.

The importance of the University place as an incentive for recruitment is not in question. It is paramount to the success of the club.

The pitfalls that may come with it are certainly a risk, but in order to succeed these risks must be taken on. McCutcheon and his ilk have been, thankfully, few and far between. But for the casual fan in the stand, the potential minutiae of a players contract doesnt enter into the reasoning when calling for a player to be cut, and arguably nor should it. That aspect of the Giants approach is a whole other blog in itself.

The key is the right player for the right contract, and the role of the NCAA in all this will be fascinating. Because while the Uni Deal has become common place, the NCAA and Friendship Four could become the link that gives the Giants an edge in that quest for future Elite League titles.

And with Darcy Murphy’s role in helping to win the Challenge Cup, you could say the link is already paying off.

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