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Frei: Pioneers prompt a question about Avalanche. How many played NCAA hockey?



On Saturday, when the Denver Pioneers routed Minnesota State 5-1 in the Frozen Four championship game at Boston and the Avalanche took a 2-1 shootout win over the Oilers at Edmonton, I caught myself wondering:

How many of the Avalanche played U.S. college/NCAA hockey?

It didn’t take long to tally.


Eleven took the alternative route, playing major junior in one of the three leagues under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella — Western, Ontario and Quebec. There still are stubborn pockets of NHL traditionalists that insist the pro-like conditions of major junior are the best prep.

The trick for NCAA hockey, whether the players are from the U.S., Canada or Europe, is to preserve collegiate eligibility by playing Junior A and in most cases turning down major junior opportunities to stay on college path, usually before they’re drafted. (Example: Cale Makar played Junior A with the Brooks Bandits, spurning major junior’s Medicine Hat Tigers. The Avalanche made him the No. 4 overall NHL draft choice in 2017 — a couple of months before he headed to UMass for what turned out to be two spectacular seasons as the Avs watched.)

That NCAA path takes level heads, from both the young men, and their families.

For many prospects, two or three seasons of US college hockey after they’re already drafted at 17 or 18, are more palatable. They get more practice, legitimate academics and the campus atmosphere … for however long they stay. NHL prospects almost never stay four years, for several reasons, including the expiration of draft rights if they play four seasons. Regardless, it’s generally a positive experience.

I’ve covered and written about both NCAA and major junior hockey.

One developmental size doesn’t fit all, but another major difference is the possible college degree that awaits the players who end up without pro hockey in their future and stick through their senior years.

Four other Avalanche came directly from Europe to the North American pro game.

Here’s the rundown:


Erik Johnson, Minnesota (1 season)

Jack Johnson, Michigan (2)

Devon Toews, Quinnipiac (3)

Cale Makar, UMass (2)

Andrew Cogliano, Michigan (2)

Alex Newhook, Boston College (2)

Logan O’Connor, Denver (3)

J.T. Compher, Michigan (3)

Josh Manson, Northeastern (3)

Nico Sturm, Clarkson (3)



Bo Byram, Vancouver (WHL)

Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Val ‘d Or (QMJHL)

Nathan MacKinnon, Halifax (QMJHL)

Darren Helm, Medicine Hat (WHL)

Andre Burakovsky, Erie (OHL)

Darcy Kuemper, Red Deer (WHL)

Samuel Girard, Shawinigan (QMJHL)

Kurtis MacDermid, Owen Sound and Erie, OHL

Ryan Murray, Everett (WHL)

Nazem Kadri, Kitchener and London (OHL)

Gabriel Landeskog, Kitchener (OHL)


FROM EUROPE TO NORTH AMERICAN PRO HOCKEY: Valeri Nichushkin, Pavel Francouz, Mikko Rantanen, Artturi Lehkonen.


Terry Frei (, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is and his bio is available at

His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here

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