Sunday, January 02, 2011

Dylan Olsen Signing Doesn't Hurt College Hockey

As I mentioned Friday, former UMD defenseman Dylan Olsen chose to cement his departure from school by signing a pro contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. He will report to Rockford of the American Hockey League after Canada is done playing in the IIHF World Junior Championships.

As is true whenever a college hockey player bolts midseason -- whether it be the likes of Brock Trotter or Kyle Okposo or Olsen or anyone else -- this has resulted in some hand-wringing, including by some UMD fans who went from hoping for the best for the Canadians in the World Juniors to practically hoping the arena collapses during one of their games.

The other thing you'll hear -- if you listen closely enough -- is talk that Olsen's signing is a blow to college hockey.

The same thing is said when a player like Sam Lofquist or Josh Birkholz leaves college for major junior. The same is said when a player like Jarred Tinordi jumps from a college commitment at the last minute to go play major junior.

While Olsen leaving doesn't do anything to make college hockey better, it's also hard to argue that Olsen's departure is any kind of blow to the reputation of the college game or its ability to attract and develop top players.

Instead, it's another example of what we mean when we say college isn't for everyone.

Some people flourish when given the added responsibility of being a student along with being a top-notch Division I athlete. That doesn't mean every Tom, Dick, and Harry who gets picked in the first round should go that route. For a guy like Olsen, there were signs that it just wasn't meant to be.

Olsen was allegedly a recruit with academic baggage when he signed at UMD. More than one hockey publication noted that other Division I schools tried to recruit him, but they didn't think he would qualify. Then sources last December indicated that Olsen might not return to the team. He managed to stay eligible then, and again to start his sophomore season.

After an uneven freshman season on the ice, Olsen really started to blossom as a sophomore. More than once, UMD coach Scott Sandelin talked about Olsen's development, referencing his failure to make the 2010 Canadian World Junior team as a negative turning point in his first year with UMD. It made sense. After all, Olsen was 18, carrying the weight of insanely high expectations, and generally having trouble with the speed of the Division I game. Then throw in the major disappointment of not having a chance to play for your country. It was a lot.

This season, Olsen got better. He developed chemistry with freshman Justin Faulk, who is on the American World Junior team. The two played together a lot, and eventually developed as UMD's best defensive pair. They saw extensive ice time in all situations, even if they weren't always on the ice together on power play and penalty kill.

Both left for the WJCs, and the roof fell in Thursday against North Dakota.

Rumors were out there for a week or two prior to that night that Olsen was going to be gone because of academics. Then Kyle Schmidt got hurt in practice Wednesday (out a month or so). Come Thursday night, the press box was buzzing with word that Olsen's fate was sealed: He was not going to return to UMD. It was confirmed Friday with his signing.

This was not an Okposo. Olsen didn't have a choice but to leave UMD. He sealed his fate by not taking care of his academic business.

College wasn't for him.

The sad thing is that we basically all knew that going in.

Olsen's loss isn't a loss for college hockey. He had a chance to go to UMD and better himself as a player and a person.

Unfortunately for him, he only chose to take advantage of one of those opportunities.

That doesn't hurt the college game. We already know that college hockey isn't the right place for every 18-year-old. Some need more time in juniors to mature ... physically and mentally. Some need to play in Canada's major junior system to develop, then move on to the pros. Unless you're a completely irrational supporter of either the CHL or NCAA, you recognize and understand this, and you're okay with it.

Olsen leaving proves nothing about the college game. It would have proven nothing had he left for major junior at some point, or if he hadn't come to college to start with.

Moreover, this story shows no previously undiscovered inadequacies in the NCAA system, nor does it show any real flaws in the NHL system.


The theories are out there. Some are speculating that he never intended to come back. He was gone no matter what. That's unfortunate, but I can't confirm any of that, and I'm not about to assail someone for something that can't be proven.

One thing I have a serious problem with is how this was handled. As of Friday, two sources told me that UMD coaches had not heard directly from Olsen or his agent about his decision. Duluth News Tribune writer Kevin Pates, who broke the story, had to find out from outside sources. Meaning someone with the Blackhawks or NHL.

That's disappointing, and no matter the other circumstances involved, it speaks to the character of the people involved. Before ink was put to paper, that phone call should have been made as a courtesy. UMD's coaches invested a lot of time in Olsen's development, in terms of ice time, practice hours, and off-ice work. The common courtesy of a phone call when he decides to leave early for pro hockey -- especially when leaving early during the season -- is the least that can be expected.

Hopefully, it's a phone call Olsen made this weekend. Better late than never, right?

It doesn't change the reality. UMD gave him a lot of ice time over the first 17 games (he left before the 18th game for the World Junior tryouts), and now they have to adjust on the fly to not having him again this season. For the likes of Wade Bergman, Brady Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Drew Olson, and Faulk, the job is tougher. Olsen not being around doesn't make this a better team. Instead, it's up to the Bulldogs to respond in a way that makes them a better team.

We'll find out starting Monday night if it's something UMD can make happen.

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