Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) --- The early departure of UMD men's hockey players to the pros is nothing new, tracing back to at least 1971 when Murray Keogan gave up the rest of his college eligibility for paychecks.
Keogan stayed only two years at UMD before leaving to sign with the St. Louis Blues organization. That's the same amount of time as the Bulldogs' most recent early departure, J.T. Brown.
“You just have to ask yourself if you think you’re ready, and if you have any doubts, you know you’re not ready," Brown said of the decision. "That was the main thing for me, making sure I was 100 percent ready to go before I decided to leave.”
Even Duluth Mayor Don Ness wanted J.T. to stay with the Bulldogs, but a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning allowed Brown to bolt right into an NHL uniform.
“J.T. is a tremendous player. He brings a lot of energy and vitality, and we wish him the very best," Mayor Ness said. "We wish he would have stayed for a couple more years at UMD, but we’re really excited for his pro career. I’m sure he will be very successful.”
Perhaps the biggest Bulldogs name to take the early leap was Brett Hull back in 1985. He signed a deal with Calgary after two seasons with UMD and went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NHL.
“It just goes to show how good the recruiting process is with the coaches," former UMD center Jack Connolly, "and how good the development is once the players get here.”
In just the past two seasons, actually, the UMD men's program has lost four players early to the NHL.
“It’s great. You have to love when you can see players step into the next level and succeed," Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk said. "I think it makes a good name for the school.”
It's not just players leaving to the NHL, though. In the past five years, the Bulldogs have seen 10 players leave early for professional hockey.
“We are part of that development process, so you have to be happy for your players whether they are here one year, two years, three years, or four years," UMD men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin said. "That’s just kind of the culture, the way it is in today’s game. Kids develop at different rates, people see different things in players, and opportunities are there for those players to have.”
Even UMD's current volunteer assistant coach Bill Watson faced this decision, leaving in 1985 after three seasons with the Bulldogs to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I was not sure, as a player, what else I was going to do in college hockey. I obviously would have loved to stay my senior year, but the time was right," Watson said. "Another thing was that I was a drafted hockey player, and it was just the right time to make that decision. It’s no different than J.T. feeling now that it’s the right time, no different than Justin Faulk or Mike Connolly the year before. That’s the sign of a great program. When you get good players, they become great players, and there is another league for them to play in."