Sure, many of us have been raised into this sport and taught to dislike the Minnesota Gophers. They're kind of like the Yankees in that regard. People either love them or wish they would just lose every night, for crying out loud.
But the Gophers' loss is also college hockey's loss, and in my view, this is just as much a black eye on the NHL, too.
Minnesota sophomore center Kyle Okposo is going to leave school, halfway through the Gophers' season, to sign a pro contract with the New Yor Islanders organization. Okposo heads to the Czech Republic to play for Team USA in the World Junior Championships before joining the Islanders. He'll probably end up playing either in the NHL or with the Islanders' AHL team in Bridgeport.
(The contract isn't done yet, but Okposo is leaving Minnesota.)
Word was that Okposo wanted to join the Islanders after his freshman year at Minnesota, but that the NHL organization just didn't think Okposo was ready. Oddly enough, that 6-5-11 (and a startling minus-nine) he's thrown up in Minnesota's first 18 games seems to have convinced them.
Could this move be related to the Chris Simon suspension? Okposo doesn't bring Simon's physical side, but he has size, strength, and goal-scoring ability. There's no guarantee that he plays a second in the NHL this season, however the Islanders could surely do worse than to give the kid some playing time.
Meanwhile, it doesn't seem that Minnesota is awfully happy about this:
"While I'm disappointed Kyle is leaving at this point of the season, his dream has been to play pro hockey," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "It is unfortunate that the Islanders put him in a very difficult position. I think our team has made strides the last few weeks and I'm looking forward to the second half of the season."Emphasis mine. Lucia's statement, which was not off-the-cuff, but instead carefully worded and released in writing without Lucia being made available for further comment, indicates that the Islanders somehow compelled Okposo to jump early. How they did that is not known. They could have made the offer so lucrative financially that Okposo couldn't turn it down. They could have guaranteed him some time on the Islanders' NHL roster this season. And they could have made it clear that those or other incentives weren't going to be available in a contract offer that came this spring.
The Gophers (and Gopher fans) are mad, and they have the right to be upset. Those of us who faithfully follow (or cover, in my case) college hockey are accustomed to losing players early to the professional ranks. In the league I follow, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, these moves are commonplace now. The WCHA lost 17 underclassmen to the pros after the 2005-2006 season, and another dozen left early this past summer. I don't think the NHL is "anti-college graduation", but I do think there's an issue here that has to be dealt with.
I'm all for players doing things to improve themselves. In Kyle Okposo's case, he is trying to make himself more ready to play in the NHL. I'm sure that watching former college foes Jonathan Toews (University of North Dakota, now with the Blackhawks) and Matt Niskanen (University of Minnesota-Duluth, now with the Stars) - among others - succeed in the NHL has only emboldened his thinking that it was time to move on.
However, the middle of a season isn't the time. By returning to school, Okposo made a commitment to the university, and the Islanders implied a similar commitment by not pushing him to sign in the off-season. If Lucia is truly (and correctly) hinting that the Islanders pushed Okposo to sign at mid-season, they've done something despicable.
Can you imagine this sort of scenario playing out in a different major pro sport? The NHL is under no obligation to help the NCAA keep kids from leaving hockey programs (or any other sport, for that matter) early. But the league should take some responsibility here. There is no good reason why a date can't be put in place after which college players with eligibility left couldn't sign pro contracts.
In the meantime, NHL teams should do the right thing and stop poaching amateur athletes once they are playing in a season for their amateur team. If he isn't good enough to turn pro after a 40-point freshman year, he probably isn't good enough when he's on pace for about 25 points as a sophomore.