The Collegian

Alumni award should be next step beyond “This is Hockey”

NCAA alumni award Adam Wilcox Springfield Thunderbirds
Current AHL goaltender Adam Wilcox won the Minnesota Gophers community service award as a freshman in 2012-13. (Photo by Amanda Statland/Pucks and Recreation)

Every year, NCAA hockey selects candidates for a Hockey Humanitarian Award, which recognizes excellence on the ice and in the community. Last year, Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie of Division III St. Michael’s received the award for their roles in a mental health initiative.

In pro football, the same concept sits in the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which went to Eli Manning and Larry Fitzgerald in 2016. The NHL has a pair of comparable prizes in the King Clancy Award and the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

Last week, college hockey joined with the NHL and NHLPA to unveil a Declaration of Principles, a series of commonly accepted truths and goals that hockey hopes to achieve in its players. It is the latest in a slew of many efforts this past summer alone to intertwine the game’s U.S. collegiate system with its professional governing body.

There is no reason to stop building on this crossover snowball. And especially on the heels of this declaration and what it entails, a new NCAA alumni award for outstanding citizens in professional hockey should be the next project.

To date, Chicago Blackhawks captain and North Dakota product Jonathan Toews is the only college-trained recipient of the Messier Award, which was introduced in 2006-07. While UND and College Hockey, Inc. could naturally pride themselves on Toews’ achievement in 2015, a direct NCAA alumni award would be more effective in emphasizing the college game’s off-ice benefits.

This would not supplant the Clancy or Messier prizes, as it would not be NHL-sanctioned (at least not directly or primarily). Rather, it would be overseen by college hockey and its member conferences, and would be open to any former student-athlete in the NHL, AHL, lower-level minor leagues, NWHL or CWHL.

Last week’s declaration is the foundation for a new initiative called This is Hockey, which ultimately “seeks to build character in its participants, foster positive values and develop important life skills that transcend the game.”

For the college level’s purposes, nothing would exemplify that mission statement quite like an NCAA alumni award. It would recognize a select athlete’s campus-honed values off the ice after the alums have gone on to bring those values to new communities while representing a pro franchise.

NCAA alumni award Jonathan Toews Mark Messier Leadership Award

North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews is the only NCAA product to have won the Mark Messier Leadership Award so far. A more direct NCAA alumni award could go a long way toward advertising college hockey’s intangible benefits. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

There are a few reasons why college hockey teams should want to select a yearly candidate for a distinguished NCAA alumni award. First, it would allow more stories of contributions off the ice to flourish. There is more to life than hockey, and this award would showcase that it is just as important to give back to your community as it is to succeed on the ice.

After all, part of the declaration says, “Hockey’s greatest value is the role it plays in the development of character and life skills.”

Other sports are realizing this fact. This year, ESPN renamed its Sports Humanitarian Award in honor of Muhammed Ali, realizing that sports need to “transform lives and uplift communities.”

None other than Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano captured this year’s award. The broader sports universe thus spotlighted his commitment to building homes in developing countries with Habitat for Humanity and providing resources for high-need students in the Calgary area.

If these efforts are any indication, NCAA hockey should do more than simply echo the “This is Hockey” program. They should work to extend it and tighten the game’s greater community. By bestowing an NCAA- or conference-sanctioned citizenship award on an active professional, they would offer players another reason to return to their collegiate home.

This action could be nostalgic and benefit fans. An alum returning home, even for a belated acceptance ceremony in the summer, would provide an opportunity for fans to see their favorite stars, especially if they cannot afford to see them play.

College hockey could use the award’s presentation as of way of letting fans interact with professional stars in unique and other exciting ways.

Finally, a commitment to recognizing alums will serve as an example that would inspire impressionable young athletes to give back to their community. Sports figures are often cited as role models, and these awards would inspire youth hockey players to think about how they could live their lives in service to others.

“At the heart of college sports is the opportunity to build character, values, life skills and meaningful relationships,” said College Hockey Inc. executive director Mike Snee in his organization’s “This is Hockey” release.

“As college hockey administrators and coaches,” he contined, “we take pride in building those qualities and believe they are reflected in the success NCAA players enjoy, both on and off the ice.”

The fact that such success goes beyond the elite players’ college days, and is often shared to lift the spirits of locals, is too much to leave unrecognized.

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