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Canucks steeped in NCAA alums and milestones

BOSTON -- They may not be classified as Stanley Cup Final records.

But they sure are NCAA milestones, and answers to future college-hockey trivia questions.

Several NCAA facts intertwine across the Vancouver Canucks' playoff roster in this 2011 Cup Final that finds them two wins away from the first championship for Canada since Montreal in 1993.

If Vancouver ultimately sips from Lord Stanley's cherished hardware, it will be -- in part -- because of any combination of NCAA influences.

A total of 293 former college hockey players participated in the 2010-11 NHL regular season, an increase of 8.9 percent from last season and 34 percent from 10 years ago, according to a recent analysis by College Hockey, Inc.

Former college players accounted for 29.96 percent of all players in the NHL this season, up from 21.9 in 2000-01.

"[College hockey] changed a lot through the last 10 years," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin. "When we came in [from Sweden in 2000] there were a lot of college players, but that has changed with even more now."

What's the major contribution of Vancouver's league-leading NCAA complement of players?

"Brains," said Sedin, chuckling, before summarizing with: "They are smart players."

"It says a lot about NCAA systems," said Vancouver's backup goaltender Cory Schneider, the backbone of consecutive national title appearances by the Boston College Eagles in 2006 and 2007. "It's catching up to juniors as the conventional way to go to the pros. Sometimes it takes a while to develop, but they turn into solid players in key roles."

Apply the total of 10 former collegians in key roles on Vancouver's active 20-man roster for Game 3, and the NCAA saturation stat balloons to an astounding 50 percent with NCAA roots.

When Boston took out Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bolts boasted nine former NCAA players in each game's 20-man roster -- or 45 percent.

Boston's Rich Peverley played four years at St. Lawrence University. Shortly after the Game-7 win to send the Bruins to the Final, he was informed about Vancouver's 12 players on the playoff roster with NCAA roots.

"Wow, it says a lot about the college game," Peverley told NHL.com, "and how much it's gotten better and better. It's great to see so many [college] guys in these Finals develop into great hockey players. It's a great opportunity for Tim Thomas and me."

Thomas, the other NCAA alum on the Boston roster, played at Vermont (with Tampa's Martin St. Louis) from 1993-97.

The Canucks' NCAA list begins with defenseman Andrew Alberts and Schneider, whose BC tenures overlapped by a season, located in the hotbed of the college game with at least 10 of the 58 Division I teams a short drive away.

"The organization around you and how they use you when you're younger," said Alberts about the key to the success of Vancouver's college players. "They slowly got brought up and they develop players well here in Vancouver. The organization gives them what they need to succeed. It's been working. I love it here."

It sure has worked for forwards Tanner Glass from Dartmouth and Chris Higgins from Yale. And were Aaron Volpatti -- the first Brown University player -- to play a game, it would likely mark a first-ever trio of Ivy League players in the Final.

"You don't see too many of us [Ivy Leaguers], especially on the same team," said Glass, who left Dartmouth with a degree in history. "You learn a lot playing in that physical ECAC league. The smaller arenas and bigger players is a big factor for us to get here. You gotta grind it out in those smaller rinks. We're not going to fly the wing and light the lamp as much as others."

"It speaks well of the Ivy League," Higgins said. "It's a different breed of player. I have so much respect for those guys; they really have to work hard throughout the ranks on the ice and in the classroom to make it."

Higgins, who came from the Panthers at the trade deadline, has 4 goals and 4 assists in 20 playoff games so far.

"He was a player that we were trying to get," Canucks GM Mike Gillis said on Sunday about Higgins. "We thought that Chris would come in and fit on our third or fourth line in a role. He's been everything we could ask for and more; given us more than we counted on."

The remaining NCAA contingent up front includes Notre Dame's Victor Oreskovich, Minnesota-Duluth's Mason Raymond, Jeff Tambellini out of Michigan, and former Ohio State Buckeye Ryan Kesler.

In addition to Alberts along the Canucks' blue line, are Minnesota's Keith Ballard, Christopher Tanev from Rochester Institute of Technology, and Kevin Bieksa, who played four years at Bowling Green University.

Ballard is the only player in the Final to have won an NCAA championship -- twice with Minnesota in 2002 and 2003.

"The stigma is gone that college players don't transfigure into good NHL players," Ballard said. "You see more kids coming down from Canada to play college and forego the CHL or juniors. College hockey is deep; the college game is better -- and getting better. It's producing a ton of NHL players."

Both Kesler and Bieksa don the "A" for Vancouver with a ton of heart-and-soul leadership along with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

It's for good reason. Kesler, the regular-season's fourth best goal scorer with 41, is third-best overall in the playoffs with a 7-12-19 total. Bieksa is tied for fourth among defensemen with 9 points -- 1 goal and 8 assists.  

"They are special players," said Sedin about the duo's leadership. "They bring a lot on and off the ice. It was an easy choice. Kesler wore the 'A' last year and Kevin was an easy choice this year."

"They have a sense of maturity that comes from the college ranks," Schneider said.

Five Canucks with NCAA roots are also former first-round draft picks, creating an NCAA first in the 2011 Final.

They would be Kesler at No. 23 and Tambellini at No. 27 in 2003, and Schneider at No. 26 in 2004, all by Vancouver.

Buffalo and Montreal drafted Ballard and Higgins in 2002 at No. 11 and No. 14, respectively.

Which leaves one final fact for future college puck pundits, and history-making for one league and school in upstate New York.

Who was the first Atlantic Hockey League player on a Stanley Cup Final roster -- a name to be inscribed on the Stanley Cup, if Vancouver prevails.

None other than Tanev, who just over a year ago led his RIT Tigers to a first-ever appearance in the Frozen Four for an Atlantic Hockey team.

One sure bet this week or next is that a former college player -- make that players -- is assured of having his name on the Stanley Cup for the 36th consecutive season.

"Alberts and Ballard and Tanev, all three guys, they bring different things to the table," Vigneault said after Monday morning's practice in regards to the interchangeable trio.

The table is set for Game 3.

"This is the first time I've been here since [leaving BC and the Hockey East playoffs on 2007]," Schneider said. "I'm excited to see how the building will be."

It will be pretty wild -- with some NCAA milestones in the making.