Ice Hockey

Syracuse benefits from Canadian ‘recruiting pipeline’

Courtesy of Tavares Rennie

SU freshman Savannah Rennie is a product of Winnipeg and one of four players from the area on SU.

When Dena Derkatch played hockey in the 1990s in Winnipeg, Manitoba, there was one league. When her daughter, Kelli Rowswell, played hockey there last year, there were at least five.

Rowswell even played Grade 12 at Balmoral Hall — then one of three Winnipeg-area hockey-specific prep programs — a place designed entirely to mimic the college hockey experience and help girls play Division I college hockey. That wasn’t even conceivable when Derkatch played.

“It’s growing leaps and bounds,” Derkatch said.

The area’s increased investment in hockey-specific schools has grown the game immensely for girls over the past decade. Syracuse (15-12-5, 14-4-2 College Hockey America) has been a primary beneficiary as its roster now includes four products of that system: senior Larissa Martyniuk, junior Stephanie Grossi, and freshmen Savannah Rennie and Rowswell. Winnipeg also claims NHL all-stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith. Currently, leagues like the Winnipeg Women’s High School Hockey League have added three new teams.

“It’s just good hockey,” Martyniuk said. “There’s lots of girls who are good up-and-coming kind of players.”

All four of the Manitobans skating for Syracuse played for a prep program during their high school years. Martyniuk, Grossi and Rennie all belonged to the Shaftesbury Titans, which no longer maintains its hockey-specific program. Rowswell played for Balmoral Hall under head coach Gerry Wilson.

Rowswell decided to move to Balmoral Hall for her last year of high school partly for hockey and partly for school. In hockey, she wanted more exposure. Rowswell said immediately after switching to the higher level of hockey, she received attention from college coaches and scouts that had been previously absent.

“The second week I was there,” Rowswell said, “we were in a tournament and after I got RIT coming at me, I had Syracuse coming at me.”

Prep schools function similar to a college program. Class runs Monday to Thursday with practice every day. Weekends are spent on the road to tournaments and showcases. Tournaments ranged from anywhere in Canada to Washington State to as far as Vermont.

Shaftesbury, too, travelled far and wide, Rennie said, and that going far keyed more looks from scouts and coaches.

“We haven’t put anything in the water,” Wilson said. “… The talent was always there.”

It was just a matter of getting girls seen by scouts in the U.S.

Recruiting from an area with that growth becomes a sort of cascade effect, Syracuse head coach Paul Flanagan said. One player leads to two, and two leads to four.

The Manitobans concurred on the pathfinder idea. If they saw one girl paving the way, either in Winnipeg or playing for SU, following became easier. Derkatch called Balmoral Hall the pioneer of preparing girls for Division I hockey in Winnipeg.

“Seeing girls who can actually make it and have a dream and accomplish it,” Rowswell said, “… all that stuff, it definitely contributes to wanting to build hockey.”

As the game grows 1,101 miles to the northwest, Syracuse and Flanagan reap the benefits. Martyniuk is a co-captain and is second on the team in blocked shots (37). Grossi provides a prominent offensive threat as team points leader (28) and boasts an 11 plus-minus rating.

Rennie leads all freshmen in points (18) and closed out the regular season with a three-goal, four-point weekend against Penn State. Rowswell is second in points for a freshman (5). Altogether, the four combine for 29.1 percent of the Orange’s total offense and together have a plus-minus of plus-30.

Since the only American school relatively close to Winnipeg is North Dakota, girls from Winnipeg must travel far to attend college in the states. The lack of choice, Flanagan noted, makes it easier to recruit a player from Winnipeg as opposed to someone from, say, Boston, because the United States is inundated with nearby choices.

Flanagan likes where he stands with the four girls on the team currently, and says the best tool for recruiting is word of mouth. Parents talk to parents, players talk to friends. Coaches develop a rapport with his staff.

“I think they call it a recruiting pipeline,” Flanagan said.

The new wave of Manitoban hockey will hit another city this weekend when the Orange travels to Buffalo for the CHA tournament. And, Syracuse hopes, Buffalo won’t be the last stop.

“I think it kind of boosted everyone,” Rennie said, “and it just shows that you can go anywhere with hockey, right?”

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