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02-02-2012, 03:59 PM
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From this week's ESPN the Magazine:

But as gifted as Jones is, he's facing a crossroads in his life that Popeye never did. Had he followed in his dad's basketball footsteps, his path to the big time would have been clear-cut: high school, then college, then the pros. But elite North American hockey prospects like Jones have an alternative to the NCAA route: playing in one of the Canadian junior hockey leagues (Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). So every day, the intensely contemplative Jones debates in his head whether he wants to spend next season with the WHL's Everett Silvertips, who drafted his junior rights in 2009, or the University of North Dakota, which recently supplanted Boston University atop his college list. "I lose sleep over it," says Jones.

On a recent winter afternoon at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, the defenseman is trying to concentrate on a more pressing concern: a simple set of forearm raises. He's midway through a monthlong rehab for his separated right shoulder suffered in Team USA's final warmup game before December's World Junior Championships. Through the cinder block walls of the windowless training room, he can hear his teammates on USA's U18 squad running drills on the ice. As their captain, Jones belongs out there. Instead, he's in here alone dutifully doing his exercises. At least he can clear his mind. When he finishes for the day, he packs his shoulder in ice and sits quietly, his thoughts back to his decision, weighing the advantages and drawbacks of the Canadian juniors versus the NCAA.

If Jones joins the Silvertips, he will play a 72-game regular season, just 10 games short of an NHL workload. Proponents of junior hockey say nothing prepares you for the NHL like playing a similarly grueling schedule. The leagues are filled with draft picks, which means aspiring pro defensemen get constant in-game experience against many of the same skill players they'll end up facing at the next level. "It's not a slight against any other program," says Silvertips GM Doug Soetaert, "but the CHL is the leading producer of players in the NHL." Indeed, 56 percent of current NHL players -- including two of the league's most promising young D-men, the Kings' Drew Doughty and the Ducks' Cam Fowler -- played in Canadian juniors. But leagues in the CHL truly are "junior"; no player is older than 20.

Meanwhile, top NCAA teams like North Dakota play only 40 to 50 games, but that leaves more hours for practice and the weight room. The extra learning time spent on positioning and tactics is significant because defensemen typically take longer to develop. Likewise, the extra work with a specialized strength coach would likely help Jones get a pro-ready frame more quickly; the teenager needed two years of bulking up at the NTDP just to weigh over 200 pounds. Also, the NCAA has no age limit, so Jones would be opposing grown men as old as 25. Still, if he wants to play in the NHL in 2013, North Dakota may not be the quickest route -- only 30 percent of current NHL players have come from NCAA hockey, and one-and-dones are much less frequent than in Canadian juniors.

To ensure his academic eligibility, Jones is taking an accelerated course load at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School (where he is technically a junior) so he can graduate this May. Of course, it may be a moot point -- Jones says he'll pick between the Silvertips and UND by the end of February. Until then, there will be last-minute visits and more sleepless nights.

"A year ago, I decided I wanted to make the NHL right after the draft," he says as he ices his shoulder back at the Ice Cube weight room. "But it could be two years. You never know." It's a crossroads for another time.

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