From Brayden Schenn and Matt Calvert to Travis Hamonic and Keith Aulie, there have been plenty of recent success stories of Brandon Wheat Kings moving on to the NHL.
But there is another side to the WHL experience for the majority of players in the league who don’t sign million-dollar NHL contracts, but have gone on to do great things. Geoff McIntosh is one of those other success stories — a veritable poster boy for the WHL’s scholarship program.
The 29-year-old former Wheat Kings netminder played three and a half seasons in the WHL with the likes of former Wheat Kings Jordin Tootoo, Eric Fehr, Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan Stone, Ryan Craig and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who all went on to play in the NHL.
For his part, McIntosh went in a different direction, taking full advantage of the league’s lucrative scholarship plan to help put him through dentistry school at the University of Saskatchewan. Now a practising dentist here in Brandon where he has settled with his wife Adele and two daughters, McIntosh received more than $23,000 to cover tuition and books at the U of S and credits the WHL’s scholarship program for being where he is today.
“It was critical. That’s what allowed me to get in (to dentistry school) after two years, which was a big goal of mine,” said McIntosh, who is slated to drop the puck in the ceremonial opening faceoff tonight when the Wheat Kings battle the Moose Jaw Warriors at Westman Place. “With the scholarship program I was able to really focus on school, I didn’t have to go out and look for a job and work and do school at the same time … So I was able to get the marks that I needed to get accepted into the program. So the scholarship program, truthfully, was what was able to get me into dentistry.”
To be sure, the WHL does have its issues. The questionable policy of hiding concussions by describing injuries as only upper- or lower-body ailments makes it impossible for fans, media or parents of players to judge for themselves how big of a problem concussions are in junior hockey and whether or not the league’s new crackdown on head shots is working.
But on the WHL scholarship front, the league has got it right.
The program is designed to take care of that majority of players who do not go on to long careers in pro hockey, guaranteeing one full year of tuition, books and fees for every season they play in the WHL. League officials have announced that 301 WHL graduates are taking advantage of the program to attend colleges and universities this season, with more than $17 million awarded in 4,900 scholarships since it began in 1993.
In Brandon, funds are raised for the program through 50/50 sales and the Sportsman’s Dinner. Currently, 26 former Wheat Kings are receiving more than $100,000 in scholarship money to attend post-secondary institutions, according to Wheat Kings owner/general manager Kelly McCrimmon.
“Geoff’s story is a real good (example) and one that we’re proud of,” he said. “I think at the same time, it does speak accurately to the experience that a lot of the players have when they leave our league. … In our case, we have had some players who have gone on to be very successful students and I look at that 1983 age group, for example, that Geoff McIntosh was part of on our team,” McCrimmon said. “Brett Dickie is a chemical engineer and he was a tremendous student when he played here and went on to the University of Saskatchewan and is a very successful young man.”
Dickie was named WHL scholastic player of the year in 2003, joining current Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff (1988), Byron Penstock (1994), Stefan Cherneski (1997) and most recently Aulie (2007) as Wheat Kings who have won the award. Two of McIntosh’s former Brandon teammates, Mike Nichol and Stefan Lenoski, are in medical school.
For McIntosh, the WHL’s scholarship program was a key factor in choosing major junior hockey over the NCAA ranks.
“Education was always number one and that was my plan all along and if hockey worked out, great, but my focus was always school,” he said. “So I was considering the Junior A route and then hope for a scholarship, or play in the WHL and then (go to school) through their program. I felt there was a little bit of risk in taking a scholarship in the States, because if you get hurt or whatever reason, you could lose your scholarship. But in the WHL, you focus on hockey and once you’re done hockey, you are guaranteed that many years of school.”
The scholarship program received criticism this year from the fledgling CHLPA, an organization whose credibility has been called into question.
“One of the areas of our scholarship program that was really attacked by the CHLPA was the fact that we make our students go (to school within) 18 months after they graduate from our league,” McCrimmon said. “And the reason we do that is it forces players to make a decision. It’s our preference, really, that they get on with school and if we were worried about just our financial commitment, I’ve always maintained that if we gave players five years to go, less and less of them would ever attend university.
“So we look at that 18 months as giving a player a year to play professionally and see if there are other opportunities out there and we, collectively as a league, feel it’s important if that doesn’t happen after one year, we feel real good about those players going to university.”
The Wheat Kings have had plenty of success stories at the university level, including Brandonite Andrew Clark, who was named CIS hockey player of the year in 2011-12, while former Wheat Kings defenceman Mark Louis completed a successful four-year career at St. Francis Xavier University and went on to sign an NHL contract with the Phoenix Coyotes this summer.
“The other thing that we have seen with the WHL scholarship program is it doesn’t necessarily mean that your professional opportunities are over and there’s no better example than the case of Mark Louis,” McCrimmon said.