The conference room at the Ann Arbor, Mich., Ice Cube was packed. Some of the best hockey-playing 14- and 15-year-olds sat up front, and they were listening closely.
Their parents lined the back of the room, some sitting, others leaning against a glass wall, straining to hear over the music from a rink as figure skaters practiced behind them.
They were listening because their children's future was at stake.
In the front of the room, college hockey coaches filled a row of chairs. Leading the talk was Red Berenson, the University of Michigan's coach, a Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens and a former Regina Pats juniors player.
Considering its proximity to Canada, Michigan is the battleground for a fight that’s not new, but grows hotter each year. It’s one the NHL is also watching.
On one side is Berenson -- an All-America player at Michigan -- and his fellow college coaches, trying to convince North America's best young players to commit to college hockey. On the other side is Canada’s major junior powerhouse, the Canadian Hockey League, where elite Canadians -- and a growing number of Americans -- parlay junior careers into NHL careers.
Berenson looked at the young players in front of him and offered a warning against choosing junior hockey.
“You’re giving up the four best years of your life,” he said.
In the past two years, Berenson has lost two high-end goalies. In 2010, Jack Campbell picked the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires over the Wolverines. This year, John Gibson is headed to OHL Kitchener after committing to Michigan.
But it’s not just Berenson’s problem. A recent Boston Globe story put the number of elite players breaking college commitments this year at nine.