No looking back

Earl excited to sign with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs

MADISON — Prior to last week's Frozen Four, Robbie Earl pondered what he wanted his career with the University of Wisconsin hockey program to be remembered for. What would be his legacy?

"My biggest thing is being a winner," Earl said Friday afternoon, during a press conference held at the Kohl Center to announce that he had signed a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs and was foregoing his senior season.

Just as he envisioned, Earl will leave the Badgers as a champion. Friday, just six days after helping to lead UW to a national title and being named the Most Outstanding Player at the Frozen Four, Earl signed a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He will fly to Toronto tomorrow morning to join the Marlies, Toronto's affiliate in the American Hockey League.

"That's what pretty much gave me the courage to take this next step," Earl said of winning the NCAA Championship.

Last Saturday Earl scored the tying goal in the Badgers' 2-1 title-game win over Boston College. Sunday he joined his teammates and thousands of fans at the Kohl Center for a celebratory pep rally. Tuesday the Maple Leafs came calling with a contract offer.

"That was kind of bittersweet," Earl said. "I couldn't tell if I was excited or disappointed. I didn't want to have to have this situation arise so early in the spring. I would have liked it to happen later in the summer maybe, so I had more time to be prepared for it.

"It has been a tough three days, trying to get the most information that I can and make the most accurate decision. I think I've done that. It is time for me just to move on. I'm excited for the next part of my life."

Earl said that after he received the contract offer, he met with Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves twice a day to help make his decision. Earl also consulted with his family, who were in favor of him making the jump to the professional ranks.

Earl said that after meeting with Eaves on Wednesday he was pretty sure he would sign with the Maple Leafs, who owned his NHL rights after drafting him in the sixth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

"He pretty much said, ‘If you were my son, I would want you to go,'" Earl said. "That kind of gave me that solidification that he thought it was the right thing to do. I knew all along it was probably the right thing to do, but having (Eaves) actually say (that) to you… gave me that confidence."

By Thursday night Earl's mind was made up. Eaves wholeheartedly agreed with the decision.

"Everything just in terms of where we stood, pointed for myself to advise Robbie that this is probably not a bad time to go," Eaves said.

One important feature was the fact that Earl will be able to complete his 12-credit course load this semester. The Maple Leafs and Marlies will allow Earl to fly back to Madison whenever necessary to take exams. That will leave Earl one full-time year shy of graduation.

Said Eaves: "And Robbie and I talked this morning and I said, ‘The day you graduate. I don't care if you are 35, 28, 50. You call Mrs. Eaves and I. We're going to be there for that. We want you to finish that.'

"… I think the other aspect of it is Robbie's potential earning power—he has a little more leverage right now."

Changes in the NHL's collective bargaining agreement that go into effect next year will diminish the amount of money that players may sign for. Earl signed a three-year contract with Toronto, though he did not disclose terms.

"I think the way he played at the end of this last month provided good basis to create an earning power that is better right now," Eaves said. "And I think that's important as a young person.

"And then the third thing, and I don't know how you put a price on this, is the opportunity he has with the organization he's going into. They are looking for young talent. They are a team right now that is in a little bit of a changing over period. They've got a lot of old players. They are looking for young talented players to come in. And by going now, Robbie gets to go show a little bit of what he can do, meet people, get used to what that organization is like and then come back next fall and he's already got one leg up and he has a better chance of showing what he can do and perhaps staying with the big club."

Earl played four seasons for Eaves, three with Wisconsin and one as a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Earl has long been a highly regarded player, but he did not come to Wisconsin expecting to leave early for the NHL.

"I was on the long road," Earl said. "I trusted Coach Eaves, the development. I don't think I was in any really rush to make the next step. I was just excited to be a Wisconsin Badger and come in here and (be part of the rebuilding process at Wisconsin). That's what I fulfilled recently…

"Coming in I didn't really think about staying two years, staying three years, staying four years. It was just getting to that point where I became a winner. And I've done that."

Earl said he would not have signed if he did not feel that he had a very strong chance to make the Maple Leafs' roster in the fall. But he also stressed that his concern now is performing for the Marlies, who will enter the AHL playoffs next week. Earl assumes that he will be in the Marlies' lineup Sunday, when they face Syracuse.

"The pro guys are saying that because of what (Earl has) done in college he's got the potential to make that step to the National Hockey League, but Robbie still has to prove that he has that next gear in his gearbox," Eaves said.

"As we've talked about there have been a lot of very fine college players that weren't able to make that step. But I think that Robbie (will) because of what his attributes are as an athlete. He's quick, he's fast, he's skilled and he's come to learn the game at a higher level, and learn to use people around him that takes his game to the next level. If I'm laying percentages I'm voting in favor of Robbie making it to the next level."

As a junior this year Earl led the Badgers with 24 goals and was second with 26 assists, leaving a sizeable whole in UW's 2006-07 lineup.

Said Eaves: "(It is) a tough one to fill because of the fact that not only do you lose a 24-goal scorer, a 50-point guy, but a big-game player, and a young man that was coming into his own in terms of his maturity, his leadership… As coaches we're every bit as proud (of that) as (we are of) his other accomplishments."

"What we will probably have to do is replace Robbie by committee," Eaves said. "Have a group of people that will have to raise their game to another level. And hopefully we'll have a young person come in next year that will be able to chip in as part of that committee to fill the void that Robbie has created by his decision right here."

Additional recruit on the way?

The Badgers have signed six players for the class of 2006-07, including wing John Mitchell, who enrolled this semester, and they have verbal commitments from three more players. The current recruiting class includes six forwards and three defensemen.

Interestingly, Eaves said that UW may still add another player to this fall's class. NCAA rules prohibit Eaves from publicly commenting on recruits in an identifiable manner.

"We have a plan to look at one player that kind of fulfills the type of things that Robbie was able to provide," Eaves said. "We have to start dealing with that right now, and if that works out, great, if it doesn't, then we'll just kind of hold onto that. But we're not just going to run out—Robbie represents a certain type of player for our team and if we can find that with that this young man, we will. If not, we'll just hold onto it."

Quote of the day

Earl was asked if he had any really good stories from celebrating a national championship the past week.

"That's what's the beauty about winning a national championship," Earl said. "There's only a select few that know what happened."

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