Brooks Orpik can still remember the bus ride home from Albany, N.Y., when he and his Boston College teammates returned to Chestnut Hill, Mass., with most of campus away on spring break, and celebrated, as a team, into the wee hours of the night.
It was 2001 and the Eagles had won the NCAA championship in overtime against North Dakota to emerge from the Frozen Four with a first title since 1949.
Eleven seasons into the NHL with the Penguins, it is still a vivid memory.
"I've got a big framed picture of us at home," Orpik said. "It was just a lot of fun. It's more carefree. There's no contract situations ... You're with each other 24 hours a day. Even to this day, there are a lot who are your best friends."
Orpik's journey from college hockey to the NHL was once a far less credible route than it is today.
For decades, his major junior counterparts reached the pros in far greater numbers, and though the very elite came from college hockey -- particularly the elite American-born -- the junior system still cranked out more.
That is changing.
College hockey players in the NHL topped 300 in the 2011-12 season for the first time and have increased by 43 percent in just over a decade, according to data collected by the nonprofit group College Hockey Inc.
There are more Division I programs than ever before -- with 59 this season following the addition of Penn State -- accounting for some of the rise.
"The college route has been fantastic for a lot of different players, especially recently," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero. "You see a Jonathan Toews going to North Dakota for two years and leaves. He can always finish in a few years and get his degree. That's a superstar."
The Penguins are particularly supportive of college hockey from the locker room all the way to the front office.
Craig Adams played at Harvard, Tanner Glass at Dartmouth, Chris Kunitz for Ferris State, Paul Martin for Minnesota, Matt Niskanen for Minnesota-Duluth and Joe Vitale at Northeastern. Coach Dan Bylsma went to Bowling Green, and Shero to St. Lawrence University.
"This organization is a big believer in college hockey. Many of our executives are products of the college hockey system. They love to see it," said Tom McMillan, the Penguins vice president of communications.
One of the bigger arguments from the pro-college hockey crowd is the time it allows a player to develop.
Glass said he was physically too small when the time came to be drafted by a Canadian junior league, standing at just 5-foot-8, 130 pounds as a teenager.
"I'd go back [to Dartmouth] a hundred times out of a hundred," said Glass, who stayed long enough to earn an Ivy League degree in history. "I hope to never use it. But I'm proud of it."
Vitale recalls having a bad sophomore year at Northeastern but not having the fear of getting dumped for a lack of production.
"They stick with you and don't give up on you," Vitale said. "It's a four-year commitment, so it's not like I'm getting kicked to the curb."
Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, who will bring his No. 1 ranked team to Pittsburgh this week for the Frozen Four, pointed out just how valuable it is to get a player for four years during a critical time of his development.
"Unlike major junior where you can trade kids, and dump kids and cut kids ... we can develop them," Pecknold said.
Pecknold's goalie is Eric Hartzell, a Hobey Baker finalist, whom Pecknold said probably wasn't ready to go pro at 21, which is when he would have had to if he had played junior hockey.
"Hartzy probably wasn't ready to do that at 21. Now he's had the extra two years. Now at 23, he's NHL-ready," Pecknold said. "I just think college is the best route to develop these kids because we'll be patient with them."
Quinnipiac senior Zack Currie said those players can get lost in the shuffle.
"Players may turn into one day being pro players that may never have gotten the chance if they had gone the major junior route," Currie said. "You get pushed to the back of the pile. Whereas if you go the college route you have those extra four years ... so I think it just gives that extra little bit of time to whoever may need it."
College hockey coaches argue that the schedule is less of a grind and allows more time in the weight room for a player to develop physically.
Players also emerge, many say, more mature and capable of handling the demands of a job.
The knock on college hockey is that junior players are more used to the grind of an 82-game season.
"Some people say junior is better. Others say college is the better road," Orpik said. "I think it's different for every guy in every situation. If you're good enough to make the NHL, you're going to make it eventually. I thought it was college for me and it all worked out."
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez. First Published April 7, 2013 4:00 AM