The Dilemma: Major Junior vs. College Hockey (Sample Chapter from “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?”)

Any family who has experienced having a son play hockey at a high level has been faced with the life-changing decision of whether to choose the major junior avenue or save their NCAA eligibility to pursue the scholarship route south of the border. It is a decision that can derive a great deal of stress and anxiety due to the eligibility rules outlined by the NCAA, stating that any athlete who participates in a Canadian major junior hockey game will be declared as non-amateur and thus ineligible to compete. For kids playing in the United States, this dilemma doesn’t apply due to the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a junior league that the NCAA deems above amateurism. So, we continue to see great American players such as Joe Mullen and Ryan Miller emerge from the NCAA Division 1 ranks, while the bulk of the top-flight Canadian prospects cut their teeth in the Canadian major junior ranks; the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL)

Although the early roots of hockey were played by men at the University of McGill, it is teenagers that have dominated the hockey spotlight in small towns all across Canada. In Canada, major junior hockey leagues have provided Canada’s cities and towns with the excitement of the Friday night game. Kids between the ages of 16 and 20 years-old suit up in front of thousands of fans each week and battle for their place in the hockey world. Will they be just another flash in the pan player or will they be one of the very few to be able to make a career out of hockey?

Major junior leagues such as the OHL provide a fast-track to fame and fortune for a young teen in search of NHL stardom. The OHL has proven to be a springboard for players such as Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Joe Thornton and John Tavares to develop their skills quickly and make the jump to the elite level. However, for every John Tavares, there are over 100 major junior players who will not achieve the same success, and once their junior career comes to an end without a pro contract waiting for them, they are left with little options at still a young age. Most major junior players will play two to three seasons and then will either hang up the skates for good or ply their trade in the Canadian University Hockey circuit (CIS). With the major junior route, many young men who once had the hockey world at their fingertips find themselves washed up and long forgotten at the ages of 19 and 20. This can be extremely disheartening for many young players who once played alongside and against the likes of Tavares, Thornton and Lindros.

The NCAA route for Canadians has gained a lot of momentum over the last 20 years as not only a great way to have your education fully paid for, but also a great avenue to succeed to the NHL. Over the last couple of decades, many great Canadian players have opted to shun major junior hockey for the safer route of the NCAA with the built-in backup plan, a university degree. Players such as, Mike Cammalleri, Martin St. Louis, Jonathan Toews, and Dany Heatley all said no to major junior teams and signed letters of intent to accept full athletic scholarships to NCAA programs.

The growing trend has been evident in the larger number of NCAA players and Tier II Jr. “A” players being selected in the NHL draft over the last decade and a half. The NCAA route also provides a different advantage to players, aside from free schooling. With players beginning their NCAA careers at 18-years-old or older and then playing for four years, a graduated player can be anywhere from 22 to 24-years-old after playing four years in the NCAA instead of being washed up at 19 and 20. It is also appealing for NHL teams who draft NCAA players because they have four years to watch a player develop before they have to sign him instead of the two-year window associated with major junior players. This means a 5 foot 11, 170-pound 18-year-old freshman can develop into a 6 foot 1 205-pound senior by the time he turns 22 and graduates.

In a response to the growing trend of players opting to follow the NCAA scholarship route, the major junior leagues began to include “school boy” packages in the signing of players. These packages often vary according to the draft position of the player and the amount of years played at the major junior level. These packages offer a cushion and a fall-back plan for players who are on the fence in the debate of which avenue to choose. Now, opting to play major junior and take the risk of fast-tracking to the pro ranks, comes with the benefit that your schooling will be covered if a player doesn’t succeed to the professional ranks at the conclusion of his major junior career.

Drawbacks to these education packages are fine print restrictions. One restriction to receiving the package is the “18-Month Rule”, where a player must register for post-secondary courses within 18-months of their final major junior game in order to receive the benefit. Another stipulation revolves around a player signing a professional contract. If a player signs an NHL deal, they automatically lose their education package. Players who suit up in hockey’s minor leagues (AHL, ECHL, CHL, SPHL, Europe) also lose their education packages.

With the playing field aesthetically leveled between major junior and the NCAA routes, the question becomes who is better suited for which avenue and why? To begin, you have to understand that teenage boys grow and develop at different ages throughout their adolescence. You will have early bloomers and late bloomers. The term “Late Bloomer” is thrown around quite a bit in hockey and usually refers to a player achieving a vast improvement later in their careers than most. This is where the dilemma about which avenue to choose becomes more complicated.

Major junior leagues hold an entry draft each year and each year major junior teams secure the rights to hundreds of 16-year-old boys, many who look more like your local paper boy than the small town hero they are about to become. Now at the age of 16, many young boys are not even close to reaching full growth. You may draft a kid in the late rounds with worries about his size because he stands only 5 foot 7 and weighs 140 pounds. Yet, this 16 year old boy may end up growing up to be 5 foot 11 and 195 pounds and become the next Sidney Crosby.  However undeveloped a player may be, it is when he turns 16 and is drafted by a major junior franchise that he and his family must make the nerve-wracking decision of whether to go ahead and sign a card or wait it out and stay eligible for an NCAA scholarship.

To better understand the dilemma, it is necessary to analyze and contrast the differing styles of play and structure of major junior and the NCAA. To begin with, in major junior, players who advance all the way to the Memorial Cup can end a season playing around 100 games including playoffs and preseason games. This is comparable to the amount of games an NHL player might play at the conclusion of a successful playoff run.

On the flip side, NCAA programs play at most around 40 games, depending on how far a team advances in the post-season. The amount of games at the NCAA level is significantly lesser than that of the amount played in major junior and the pro ranks. The games played similarity between major junior and the NHL suggests a glaring reason that playing major junior can prepare an elite player for a smoother transition to rigors of the professional ranks.

Another aspect for comparison is the age of the players in major junior compared to the age of NCAA players. In major junior, players range from the ages of 16 to 20 whereas NCAA players can range from 18 to 24 years of age. With an older age bracket comes the argument that NCAA players are more prepared physically to handle the rigors of pro hockey and benefit from playing against men rather than boys.

When debating about the amount of games played at each level, one particular aspect that can easily be overlooked is the practice structure and preparation. Since major junior players play so many games and are often on the road, it is difficult to practice intensely and thoroughly. Players are already strained as it is by a demanding schedule, mixed together with fatigue and injury. In the NCAA, teams play games on Fridays and Saturdays and practice Monday through Thursday in preparation for the weekend games ahead. Each opponent is studied thoroughly and prepared for similarly to the way football teams prepare for their Sunday opponent a week in advance. Also, with having games spread so far apart, it allows the body time to heal from the daily grind and allots for ample time to utilize in-season strength training.

After comparing and contrasting styles and structure, the question still remains, who belongs where? To provide a clear cut answer would be unfair, but in many cases one choice over another makes sense. For example, if you have a player who is underdeveloped physically but has a lot of potential, then the NCAA route would seem like the most appropriate avenue. However, if a player at 16 years-old is a dominant force with all the tools and size to boot, then the logical choice would be major junior. For some players it is easy to foresee the near future. Ever since Sidney Crosby made national news as a 14-year-old, being touted as the new “Next One”, it was clear that he was on his way to superstardom. For a player like this, major junior makes sense because it is the fastest way for him to reach hockey’s elite circuit.

On the contrary, a player like Dan Boyle benefited from using the NCAA path to reach stardom. Deemed to be too small as a defenseman in the hockey world, Boyle plugged away in Tier II Jr. “A” hockey in Gloucester, Ontario until he received a full scholarship to the University of Miami-Ohio. Undrafted by an NHL team, Boyle played four years at the University of Miami-Ohio, honing his skills, before he signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers, at the age of 22. Dan Boyle has since gone on to play in over 700 NHL games and won the Stanley Cup in 2004 as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Along the way, Boyle has been named an NHL second-team all-star twice, has won a silver medal at the world championships and a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as a proud representative for Canada. Sufficed to say, Dan Boyle made the right choice at the right time.

For every player it is different and there can never really be a clear-cut right and wrong when it comes to making this difficult decision. Typically, someone will look at a small, quick, skilled player and automatically say, “That’s a college player”. The same person will see a big, strong, physical player and say, “He’s built for major junior”. But it isn’t always that simple. Major junior has had its fair share of prolific, diminutive players, such as Derek Roy who won a Memorial Cup with Kitchener and was a proud member of team Canada at the World Junior Championships and Pat LaFontaine who racked up ungodly numbers during his days of battling against Mario Lemieux in the QMJHL.

It is possible for smaller players to excel at the major junior level and it isn’t only these types of players that fit the mould for the NCAA route either. Behemoths like Dustin Penner, Mike Commodore, Blake Wheeler and Hal Gill all made the jump to the NHL via the NCAA route. The mixture of sizes and styles provides evidence that the stereotypes of who fits where can be broken. At the end of the day, the decision between major junior and the NCAA must be carefully calculated by each player and their family to balance out the pros and cons of choosing one avenue over the other. Each player is unique and each decision is different than the next.

When I was 16 years-old, I went undrafted in the OHL mainly because of my size, 5 foot 9, and 150 pounds. I simply wasn’t ready to play in a league like the OHL and battle day in and day out with bearded men who could bench press twice my weight. When I turned 17, I grew to about 5 foot 11 and still weighed only about 160 lbs when I went to my first OHL camp with the Kingston Frontenacs. I had a good camp and the coach at the time, Larry Mavety, told me he wanted to see me play in some exhibition games because he felt I had a good shot at landing the 6th or 7th defenseman role. My cousin had played on a full scholarship at Western Michigan University, so I had it in my mind from an early age that the NCAA route was the way I wanted to go. So I thanked Mr. Mavety for the opportunity to attend camp and settled in for a 3-year Tier II Jr. “A” career which eventually culminated in a full scholarship to play at Clarkson University.

Over my three years of tier II junior “A” hockey, I grew two inches and added about 15 pounds, but at 6 foot 1 and 175 pounds I was still a slight bodied, late bloomer who needed further development if I ever wanted to reach the pros. For me, the NCAA route provided the perfect place to harvest my growing talents. When I stepped on campus my freshman year at Clarkson, I was oblivious to the finer aspects of the game, such as defensive zone play and my strength and conditioning was a far cry from that of a professional’s. I had much to learn and it would take all of my years there to round out my game.

I had a very successful junior career; winning the CJHL championship, advancing to the Fred Page Cup and Royal Bank Cup Championship (Canada’s national junior “A” championship). But the jump from one level to the next was a lot bigger than I had anticipated and if I was going to have any kind of success, I was going to have to learn to play more of a complete game. In junior, my old coach Freddy Parker gave me the nickname “Rover” due to my tendencies to rush the puck at every opportunity, often neglecting my defensive priorities. This was a nickname that was about to change.

Over my tenure at Clarkson I learned a lot of lessons about the game and about my fitness. I discovered that in order to be in the line-up every day, I would have to learn that my plus-minus statistic was going to be more important than my point totals and that being solid in my own end would continue to butter my bread. In the weight room I learned how to add muscle and quickness and the importance of core-strength training. Most of all, my NCAA days taught me the importance of time-management. How to juggle my priorities became my biggest priority in itself. Hockey, classes, study time and leisure time all needed to be fit in.

A typical week day would look like this: three classes before 2 p.m., with the first one starting at 8 a.m. We would then have practice from 3 – 5 p.m. and a team workout from 5 – 6:30. After that, it was home for a quick dinner and then off to the library for three hours to study and complete assignments. The day ended with an hour of down time before bed. It was a grind that I wasn’t used to at first, but later it became just a regular way of life. With a $37,000 a year scholarship on the line, it wasn’t something I was going to complain about.

By the time I graduated in 2006, I went from a feeble boy as a freshman to a well-rounded man. I gained 30 pounds of muscle and went from a one-dimensional, high-risk defenseman, to a reliable player that could contribute in all three zones. At the age of 24 I was finally ready to make the jump into the pro ranks and achieve my dream. When I look back at that fateful day in the smoky office of Larry Mavety at the Memorial Center in Kingston, Ontario, I feel happy to know that I made the right choice.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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