Why the NHL Draft Age Should Be 20

 

The history of the NHL Entry Draft dates back to June 5, 1963, where the NHL Amateur Draft, as it was called at the time, was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal Quebec. Prior to the development of the Draft, NHL teams sponsored junior teams, and signed prospects in their teens to the junior teams. Players were signed to one of three forms: the “A” form, which committed a player to a tryout; a “B” form, which gave the team an option to sign a player in return for a bonus; and the “C” form, which committed a player’s professional rights. The “C” form could only be signed by the player at age eighteen or by the player’s parents, often in exchange for some signing bonus. The first drafts (up until the 1968 Amateur Draft) were held to assign players who had not signed with an NHL organization before the sponsorship of junior teams was discontinued after 1968.

The 1967 NHL Amateur Draft was the first draft to include NHL expansion teams, who would have the right to draft ahead of the Original Six teams, in order to promote parity across the league. The ’67 draft also marked the year that the draft player’s age eligibility was raised from 18 to 20 years of age. The eligibility regulation would remain intact until a 1977 lawsuit was brought forward by Ken Linseman, challenging the ban against drafting underage juniors, citing that since he was considered an adult under labour laws, he should have the right to work as a professional hockey player. The lawsuit was later dropped after Linseman signed a contract with the Birmingham Bulls of the rival WHA, but it helped pave the way for the eligibility ruling for the NHL Draft to be scaled back to 18 years of age, beginning in 1978.

The age old debate continues to be whether or not players, at 18 years of age, should be drafted by NHL teams. The glaring arguments in favour of the 18 year-old draft is that some players are physically ready and able to contribute at the NHL level and that since 18 year-olds can vote and are tried as adults from a judicial standpoint, then they reserve the right to try and compete as professional athletes. There is also an argument to be made that 19 and 20 year old superstars in junior promote the risk of tampering and illegal payments to amateur athletes, corrupting the game of hockey at the junior level.

On the flip side, the arguments against the 18 year-old draft are that players are so young at 18. Most of these players won’t be playing professional hockey until they are 20 or 21 years old in the AHL or ECHL, so what is the rush to picking them when they are 18? There is also something to be said about giving an 18 or 19 year-old kid millions of dollars and shoving them off to live in New York or LA. Naysayers to the 18 year-old draft preach that a Sidney Crosby or a Steven Stamkos are rare in comparison to the hundreds of 18 year-old kids getting drafted on pure projection that someday they might develop into an NHL calibre talent.

Since the inception of the NHL Draft, we have seen several variations and regulatory changes.  The age eligibility ruling went from anyone under 20 to anyone over 20 and then back to anyone 18 years of age and older. My contention is that the minimum age for a kid to be drafted should be 20. I think there are just too many super-sized question marks surrounding the drafting of 18 year-old kids. For one, there is a major difference, in general, between a hockey player at 18 and 20. Of course there are going to be the odd exceptions, a la Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux, but overall, when teams are selecting 18 year-olds, they are basing their selection on the faith that the selected player will develop into what they hope them to be. It’s a calculated projection, but ultimately a pure crapshoot nonetheless.

For every sure bet pick like Sidney Crosby, there are hundreds like Ryan Sittler, Scott Kelman, Michael Henrich, A.J. Thelen, Alex Bourret, Sacha Pokulok, and Angelo Esposito; whom were all first-rounders, projected to be destined for greatness, that never played a game in the NHL. The fact is, players peak at different times. Most of the scouting information is gathered on players when they are 16 and 17. So it isn’t uncommon to hear a scout say, “Scotty Superstar is a little small right now, but he will probably grow a couple inches between 18 and 20 and add muscle and then he’ll really be a star.” Or you might hear the same scout say, “Tommy Toughguy over there is big and clumsy right now, but in a couple years he’s going to get his feet under him and he’ll be the next Eric Lindros. You wait and see!” My question to this is why do we have to draft these youngsters and then wait and see? Why not wait and see and then draft them? Even when they are 20, there will still be a projection associated with a pick but the window for failure will be greatly minimized.

Let’s put this to the test. Two years ago, was the 2011 NHL Entry Draft with Ryan Nugent Hopkins going first overall, followed by Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau. If you were able to take all of the players and redraft them, you would probably see an entirely different draft from top to bottom. For example, Brandon Saad probably wouldn’t have fallen to the 43rd pick overall or Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the 4th round. Conversely, Ryan Strome might not have gone as high as 5th or Duncan Siemens in the 11th spot. Overall, with this draft crop now being 20, you have a better idea of what each player brings to the table and can potentially bring moving forward.

The other glaring issue with the draft age being 18 is the fact that you may be putting 18 and 19 year old kids in a dangerous situation. For example, you could have an NHL-ready talent going to play for the New York Rangers or LA Kings, living in a big city with millions of dollars to play with. Just because their talent is advanced, doesn’t mean that their maturity and decision making abilities are advanced. At 18 or 19 years old, kids handle pressure and depression in drastically different ways. Over the years we have seen young players fall into addiction, simply because they didn’t know how to cope with the overwhelming issues they were dealing with at such a young age. When you become a star athlete in the spotlight in a major city, everything becomes magnified. The pressure is bigger, women are more beautiful and promiscuous, and booze and drugs are readily available. Some players are mature enough to handle all of it, but 18 and 19 year old kids are definitely at a bigger disadvantage in terms of experience and mental development.

To the critics who cry that having 19 and 20 year-olds remain in junior hockey will increase corruption and shady dealings, my response is simple; how much shadier can it get? With the sanctions being doled out to the Windsor Spitfires and the pending issues against the Portland Winterhawks, corruption is and always has been prevalent in junior hockey. It begins when teams persuade 16 year-olds to declare that they are going the NCAA route so they can pick them later in the first round or in the later rounds. It’s been happening for a long time and without major changes to the regulations, it will continue to happen regardless of what happens at the NHL level. The threat of a player the calibre of Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby playing an extra year or two of junior hockey does come with the fear that teams will begin cutting each other’s throats to acquire them. All this presents is a necessity for Hockey Canada to take a closer look at hockey operations and ensure that regulations are in place to prevent further corruption.

One aspect that I haven’t mentioned that critics of moving the draft age back to 20 will most certainly toss into the ring is the KHL factor. If there is a kid like a Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby, who is 18 and wants to play pro hockey, what is to stop a league such as the KHL from snatching said player up? Luckily, there are rules in place between Hockey Canada and the IIHF to govern these transactions. Last season, Nail Yakupov attempted to start the season with the KHL’s HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk but was subsequently suspended after two games as it was determined that Yakupov’s signing in the KHL violated a rule in which Hockey Canada maintained the Russian’s rights until his last year of eligibility, pending a release from his junior club, the Sarnia Sting. Eventually, Sarnia issued Yakupov the release allowing him to continue his pro career in the KHL.

Looking at the other major sports, the NFL and the NBA Drafts have banned high school players from being selected. The ban, from a public relations standpoint, promotes the development of youth players and the reduction of financial risk to franchises. The MLB still allows high school players to be drafted, however, there has been a strong push as of late, which is well documented in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, for MLB teams to draft players who have played at least one year of collegiate ball, thus minimizing the massive financial risk of forking out multi-million dollar signing bonuses to hyped up teenagers.

At the end of the day, when changes are involved, every decision comes down to dollars and cents. So what type of effect would pushing back the draft eligibility age to 20 have on the NHL as a business? The biggest seller would be that NHL teams will save money in the long-run by investing in talent with a minimized financial risk. By drafting players at 20, NHL scouts are able to make more accurate projections, thus minimizing the risk of drafting a dud. Forking out signing bonuses to kids that never pan out is a costly endeavour. By eliminating the risk of drafting players that fizzle out within the first few years, NHL teams will be getting more bang for their buck. Financially, the decision to push back the NHL draft eligibility to 20 will also benefit the major junior and NCAA ranks. Marquee players will remain in major junior or college longer, increasing revenue streams and ultimately the brands.

From an overall standpoint, being 18 years old in 2013 is quite different than being 18 years old in 1963 or 1978. In 1963, when you turned 18 you were living on your own, most likely working a full-time, career-type job and possibly already raising a family. In 2013, 18 year-olds most likely are starting university or an apprenticeship, still living with their parents and are much less independent. The fact is it’s a different era; kids stay kids for longer these days. Today’s 18 year-old kids are more concerned with sleeping in, video games and getting laid. The majority of 18 year-olds aren’t focused on careers, handling finances or whether they should opt into a variable or fixed-rate mortgage.

Life is tough for our youth but in a completely different way. With the technological advances and the major spike in population, more emphasis is now put on education and training. This means that kids spend a significantly larger number of years in school and coincidentally, in care of their families, financially speaking. You can’t step out of your high school graduation gown these days and pick up a good paying job. For the most part, you can’t even take your undergraduate degree and find a good paying job anymore. Nowadays, it’s about specialization and experience, which means six-plus years of post-graduate education just to get your foot in the door for an entry-level position. All that being said, today’s 24 or 25 is yesterday’s 18. So why haven’t we adjusted the eligibility age to keep in pace with the general change in independence of our youth?

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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