Last summer we watched many NHL drafted prospects give up commitments to play at various NCAA Universities, and instead decided to play major junior hockey in the CHL.
The changes of heart of players like Reid Boucher, J.T. Miller, John Gibson, Connor Murphy, Jamie Oleksiak and others were major blows to their respective schools. Then during the season we watched other players like Charlie Coyle leave school in favour of playing in the QMJHL for its Saint John Seadogs. This summer’s exodus has already begun, with Tyler Biggs, Stefan Matteau, Patrick Sieloff, Seth Jones, and Miles Koules all choosing the CHL route over the NCAA route.
This has created much debate. Is playing major junior hockey in the CHL a better and faster route to the NHL for top-end hockey prospects? Should all players who have the opportunity choose the CHL? What about 16-year olds who have a particularly difficult decision on which route to take. Should they maintain college eligibility, or, if they are indeed drafted, play in the CHL? Due to NCAA regulations, once a young player plays a single CHL hockey game (even an exhibition game) he is no longer eligible to play in the NCAA. Due to this rule it isn’t an easy decision, and if a player chooses the CHL route there is no turning back. So what should a youngster do?
Personally I do not think there is any right answer here. It all comes down to a personal decision for each individual prospect. There are prospects where the NCAA may be a better choice to hone their craft, and there are prospects who are better off in the CHL. A quick examination of the differences between the two systems can be useful in deciding which route is better for each prospect.
Obviously education is an important factor and life after hockey should be considered. Not all prospects will make the NHL, and a great number bust. So having a quality degree from a quality school can certainly help in the transition back to the real world if their NHL dreams need to be set aside. Most NCAA hockey programs offer high quality education at a respected university and the opportunity to work towards a degree. However, the Major Junior route is not something that we should think of as a place where athletes are unable to get an education. The CHL has one of the best education programs of any minor league in any sport in the world. While players are playing in the CHL they are highly encouraged to continue their high school and university education, and scholarship programs are offered. In addition, the CHL funds education for its alumni after they are done in the league. For every year that they have played in the league a player is entitled to one year of CHL-funded education. As such we shouldn’t consider the CHL as a second class league in this regard, and there is no reason that going the Major Junior route means that a player’s education takes a back seat.
The CHL has much more of a pro-style schedule with upwards of 70 games per season in each individual league, as well as a long playoff format featuring four rounds of seven games in each of the three leagues leading to the Memorial Cup. This can help a young player build endurance and get ready for an NHL or AHL-style schedule and the grind that comes with that throughout the season. There are long bus trips and weeknight games. In this way the league prepares players for pro hockey.
Meanwhile, NCAA schedules are much shorter, and almost all games are played on weekends. Teams play approximately 35-40 games per season. Playoffs are often best-of-3, or in some cases single game eliminations. Even if a team wins its conference championship and goes all the way to the Frozen Four one can expect to play an absolute maximum of 50 games that season. As a result we often see NCAA players who enter the AHL and NHL seem to “hit the wall” in the second half of their rookie season. They reach a point where they pass their maximum endurance level and need to adjust to the pro-style schedule.
There is an advantage for some prospects for the NCAA schedule. For a player who is undersized, or underdeveloped physically, there is more time to fix that issue in the NCAA. The heavy concentration of games on weekends and the much fewer number of games allows a young player to spend more time in the weight room and to bulk up. This must be a huge consideration for many young players.
A young prospect improves the most when playing against top-notch competition. Players who go the Major Junior route are able to face a higher level of competition at a younger age. At the age of 16 or 17 there quite simply isn’t any other league in the world that can provide a player with a higher caliber of hockey. Major Junior is such a highly competitive league for 16-20 year old hockey players, and quite simply cannot be duplicated anywhere.
At later ages the level of competition in top NCAA conferences such as Hockey East, CCHA, WCHA, and in 2013 the newly created Big-10 Hockey conference and National Collegiate Hockey Conference, can challenge and in some situations even surpass the level of competition in the CHL. Because players in the NCAA are quite a bit older, they are also typically bigger and more physically mature at the ages of 18-24, which increases the level of competition. Quite simply, older, bigger, and stronger prospects means that top teams in those conferences are at a higher caliber than the top teams in the CHL. This may be a controversial opinion for CHL fans, but its only natural when you compare the ages of the players. Think of how valuable the over-agers are in the CHL, then add two, three and in some cases four years onto a similar player as a senior in an NCAA power conference (depending on when their freshman year was, and if they had any redshirt years).
In the end, each individual is different and a player should weigh these three major factors (as well as others, which are more on a player-by-player basis) when deciding which route is best for him. There is no “best” route for every player, only the one that is best for each individual. The best advice I can give is to involve family members as well as trusted coaches and advisors who have experience in the game at a high level in deciding the best route. It’s an important decision to think about early, because there are many players who made a choice they later regretted, but could not change it due to NCAA rules.
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