When Jahlil Okafor and the rest of college basketball’s top prospects are drafted into the NBA this week, their amateur careers will be over.
But many of this year’s NHL draft picks are set to attend college after their big night, and the serpentine route to the team that selected them may take several years to navigate.
Hockey’s entry draft grants eligibility to any player older than 17 by Sept. 15 and younger than 21 on Dec. 31. The most touted talents are taken around the time they graduate from high school, making the NCAA a difficult balancing act that can serve as an NHL development league of sorts. Teams retain rights to a player until 30 days after he has left college.
“Being drafted is a dream come true for anyone, but then a lot of the reality comes in,” said Tyler Motte, a sophomore forward for Michigan and a fourth-round pick of the Blackhawks in 2013. “It’s only a step in the process. I had to narrow my vision to just having a good freshman year.”
Motte was drafted before he even set foot on Michigan’s campus. He will skate with the Hawks in development camps this summer.
Incoming freshmen are forced to adjust to a faster level of play and a new life on campus, all while impressing the NHL scouts that check in during their games. This — compounded by the fact the NCAA regular season is just 34 games, less than half of an NHL campaign — sways some of America’s best hockey hopefuls to an alternative, accelerated path to the pros: major junior hockey in Canada.
The three leagues encompassed by the Canadian Hockey League are the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the popular Ontario Hockey League. Major junior hockey offers a pro-style schedule and some monetary compensation, thus making CHL players ineligible for the NCAA.
Many American-born NHL picks opt for major junior. But an increasing number are electing to stick with school, where a scholarship can be far more valuable than a stipend. Three of the top 10 draft prospects listed in this year’s NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings are from the NCAA. ,
“It really has changed in the last seven, eight years,” Michael Finewax, a hockey draft analyst for Rotoworld.com, said. “NHL teams like guys who go to college. It doesn’t take any cost to develop them, and they get to see them develop for much longer. It’s much easier to take a chance on a 22-year-old than an 18-year-old.”
Several key Blackhawks are NCAA alumni. Canadian-born Duncan Keith attended Michigan State, Jonathan Toews reached the Frozen Four twice with North Dakota and Patrick Sharp played two seasons at Vermont.
It’s tough to gauge the national popularity of college hockey. Earlier this year, the Hockey City Classic doubleheader came to Soldier Field in front of wide swaths of empty sections of the stadium. But the 2014 Frozen Four saw a 56 percent increase in TV viewership from the year before.
The TV increase likely is the result of the discernible improvement in college hockey’s level of play. Finewax said that’s partially because of the U.S. National Team Development Program centered in Ann Arbor, Mich. Among its notable alumni are Ducks center Ryan Kesler, Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson and the Hawks’ Patrick Kane. The Ann Arbor program provides U-18 competition similar to the OHL and immerses kids in a college hockey town.
“When I grew up, I was a fan of the OHL, but as I got older I realized that college is the way to go. I wanted to play against bigger, faster, older players,” Minnesota Golden Gophers defenseman Brady Skjei said.
A junior who was selected by the Rangers with the 28th overall pick in 2012’s entry draft, Skjei played with the Ann Arbor Development team from 2010-12.
The CHL limits teams to just four 16-year-olds and three 20-year-olds on a roster. The majority of the players are 17-19, resulting in what Skjei called “a lot less mature game than college hockey.”
Ultimately, the conflict these youth players face would be ameliorated if major junior leagues and colleges cooperated, Finewax said.
“I wish the NCAA would allow OHL players to get scholarships. It would really improve the brand of college hockey,” he said. There are so many kids who jump because they think the CHL is the best route, but they won’t get a proper education, and then they won’t get one after their CHL career is over.”
If the NCAA does eventually pay its players or at least remove its amateurism rules, homegrown talent will have more incentive to play college hockey. But until that happens, the paths to pro hockey will continue to be split. What’s certain in either path is that without patience, players aren’t going anywhere.