I tried out for the Kelowna Rockets, one of the premier programs in the Western Hockey League, in the fall of 2000. I was 17 years old, although in the junior hockey world I was considered an 18 year old because I was born in 1982. I was coming off of a successful year of Midget AA, having been captain of a team that won the BC provincial championship. But being that I was that old and undrafted, I was a definite longshot and I knew it.
The thing is, I had a really good camp, and sometimes you catch people off guard. I scored twice in a heavily attended low-scoring intra-squad game in Kelowna’s Prospera Place, and was invited to travel with the team to Kamloops to play the Blazers in the first of a number of exhibition games. They had already made a great many cuts by this point.
As a young player, you deal with a range of ideas and emotions: I’m from Kelowna, so if I could walk onto the hometown Kelowna Rockets and make it…I have to do that, right? (By the way, the Rockets won the Memorial Cup in the next year or two. Dammit.) But, I was also a gangly kid who got cut to house hockey his first year of Bantam, got better (read: bigger) in a hurry, and had figured out that you can get your entire undergrad education paid for if you play junior A puck. I also knew that if I played one game – even an exhibition game – at the major junior level, I was ineligible for at least a year of that NCAA hockey (plus a game for every CHL (major junior) game played, I believe), making that dream scholarship less likely.
My parents and I sat in the room and listened to The Most Important People in the Rockets Organization at the time and tried to gauge how likely it was that I would make the team while trying to make the decision to go for it or not. Essentially, it was down to myself and large, fellow right-winger Randall Gelech (a player far better than I, who would’ve likely played in the NHL for years by now had he not been drafted/buried in the Red Wings organization when they were on top of the world for years). We told them our concerns about NCAA eligibility. And they told us “how this works”: just play/tryout, and we’ll rip up the rosters after the game. If you make it – and you have a good chance – cool. If you don’t, you’ll be fine. I’m not sure if it still does, but it seems this is a thing that occasionally happened at the time.
My parents didn’t want me to play. Between all of us, a college scholarship was the goal. If I got an education paid for then the investment in gear, practices, and time would have amounted to something. Yes, you can get Canadian college hockey paid for after playing major junior, but it’s suuuuper rare to advance, hockey-wise, beyond that. You’re basically saying it’s NHL or done-by-20. NCAA puck gives late bloomers (like myself) years to develop against incredible talents to see what you can become.
At 15 or 16 or 17, a young hockey player has to a make a decision that will forever change his career and his life: take your shot at Major Junior or commit to the college path.
I played Junior B hockey that winter, led my conference in points (beating Chuck Kobasew’s team record), and finished second overall in the league to Andrew Ebbett. That summer, I signed a card with the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL, trained my butt off, and committed to earning that scholarship.
I scored 131 points over my 120 game Junior A career, and we won a BCHL title. After fly-down visits to three different NCAA schools, I accepted a full Div. 1 scholarship (to the University of Alaska Anchorage) just like my family had hoped – just like I had hoped.
So here I sit, with a primary education in hockey, but a different title on my business card, and I couldn’t be happier. I got an education (an education your love of hockey forces you to get, if you want to play), found my best friends and really, myself. College was an experience I can’t explain, an experience I’d never give back. I was fortunate to have the opportunity. (I was more fortunate that I lived with guys capable of installing a keg-orator line from the garage to the kitchen sink, giving us water taps labelled hot, cold and beer.)
When most players have to make the decision between major junior and college, they take what they can get. Most don’t reject one for the other; their talents, age and size direct them one way or the other. Only a lucky few get to choose.
Either one works. There is a hockey cliche that “If you’re good enough, they’ll find you”. And it’s true. They’ll find you in Timbukfuckingtu if you’re NHL calibre. It’s insane. Few are overlooked.
As someone quickly approaching their 30th birthday thinking about what I’d do if I were a young player now deciding between the two, I can’t help but think: I’d have to be awfully damn good to choose major junior hockey over college. It’s not taking anything away from those who choose to go the CHL route, it’s just that one way seems a little more all-or-nothing than the other. Both seem like flying down the highway on a motorcycle, but one affords you a helmet.
As a further college hockey pump-up: going that route isn’t exactly a hockey dead end. During my years in the WCHA I faced some great players – Zach Parise, Tomas Vanek, TJ Oshie, David Backes, Matt Niskanen, Alex Goligoski, Kyle Okposo, Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Andreas Nodl, Jonathan Toews, Chris Conner, Matt Greene, Keith Ballard, Matt Carle, Paul Stastny, Joey Crabb, Ryan Potulny, Ryan Stoa, Brandon Bochensky, Brian Lee, Matt Smaby, Drew Stafford, Rene Bourque, Adam Burish, Brian Elliot, Tom Gilbert, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Suter, Travis Zajac, Ryan Carter, Jason Garrison, and the toughest to play of all of them all at the time, 5’7″ Hobey Baker-winner Ryan Duncan (AHL). I was also teammates with Curtis Glencross, Jay Beagle and Nathan Lawson. You can develop at that level, and you can still make it big.
For the big guns, major junior is great too: it’s more pro-style puck, it’s great exposure, and it’s comparable to the NHL schedule.
Nobody can say for certain what’s the best route – each player has a different set of developmental needs, and each league fulfills those differently.
But for those who could use a little more time to develop and miiiigghht just want to hedge their bets on the future with an education, college hockey is the way to go.
Justin spent 4 years at the University of Alaska – Anchorage, followed by 3-4 years of playing minor pro at the ECHL.
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