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Northern Junior Hockey Watch: CHL vs NCAA


SAULT STE. MARIE -Today’s edition of the Northern Junior Hockey Watch will feature my thoughts on an ongoing and increasingly ugly debate: Major Junior (Canadian Hockey League or CHL) vs.  NCAA college hockey.  Specifically, what route is the best one for the young hockey player?

In a perfect world this debate would not be necessary.  I would like to see young men who played in the CHL retain their amateur status.  This, however, is unlikely to happen.  I think the best that will happen is the NCAA will lighten up some.  I could see the NCAA let those who played a few games in the  CHL, say 10, retain their eligibility.

This is a good time to remind our readers that playing Major Junior hockey does not effect ones eligibility to play college hockey for a Canadian school in the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport).  The biggest challenge in writing a story like this is finding reliable statistics.  The NCAA and CHL are both a bit of snake oil salesmen in my opinion.

I believe the best way to break this debate down is to look at a couple of different questions as simply and as honestly as possible.  The first question is, what league is the best avenue to get your son to play in the NHL and why?  The next question is, both leagues talk about the importance of education.  Which one is telling the truth and which one is full of baloney?  The last thing to do is try to make some sense out of this debate and try to come up with an answer for our original question.  What route is the best one for the young gifted hockey player?

I will first take a look at the best route to take in order to find NHL riches. I do know the long odds of a youth hockey player, no matter how good, one day suiting up for an NHL club. This goes for players that play at the elite AAA level of youth hockey as well. There are a lot of good hockey players and not all that many jobs, 690 to be precise. With that being said, I want to examine which route is the best in order to land a spot in the best hockey league in the world.

The answer to that question is unequivocally the Canadian Hockey League.  The CHL is the number one developmental league in the entire world.  There are more players that go to the NHL through Major Junior than anywhere else.  I think now would be a good time to take a quick look at the numbers.  The CHL provides 52% of the players on active NHL rosters, 22% come from the Ontario Hockey League alone.  Looking at draft statistics, from 1969-2007 50% of the players drafted came from Major Junior.  If you look at the first two rounds from those same years the number is a mind boggling 69%.

There are a variety of reasons for this.  The main reason, in my opinion, is quite simple.  The vast majority of the NHL is comprised of Canadians.  It is the dream of just about every Canadian youth hockey player to play for the glory in the CHL.  The kids know that Major Junior players are held to celebrity status in many CHL markets.  There is also the dream of playing for the vaunted Memorial Cup, one of the hardest trophies in all of sport to win.  This is why, I believe, that the majority of talented Canadians choose the CHL route and why it is such a great feeder league for the NHL.

There are other reasons for this.  The players play an NHL like 68 game schedule, 72 games in the Western Hockey League.  This can be compared to a 34 game regular season schedule that NCAA teams use.  The league playoffs are also NHL like 7 game affairs.  The NCAA tournament, which sees only 16 teams qualify, is single elimination.

Other factors that prepare players for the NHL is that the CHL condones fighting, just like the NHL.  The players also wear half shields like their NHL counterparts, unlike the NCAA which forces players to wear the hideous full shield.  I doubt this makes any difference but it helps demonstrate how the CHL tries to be as much like the big league as is possible.  The NCAA seems to march to the beat of their very own drummer.

To recap I simply do not think there is any comparison as to which league develops NHL talent better.  The Canadian Hockey League is head and shoulders above the NCAA in this category.  The NCAA has recently hired former NHLPA boss Paul Kelly to help promote NCAA hockey to potential recruits.  It hasn’t seemed to help much as several high profile players have left college for the CHL.  There have also been several high profile American recruits that have told college hockey no thanks and taken their services north of the border.  This trend of uber talented  Americans going the Major Junior route I believe is especially troubling to Paul Kelly and company.

So Round 1 goes to the CHL but I will now look at the importance of education.  Both leagues stress this aspect in their recruiting pitch but I think only one of them truly believes in the importance of education.

To be able to fully examine what route offers the best education opportunities for their players we need to first take a look at how the NCAA’s and CHL’s education system operates.  Lets start with the NCAA as theirs is more straightforward.

The athletic scholarships offered by NCAA schools cover: tuition, room and board, required textbooks and university fees.  The NCAA has a limit of 18 scholarships per team available at the Division 1 level.  So with roster sizes of around 27, the coaches have to decide how much of the scholarship pie each player gets.   These scholarships are performanced based and are on a year-by-year basis.

If a player doesn’t live up to expectations, his scholarship money can be reduced all the way down to zero if need be.  This, however, works both ways.  A player that initially received very little in the way of scholarship money as a freshman might blossom into a fine player who has a full or near full ride his senior year.  The school has to July 1 each year to tell student athletes what the status is of their scholarship for the following season.

Now we get to see what the CHL is offering in their educational packages.  If the NCAA’s is fairly straightforward the CHL’s is anything but.   The very first thing we need to clear up is the CHL is an umbrella organization of the three Canadian Major Junior Leagues.  They are the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the Western Hockey League (WHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).  These three leagues offer slightly different educational packages each.  The league we will focus on, for arguments sake, is the OHL.

The OHL offers what they call The Best of Both Worlds.  This means that players can play in a league with a hockey-heavy lifestyle now and then go on to receive and excellent education afterwards.  The OHL says that for each year you play in the league you receive money for one year of post-secondary education.

So if you play in the OHL for one year you get one year at any recognized university in the world paid for.  Play four years and get four years paid for.  The educational package covers tuition, textbooks and university fees.  Players that went in the first round of the OHL Priority Selection also get their room and board covered.  This sounds all pretty simple right.  Oh but wait because as with a lot of things in life the devil’s in the details.

The first “catch” with this system is the so-called “domicile” rule.  Basically, how this works, is the OHL takes the cost of tuition at the college or university closes to your home as the basis of how much educational cash you receive that year.  So if your from a town where it costs $6500 in tuition to attend Acme College but your heart’s set on going to Generic University at $7000 a year you will have to come up with the $500.

The next “catch” is that it is real important to be on an OHL roster January 10th or later.  The reason is that if your not on the team on or after that date the money you would receive for education for that year is halved.  So on January 9th you get sent down to the Junior A affiliate you can kiss literally thousands of dollars goodbye.  Ouch.

The final ”catch” in my opinion is the biggest of all.  It states that you have 18 months from the time your junior eligibility has expired for you to access your educational money.  If you don’t tap into it then, on a full-time continuous basis, it is gone forever.

For example, Joe Smith just finished his 20 year-old overage season with the Sarnia Sting.  He then, like most OHL grads, decides to keep his dream of hockey glory going and signs with the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals.   He has a decent first year and the Jackals would love to have him back for a second year.  Joe Smith now has come to one of life’s crossroads.  He can return and hope he continues to develop as a hockey player and maybe catches the eye of an AHL team.

The AHL, being one step away from the NHL, can now be used as a platform for a call-up to The Show and a lifelong dream fulfilled.  Or he can access his educational package and go on to university.  How many 22 year-old hockey players, having played since they were 4 or 5, are ready to abandon their dreams at that age?  Not many, the OHL is counting on it.

Therein lies the big difference between the NCAA and the CHL in how they view education.  The NCAA teams want their players to succeed in college.  They, in fact, need their players to keep their grades up to be eligible to play.

The CHL, meanwhile, no matter what they say would much rather have former players go toil in the minors for a few years rather than access their education packages. Why wouldn’t they?  They are a business after all and the savings from players not using their educational packages is in the millions.
So with all that being said it is no wonder why the NCAA crushes the CHL in their graduation rates from college or university.

The CHL’s is so bad that they don’t even publish it.  The NCAA, meanwhile, has no problem publishing their graduation rates which for men’s hockey is 84%.  The CHL’s is likely under 20% according to everything I’ve read.

Lets look at those numbers one more time: NCAA 84%, CHL less than 20%.

Round 2 isn’t even close folks.  The NCAA pummels the CHL in the way they value the importance of an education.

Well looks like we have a draw folks at two round apiece.  What? We can’t have a stinking tie.  This article is longer than War and Peace and it’s answered squat.  Well that is our third and final task.  To make some kind of sense of all this stuff and answer the most important question.  What route is the best for a player gifted enough to play in one or the other?  The answer- NCAA U.S. Division 1 College Hockey.

So how did I come to this conclusion?  Let me explain.  For me it comes down to the fact that the chances are slim for players in Major Junior or NCAA making it to the NHL.  They are without a doubt better if a player goes and plays in one of the three CHL leagues.  Still, the odds are long even for Major Junior players.

The hard fact is only 35 North American players from any birth year will play in the NHL on a full time basis.  Only 1 player on average will make the NHL from a typical CHL roster of 25.

The NCAA, meanwhile, sends only .5 players to the NHL from an average roster size of 28.  So while it is “easier” to make the NHL via the CHL it is still a long shot at the very best.

O.K. so if the vast majority of these players aren’t making the NHL then what are they doing?  A large number of both CHL and NCAA grads will go and toil in the minor leagues for a few years before hanging up their skates.  So then what?   Well if they went the NCAA route then 84% of them are utilizing a college degree.

O.K. so these players have a college degree to fall back on if their NHL dreams don’t materialize. So what?  Well for starters the average yearly salary for a person with a bachelor’s degree is $52,000.  Those with a high school diploma earn significantly less at around $29,000 a year.  Over the course of a lifetime the difference is shocking.  A person with a bachelor’s degree earns almost a million dollars more in a lifetime than someone with a high school diploma.  That’s a million dollars, $1,000,000!  That piece of paper of paper is literally worth it’s weight in gold.

The last point I want to make is if you are good enough the NHL will find you.  I don’t care if your playing in Siberia or Shingleton.  If you are good enough they will find you.  It doesn’t matter if your suiting up for the Colorado College Tigers or the Medicine Hat Tigers.  If you are good enough they will find you.  And if you aren’t good enough but obtained your degree.  Then try not spend that million extra bucks all in the same place.


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