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The Endless Debate: Major Juniors or NCAA?

By Ryan Ballard

Big decisions loom for 16 year old elite hockey players. I’m not talking about the typical issues for teenagers like “what should I wear to the homecoming dance,” “how am I going to pass my driving test,” or “what should I do this weekend?” Instead, many elite hockey players at that age have to decide whether they should play hockey in one of Canada’s major junior leagues- the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League, or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League- or retain their eligibility to play for an NCAA institution.

For family advisors of hockey players, this decision presents a balancing of factors: quality of hockey, education, proximity to home, coaching, development physically and mentally, exposure to NHL scouts, etc. Cut and dry, the major junior leagues develop more National Hockey League players than the NCAA. The table below, taken from this article, is a little outdated but gives you the idea…

NCAA vs. Major Junior: 1990-2001

League      Picks     Made NHL   Rate     3 Years Rate

OHL          583           269           46.1%     106      18.2%

WHL         570           266           46.7%     111      19.5%

QMJHL    305            140           45.9%     58        19.0%

NCAA       291           124            42.6%     52       17.9%

Many times the main concern for the player’s family is education. This is where the NCAA has the upper hand. The major junior leagues, realizing they are competing for talented players and needing to fill the seats, offer their own scholarship program in which they pay for players to attend Canadian universities. The three leagues will provide around $2.6M in scholarships this year. That seems like a lot, but not when you consider that only 32% of players take advantage of the scholarship program and the money is cut off after 18 months of the player leaving major juniors.

But what do NHL scouts think? Here’s another excerpt from the article linked above:

So, is there a difference on draft day?

“No,” said Calgary Flames director of scouting Todd Button with a laugh. “How’s that for a simple answer? There’s good players in both leagues, and where you choose to hone your craft it doesn’t really matter.”

And here’s what Nashville Predators chief amateur scout, Jeff Kealty, had to say:

“From a strength and physical maturity standpoint, yes, the college players can be physically stronger,” said Kealty. “They’re older and they don’t play as many games, so they have more time to workout and develop physically.”

“But, on the flip side, the junior kids are playing more games, there’s more travel, there’s a longer training camp and preseason, the playoffs are different and each round is seven games. So there’s benefits to both sides of it. The college kids can be a little bit older coming out, but there’s certainly elements on both sides of the ledger that can benefit players and prepare them in different ways.”

So while major junior teams produce more NHL players (and more elite NHL players), NHL teams don’t let the league a kid is playing in determine whether or not they will draft him. My opinion, and one that is not often pointed out in blogs and newspapers, is that major juniors is really for kids who develop physically at an earlier age. College hockey is usually a better route for players who need a couple more years to develop.

As a family advisor, my approach is similar to that of the informed consent standard for doctors- lay out all the information the family could possibly need to make the decision, and let them make the call. Some agents/advisors favor one road or the other. I favor whatever path that the player will put the most effort and passion into.

 

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