Hockey is unique in the factor that the journey to the professional ranks is often times a long and winding road with many different options to choose. The two routes to get to the NHL come in the form of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) or the National Collegiate Athletic Associaton (NCAA). Both routes have their own unique charateristics and understanding them can help you make a better decision if you or someone you know ever has to face the decision or which path to take.
We will first discuss the CHL. The CHL is comprised of three separate hockey leagues, all of which are based in Canada (though there are a few American teams within the leagues). Covering the western provinces of Canada you have the Western Hockey League (WHL). Some of the classic hockey team names come out of this league such as the Brandon Wheat Kings, Moose Jaw Warriors and Red Deer Rebels.
Moving to the east the next league you encounter is the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Oftentimes referred to in hockey circles as ‘The O’ this is the league I was most familiar with growing up as there was a team within three hours of my hometown. That team being the Soo Greyhounds, which is a storied franchise in and of itself where there is a banner in the rafters with the #99 on it. Other legendary teams include the Ottawa 67’s and Peterborough Pete’s. All teams with the exception of two, the Erie (PA) Otters and Saginaw (MI) Spirit are based in the province of Ontario.
The final league that finishes off the three league CHL is the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL-English)(LHJMQ-French). As you probably guessed, this covers the predominately French Canadian province of Quebec with teams such as the Val-D’or Foreurs, Chicoutimi Saqueneens, and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar.
The three leagues each play independently of each other but are collectively considered Major Junior Hockey or simply put Major Juniors. The CHL and the three leagues that they form are the top Junior Hockey league in North America. Each team that wins their league goes on to play in a four team (the host team gets an automatic entry) championship called the Memorial Cup. This is some of the best amateur hockey competition on the planet.
There are some pros and cons to playing in this league. These are the major factors in choosing whether or not this is the route you should take. The biggest con to major junior hockey is that it interferes with your NCAA eligibility. There are many different stipulations, but if you play in the CHL and wish to play in the NCAA, you will have to sit out at least once season prior to playing college hockey. More information on this specifically can be found by clicking here.
Another thing to consider is the maturity and skill level at which the player is at. If you are dominating players several years older than you as a 15 year old, you probably are skilled enough to compete at the major junior level. This is an important consideration because of the major benefit of playing in the CHL.
The biggest allure to playing in the CHL is that it will get you to the professional ranks quicker. Unlike U.S. junior hockey leagues that are a stepping stone for the NCAA, the CHL is a stepping stone to the NHL, AHL and ECHL.
Most CHL teams consist of Canadian born players and they like to keep it that way. There are only allowed two non-North American players allowed on the roster. The CHL does provide scholarship opportunities to players after their tenure in the CHL is through. This varies by league and each league has specific obligations that must be met for qualification.
Finally, discussion of the CHL has to include the fact that they players are under contract and although it is amateur hockey, for most organization and how the CHL views it, it is a business. In previous discussion about NCAA eligibility, it was not mentioned, but should be, that players in the CHL are compensated on a weekly basis. This compensation varies from player to player and is based on the contract they sign with the team.
Turning our focus to the NCAA the thing most associated with it is school. In order to play college hockey, you have to go to college (duh). For many players this is a viable and intended option as they understand that they may not make it to the professional ranks as a hockey player.
The NCAA route is for the player who needs to grow and mature. This player has the potential to be a professional, but needs the time to develop their skills. Most players playing at the collegiate level have already been playing junior hockey for a few years and come in as 20 year old freshmen. By the time they graduate, they are in their mid-20’s and are ready for the rigors of the professional ranks.
The NCAA route is also for the player who is able to attend college and put the effort in. That has to be determined and stated right away. If the player is ineligible to play because he isn’t going to school and making grades he will not last on the team very long. If a player has no desire to go to college, then the NCAA is probably not for them.
Do not fall into the misconception of using education as a means to get on a hockey team. Let me be clear here. The argument for attaining a college education is an argument in and of itself. If you feel that education is important than by all means go to college. What I am saying though is don’t use that as an excuse to get on a hockey team. If your #1 priority is hockey and you use education as an excuse the motivation is not there. If the motivation isn’t there, then the player isn’t motivated to go to class, do homework and be a diligent student. Do not force the NCAA route simply because you think education is important. If this is the case the educational opportunity and hockey career are both in jeopardy.
Continuing with this discussion it should be known that a scholarship isn’t necessarily a ‘full ride.’ Many players are getting scholarship assistance, but few are getting everything paid for. The few that are probably haven’t been their entire tenure in school. Most often times what happens is the player receives a partial scholarship that grows to a full scholarship once they become an upperclassmen. Sure there are the outliers who come to college and are highly touted players, but for the majority of guys coming in to play college hockey some of the expense will be put on the family. This should also be considered when determining which route to take.
Lastly, in regards to the NCAA. There are certain requirements that have to be met in order to be eligible to play. Once you are in school you also have to maintain certain requirements to keep your eligibility. Usually this is not an issue, however, in 2016 the rules are becoming slightly stricter for students who wish to play collegiate athletics.
In the end any player can make it to the professional ranks following one of these two routes. The decision lies ultimately with the individual in question, not with his parents, coaches or teammates. In the end it is the players career that’s on the line and how they choose to go about that is entirely up to them.