It’s a decision that can create a great deal of pressure for some players.
Do I pursue a major junior hockey career or a scholarship to attend and play collegiate hockey in the United States?
The reason for this crossroads question, and stress, is due to the eligibility rules outlined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA): any athlete who participates in a Canadian major junior hockey game will be considered as non-amateur and therefore will be ineligible to compete.
Historically, the major juniors of Canada were considered the primary route for players to take their game to the next level: the National Hockey League (NHL).
Founded in 1975, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) operates as a governing body for major junior hockey for players between the ages of 16-20.
For many decades now, the game, which is ever evolving, has seen new avenues crop up for players to take — even the European leagues have been churning out exceptional athletes.
In recent years, college programs have grown in popularity for players and NHL scouts.
However, according to Bob Green, Director of Amateur Free Agent Scouting of the Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club, there is no pull for scouts to select players from one hockey realm or another, it depends on the player that is available at the time scouts make their selection.
“At the time you are picking you’re trying to get the best player available regardless of where he is playing,” said Green.
“Some players need a little more time to develop before they turn pro, so college gives them that time, but it seems more and more players want to turn pro as soon as possible.”
The playing structure of the Canadian leagues and NCAA are very different and certain players are more suited for one over the other.
In college, players face competition that could be as much as seven years older than them, so it’s the closest non-professional environment to playing against mature men.
“It was a tough freshman year for me,” admits Matt Hendricks, 31.
“I wasn’t very mature (when entering college). I went directly from high school, where we played 28 games in a season, to college, which was 42 or 43 (games in a season). You’re playing against older guys on teams who are 24-25 years old and it was a big jump for me.”
Hendricks, currently a forward with the Edmonton Oilers, attended St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where he played for the Huskies hockey team when he was 18.
Comprised of two divisions, Division I and Division III, the NCAA encompasses teams from colleges and universities within the United States.
“There was a little bit of talk in my senior year of high school, would I leave and go play major junior hockey and not go to college?” said Hendricks.
“At that point it was 1999-2000, it was kind of rare for U.S.-born players to be running up to Canadian junior, not that it didn’t happen but it was just a little bit more rare. I decided to stay in state for college and start my career there.
“Did I ever consider myself an NHL player? It was a goal, but my first goal was to get a Division I scholarship.”
The NCAA Division I level is a higher calibre of play and differs by also offering athletic scholarships.
“My family wouldn’t be able to afford school in the U.S., I think it was $30,000 or $40,000 dollars a year,” said Teddy Purcell, another forward for the Edmonton Oilers.
“When I played junior I had a bunch of different offers for full scholarships so it was kind of my decision of where I wanted to go and I felt the University of Maine was the best fit.
“Once you get your scholarship, unless you make a terrible mistake or fail out of school, you’re with them for four years. So if you have a bad year, they’re going to work with you, you’re going to get stronger off the ice and get more teaching time on the ice and they’re going to stick with you cause they put such an investment into you.”
The Canadian leagues have a longer schedule that closely resembles a professional season.
“In college you only play twice a week,” said Purcell.
“That’s a lot different than the major-junior schedules. For anyone that’s not guaranteed to play in the NHL it’s almost a no-brainer. You get to go to a great school…you get to learn a lot of life experiences, it’s a lot of fun, you meet a lot of great people and at the end of the day, if you don’t make it, you have your education or some sort of education to fall back on.”
Purcell, who attended the University of Maine, said he was a late bloomer when it came to his player development.
“I didn’t have a lot of opportunities with major junior. I didn’t think the NHL was an attainable goal so I said, ‘You know what, I’ll play four years, kind of develop my body, develop me as a hockey player and see what happens and have a free education to fall back on,’” he said.
“But then, after the first year, I kind of realized that I could play with these guys and I thought that I could take the next step, so hockey became the number one focus.”
He played one season with the university’s Black Bears ice hockey team, scoring 16 goals and adding 27 assists for 43 points in 40 games before he was offered a contract with the Los Angeles Kings.
“I think it’s always every kid’s goal to play in the NHL, and that was mine,” said Justin Schultz.
A defenceman for the Oilers, Schultz admitted that he wasn’t as disciplined when it came to pursuing the professional league.
“For me I never really had Western Hockey League teams wanting me to go to their teams so (college) was an easy decision for me,” said the 25-year-old.
“Plus, you know, it’s not a bad thing to get your schooling done and have that as a back up if hockey didn’t work out. It was something I thought a lot about and kind of made a smart decision. I haven’t finished — gotten my degree yet — but I’m only a year away and I think it’ll help me for sure.”
Drafted 43rd overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2008 NHL Draft, the blueliner attended the University of Wisconsin that same year where he played collegiate hockey for the Badgers.
“I was drafted before I went to college so I kind of knew I had a shot at making this my living and if it didn’t work out then I always had school to fall back on,” said Schultz.
“It was hockey that I definitely put first when I was there, and if it didn’t work out then I’d try my luck at school.”
Committing to Maine as an older freshman at the age of 21, Purcell, now 30, said he felt as though it gave him an advantage when it came to adjusting to the college lifestyle.
“I went to Notre Dame in Saskatchewan for a year, ended up going to the USHL for two years and then got a scholarship to the University of Maine…I was an older freshman, most kids are 18 and 19, I was 21. So I had some extra years of maturity under my belt,” said Purcell.
A late bloomer, Purcell said he didn’t really grow into his body until he was 22-years-old.
“In the major-junior league you can’t play after you’re 20, so that’s two extra years of development of playing hockey at a very high level and getting your education at the same time,” he said.
Players who do enter the college atmosphere at a younger age sometimes struggle with the sudden culture shock.
“College classes are a lot more difficult than high school classes. You have to learn how to manage everything,” said Hendricks.
“When I got to college there was a lot of freedom. There was a lot of extracurricular activities, things that you had to manage that I wasn’t used to. But (because) I was surrounded by older guys, I kind of grew up and understood what it took to be successful at that level.”
The NCAA route has gained a lot of momentum as not only a way to have an education fully paid for, but also is considered a stable environment to build as a player.
“Goaltending, I remember it being one of my most difficult tasks, trying to score. I was viewed as a scorer and looked at as supposed to score, and I got to college and I found it a lot more difficult. I wasn’t shooting on high school goalies anymore. That was a big learning curve,” said Hendricks, who had been drafted by the Nashville Predators, 131st overall, in the 2000 NHL Draft, before attending St. Cloud.
“In college we didn’t play nearly as many games as we play now,” said Schultz.
“You have more time practicing in college, working out, training and kind of developing into a player that you need to be to make that next step and I don’t think I would have got that if I’d gone to major-junior.”
Many say that the CHL is more similar to the NHL — from the speed and style of play, to the length of a season, or the playoff best-of-seven series known as the Memorial Cup.
The NCAA route also provides a different advantage to players, aside from schooling.
“It’s busy so they learn to manage their time, they practice a lot and spend time in the gym so it’s beneficial from that standpoint,” said Green.
But regardless of which league a player chooses to pursue, Green says that scouts take into account all kinds of qualities players can offer both on and off the ice — from skating to hockey sense, skill, size, character, work ethic and how hard they compete.
“It also depends who the player is,” said Schultz.
“If you’re Connor McDavid or (a top round pick) then obviously major junior is the route to go because they’re going to play in the NHL at 18-years-old. For me, I needed to develop, I was a scrawny little kid back then. I had to go to college to develop more, to mature more and that’s what happened there.”
It’s a fork in the road question, which path is the right one, but it’s also a decision that, in time, most hockey players eventually have to make.
“I mean, I don’t think you can go wrong,” said Purcell.
“Both are great leagues. But I would suggest, if you’re not a guaranteed first-round player to consider going the college route. You have a longer window, they stick with you for four years, you can’t get traded in college, you work out a lot more, a lot of these kids coming in are a lot of guys that aren’t ready to play in the NHL. They have the skill but their bodies aren’t developed enough, and I was a perfect example.”
Each league offers unique benefits for a player, and just as they would in looking at a university, a prospective player should review their options to find what suits their situation best.
“Just go with your heart. Don’t make a decision without thinking it through,” said Schultz.
“If you are a good enough player and you’re talented, you’re going to make it one way or another, it doesn't matter where you are playing, they’ll find you.”
By Meg Tilley/edmontonoilers.com