The road to an NHL career is long and often bumpy. Every player has his own story. Players come from the biggest cities and from the smallest towns. They come from the North America. They come from Europe. It’s the last amateur stop that separates the men from the boys. Many top players come via the Canadian Junior system; others make their way by way of U.S. College Hockey.
There was a day when virtually every NHL player came from the 3 Canadian Juniors leagues. The juniors consist primarily of the ‘Western Canadian’, the ‘Quebec Major’ and the ‘Ontario Hockey League’. Prior to the 1970’s it was rare to even dress a U.S. born player. Often they were not even scouted. It was assumed American players were not skilled or tough enough to crack an NHL lineup.
Today American players have proven their worth and the U.S. college system is a legitimate way to prepare for a pro career. Most Canadian-born players still take the junior path, while most American-born players take the college route. A vast majority of European players play junior hockey in their home countries. Some Americans play junior, some Canadians play college.
The current Sharks roster is a good example of the face of big league pro hockey in 2014. San Jose has 11 players from juniors, 11 from U.S. colleges. The club’s 2 Europeans learned at home. It can be argued that the high level stars still come primarily from the juniors. The Sharks Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic all played Canadian Junior hockey. However Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle, Justin Braun, Tommy Wingels and others played college hockey.
Why junior? Why college?
Those who support junior hockey say that it closely resembles the pro game. Juniors play a 70+ game regular season with a long playoff system. Juniors travel thousands of miles by bus. Players wear half-shields, fighting is allowed and the juniors foster an environment that makes hockey the number one priority. Junior clubs are also very young, with players being from 16 to 20 years of age. It’s a great choice for a young ‘can’t miss’ type of player.
College hockey is a great option for an ‘excellent’ player who may aspire to a pro career but wants to a plan B by getting a great education while playing high level hockey. College players are generally older, more mature and bigger physically. NCAA hockey insists on full face shields or cages.
Junior hockey has more games than practices. College plays only 2 games a week which allows for more practices. NCAA hockey is perfect for the ‘late-bloomer’.
The old prejudices are no longer in place. NHL teams know that great players come from everywhere. Great players come from junior, college and from Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Winning is all they care about.
The new trend that will continue in the future is high-level players born and bred in the states of California and Texas. The Sharks boast 2 Californians, winger Matt Nieto from Long Beach and defenseman Matt Tennyson of Pleasanton. Both played in California, both took the college route. Nieto went to Boston University, Tennyson played at Western Michigan.
The hockey world is just beginning to see the emergence of players who have grown up in NHL warm-weather markets. The hard work of growing hockey in places like California, Texas, Florida and other is beginning to pay off. That only means good things for young players and for NHL fans. Dreams of NHL glory can come from warm weather places as well cold weather places. Great players can come from college and from junior hockey. One day the Sharks will dress a team made primarily of players from places like San Jose, Gilroy, San Francisco, Oakland, Fremont and countless other California towns. Equally likely is Division 1 hockey will be played by programs like Stanford, UC Berkeley and San Jose State. On that you can bet.