Feature: Deciding between Major Junior and NCAA development

On May 4th, 230 of western North America’s young hockey prodigies were selected at this year’s WHL Bantam Draft.

Unlike the OHL and QMJHL (which joins the WHL under the CHL umbrella), WHL teams select players that have just completed their 15-year-old season as opposed to after their 16-year-old season. It’s weird to think that 15-year-old kids, who still rely on their parents for rides to the rink, are being scouted so intensely by Major Junior teams. But as every WHL team tries to gain an extra edge in the drafting and developing of their young prospects, scouts start to keep tabs on players as young as 13-years old. Determining when those kids are going to make an impact three or four years down the road at the WHL level is quite difficult and because of that, more and more scouts have flocked into the games that feature the top 12 and 13-year-olds.

As competitiveness and pressure continue to increase within amateur hockey circles, many teens may feel that cracking a WHL roster will make or break their hockey career. While Major Junior is certainly not the only path to pro hockey, it’s not hard to decipher why young Canadian kids could come to believe this. For those young adolescent players receiving attention from WHL teams, the feeling can be intoxicating. The WHL is an easy sell to young hockey stars, as the league offers exposure to a plethora of NHL scouts, the opportunity to play in front of thousands of fans, all the while a player don’s only the most pristine hockey equipment.

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With that in mind, players are on high-alert when they see WHL personal, with notepads in hand, filling up the back rows of their arena bleachers. To no surprise, many of these Bantam players have their sights set on a career in professional hockey. In terms of producing NHL talent, the CHL is second to none at developing NHL talent, with 52 per cent of current NHL players coming from the CHL ranks.

And for all those young kids that aspire to reach the NHL some day, the WHL seems like a perfect, if not the only fit.

“Playing that pro schedule just gets you ready for the next level and that’s part of the reason I chose the WHL,” said Brandon Wheat Kings forward Stelio Mattheos, who was chosen first overall in the 2014 Bantam Draft. “It’s obviously a hard adjustment when you have three games in three days or four [games] in five days, but I think that’s only really going to help you get to the next level.”

Mattheos, a projected second-round pick in this year’s NHL entry draft, didn’t hesitate at the chance to sign with the Wheat Kings immediately upon being drafted.

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(Courtesy of WinnipegFreePress.com) 

“I went and visited a couple [NCAA] schools and just kind of made the decision based on myself and what was best for me and I thought that was to go play for Brandon,” said Mattheos.

Virtually every first overall selection from the WHL draft has signed and played in the league. However, the rare exception was back in 2003 when Jonathan Toews, who the Tri-City Americans selected first overall in the Bantam draft, opted not to sign with the Americans, but rather, play for Shattuck-St Mary’s in order to keep his NCAA eligibility and play for the University of North Dakota. Since Toews’ surprising decision, no first overall pick has gone the NCAA route, with very few players selected in the first round going to the NCAA route.

Since 2003, 97 per cent of players that were selected in the first round of the WHL draft, opted to sign in the WHL.

“As soon as I got drafted into the WHL, it was kinda my main goal to play there,” said Portland Winterhawks forward Cody Glass. Glass, a projected top-ten draft pick in the 2017 draft, briefly considered the idea of playing NCAA hockey, but looking back on it now, he’s glad he took the WHL route.

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“The atmosphere in the rink is great, we have great fans..it’s an unbelievable experience.”

(Courtesy of Keith Dwiggens/Facebook)

When Glass decided to sign with the Winterhawks, the decision was made from a hockey perspective, as Glass thought playing in Portland would help him get to the next level.

“Coming to the [WHL], I didn’t really think school would be a thing for us,” admitted Glass. Yet, once the Winnipeg native arrived in Portland, Glass learned that the CHL’s educational plan is no mockery. Glass, along with fellow teenage aged Winterhawks, attend school in the mornings and take two courses per semester.

“On the road, we always have a tutor with us and whenever we’re in Portland and we’re struggling, our tutors and student counsellors give us a lot of help.”

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Aside from the high school education that all CHL players are guaranteed, for each year a player plays in the CHL, they are compensated with a year’s worth of tuition at any CIS school. “The [CIS’ tuition plan] is a huge thing especially if hockey doesn’t work out,” said Glass. “If thing’s don’t go right, I can always go back to school.”

With the CHL supplying players with tuition only for as many years as they play, not every CHL player is going to get there full four years of tuition compensated, as there’s no guarantee a player is in the league for that long.

For players like Glass and Mattheos, picking the WHL route was the best course of action for themselves. Not only is the WHL the right hockey fit for them, but it’s also a good situation education-wise, as those two will likely tally up four years of service (and tuition) when it’s all said and done.

But for the players that are selected in the middle-late rounds of the WHL draft, signing a standard player agreement as soon as it’s on the table may not be the smartest course of action. Typically, players that are selected between the fifth and ninth rounds aren’t expected to be top-end WHL contributors right away and there isn’t much pressure to crack the team’s roster. Nothing is set in stone for those players, as they may never crack a WHL roster, and as a result, won’t get the WHL’s education bonus.

In a study conducted by the Nation Network, we examined exactly how many mid rounds picks from 2004-2013 actually ended up playing in the WHL.

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As you can see, only 36 per cent of those mid-round picks made it to the WHL level, 24 per cent of them decided to play NCAA hockey, and the majority of those players weren’t able to go either route, with many ending up just playing Junior A hockey or CIS hockey.

But of that 36 per cent, how many of these played more than two seasons in the league?

The majority of mid-round picks from those 10 drafts played less than two WHL seasons and with that, the majority of those players received one or two years of university tuition covered. Now, If you’re a mid round pick, signing that agreement with a WHL team closes the door on the possibility of playing NCAA hockey and ultimately, it closes the door on a few more years of development that going the NCAA route can offer.

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Darryl Wolski, a family advisor to Major Junior and NCAA hockey prospects, tells his clients to “massage their options,” before coming to any final decision on the next step of their hockey career.

“People didn’t know about the USHL or NAHL 10 years ago,” said Wolski. “Those two leagues have had success at the NHL level, especially the USHL. Players can wait, you can go play in the [NAHL] for a year, you can play in the BCHL for a year and then play college hockey, everybody has that option.”

Wolski says even for players that want to go the WHL route, playing a year of Junior A hockey can only help in further developing the players game and making the best decision for their hockey and educational career.

“[You need to] have patience. A player, say it’s a first round pick to the Swift Current Broncos or Brandon Wheat Kings, doesn’t need to sign a [WHL Standard] agreement right away,” said Wolski.  “The teams are not going to drop a player if they don’t sign an agreement. They’re going to hang on to that player.”

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(Photo Courtesy of Matthew Putney)

It’s not surprising to hear that the majority of Wolski’s clients’ parents are the most concerned with their child’s education, as opposed to their teen’s hockey development. With that in mind, Wolski makes sure that families do their due diligence on NCAA hockey, which provides players a concrete educational plan, with players guaranteed the recourses both financially and academically, to complete a four-year degree all while playing a high-level of hockey.

“I encourage people to look, I don’t encourage people to put their head in the sand,” said Wolski.

NCAA hockey, which has developed many talented NHL players in it’s own right, can be a hard sell for 14-year-old kids. For example, a player can’t play their first year of NCAA hockey until they are 18 or 19, whereas a young player could suit up in a handful of CHL games at the age of 15 and at 16, they can play an entire season. Along with that, NCAA programs require students to study and pursue a degree while playing a 34-game schedule, a much less hockey-focused environment compared to the WHL, where team’s play a 72-game schedule as they take high school courses.

Most teenagers would rather play hockey and worry about education later than kill two birds with one stone. Also, most teenagers are likely not even aware of the ways they could easily lose their NCAA eligibility.

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Aside from signing a standard agreement with a WHL team, a prospect can lose their NCAA eligibility by violating the NCAA’s ’48 hour rule.’ The ’48 hour rule’, which Wolski deemed a “bizarre rule,” restricts potential NCAA athletes from allowing a CHL team to cover their expenses at a rookie or main camp for a period longer than 48 hours. Also, if a player is at a WHL camp, they are prohibited from participating in the exhibition action or accepting any gifts or benefits of any kind.

Selling patience, education and a bunch of rules to young hockey players can be difficult, hence a number of players that sign Standard agreement’s immediately upon being offered one.

As enticing as the CHL may be for 15-year-old players, it’s not the right path for every player.

Even with an offer from the Brandon Wheat Kings on the table, James McIsaac of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Portage Terriers opted to go choose the safer route and pursue a chance to play NCAA hockey.

“With the college route, you get more years of hockey and it’s a way to prove your game and get more experience as well, ” said McIsaac, who the Brandon Wheat Kings drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 WHL draft. “I’ve never heard anything negative about NCAA hockey.”

(Photo Courtesy of MJHL.ca)

McIsaac’s intrigue of NCAA hockey started when his eight-year-old travel team made it’s way to Grand Forks for a tournament. They also went to catch a University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks game.

“I fell in love with the atmosphere, I loved the type of game it was and then I just kinda pushed myself towards that path my whole life,” said McIsaac. “I want to do something with my life after hockey. Obviously, the NHL would be my ultimate dream but if that doesn’t work out I want a backup plan and I think college would help me with that.”

Yet despite his desire to play NCAA hockey, McIsaac attended the Wheat Kings past two rookie camps to explore all his options. While attending those camps, the Wheat Kings wanted to sign McIsaac.

“It’s tempting. When they put you in that room for player meetings tell you how the WHL is the best route to go, it’s intriguing,” said McIssac. “It definitely crossed my mind to play there, but I had to stick to my word.”

But McIsaac, who has hopes to pursue a degree in business, has no regrets about his decision to play with the Terriers, this year’s MJHL champions. Despite not playing Major Junior this year, McIsaac generated plenty of buzz in front of NHL, CHL and NCAA scouts when he participated in the CJHL top prospects game, where top NCAA recruiters had their eyes on McIsaac.

Looking down the road, McIsaac is unsure if he’ll be back with Portage, or if he’ll play in the USHL with the Fargo Force. Heck, he may even decide to go sign with the Brandon Wheat Kings next fall, but by playing the past two seasons in Jr A as opposed to with Brandon, McIsaac has kept all his options open as his game develops.

Even for players that desire to play WHL hockey, getting an extra year of development before making the leap to Major Junior could really help, as it could help the player adjust to the WHL game better and have a higher chance at sticking around for the long-haul.

Having a few years of Junior A hockey before college hockey can be really important for players that are late bloomers, per say. 10-year-pro Jacob Micflikier was one of those late-bloomers and going the NCAA route helped him get those much needed extra years of development.

“I was always smaller than everyone else and I knew size would be a factor to play Major Junior,” said Micflikier. I’d like to think I had a different path from my friends back home and I was happy to go the direction I did.” Mickflikier, who stands at 5’8 and 180 pounds, was one of the only people in his friend circle to go the college route as opposed to the Major Junior route.

But for the sake of testing his options, Micflikier attended the Brandon Wheat Kings rookie camp when he was 15 years old. After a strong showing, the Wheat Kings protected Micflikier and invited him back to the team’s training camp the following year. Micflikier excelled at camp and was offered a spot on the roster, but with no guarantee he’d be sticking around for the entire season.

“I didn’t want to lose my NCAA eligibility by doing the Major Junior route, especially if it didn’t work out,” said Micflikier. “In my mind I said I’m going to take the safer and more structured route, which would be [NCAA hockey].”

As much as Micflikier loved hockey, he viewed the game as a stepping stone to gain a good education and a “motor” to do other things in life.

“I was on the path to focus on an education first.”

While Micflikier was suiting up for just under 40 games a year in the NCAA, having an emphasis on weight training during the week was crucial to an undersized player like him.

“You learn how to weight train with the proper technique and at that point in your development from 18-22 that’s a big part of learning those things and physically maturing,” said the Winnipeg native.

By playing NCAA hockey, a player is getting fed knowledge not just in the classroom, but in the weight room and other training methods. For kids on the wrong side of six feet or even tall kids that haven’t thickened out, the NCAA route provides time to build that muscle during the season, as opposed to only the offseason.

“Off-ice training and weight room development and proper technique is a huge part of the game now that has exponentially grown since I was even in school,” said the University of New Hampshire forward. “It’s tough to get that training when you’re playing close to 80 games a year in the CHL.”

To Mcflickier’s surprise, professional hockey was an option for him as his collegiate career came to a close. Over the last decade, Micflikier has played in the ECHL, AHL and a variety of European leagues. The experience has been a dream come true for Micflikier and while there isn’t much security as he ages and as he plays in the lower levels, having a degree in your back pocket is always reassuring.

“It’s nice that I can finish off hockey and have the education to fall back on is great,” said Micflikier. ”

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

There are many players like Jacob Micflikier in today’s amateur hockey circles, and not all of them step away with the game with as many options. You’ll see pro players today that continue to play the game even as they are on the wrong side of thirty and it’s not just for the love of the game, it’s because hockey is all they know. Not everyone, heck, the majority of WHL draftees aren’t ready to play in the WHL and the league may not even be the best fit for them.

“Being from Western Canada you see 13 and 14-year-old kids saying “okay, what’s happening with the WHL draft, am I going to get drafted?” Wolski said. “What scouts are looking at me? The [WHL] is the goal and where they want to head to.”

While it may be hard for these bantam-aged players to ignore the hype of the WHL draft, it’s only in their best interest to at least explore the options available down south.

“You’ve got to take a look… this is all about making an educated decision,” Wolski said. “[NCAA] schools have open arms, they do a great job showing prospective players where there going to play live and everything about the program.”

Deciding between the WHL or the NCAA, which players oftentimes quickly make by signing an agreement, is no minuscule choice. Even the best players in Major Junior or NCAA hockey have a slim chance at sticking around the NHL for a consistent basis, let alone make a substantial living from it.

And while these kids are 15-years-old, the idea of life after hockey needs to be considered, even though it’s a scary and uncomfortable thought for many of these kids.

So whether it’s playing in the WHL at 16-years-old, or taking a year of Junior A then playing in the WHL, or taking the NCAA route, players should at least do their due diligence on all hockey options and make sure their path is the right one for their development as a teen on and off the ice.

Or as Darryl Wolski phrases it; “Massaging all options”

  • Gored1970

    The son of a friend of mine was drafted by a WHL team and they looked into the pros and cons of the CHL versus NCAA. He said players in the NCAA are similar to players in the CHL in that they are there to play hockey. Their on and off ice training is rigorous so most carry a light load of only 3 classes per semester. Their schedule also affects the coarses they take. It’s difficult to major in Engineering or take courses that are prerequisites for Pharmacy or Medicine because these are often heavy courses with additional lab time. The majority of athletes take general study classes and after 4 years have 24/40 classes needed to graduate and the degrees they are working toward may not align with a career after hockey.

    They chose the WHL because of their scholarship program. For every year in the WHL, even if he dressed for a game as a 16 year old and never touched the ice, he would get a year of tuition at a recognized university. If he played for 4 years have 4 years of tuition in the bank. If it doesn’t work out for him as a pro hockey player, he can go to school and take whatever he wants because he wouldn’t be encumbered by hockey tions.

  • wojohowitz

    Another variable is using the NCAA as a development league. Stecher played at UND for 3 years and then 4 games in the AHL. Hutton played at U of Maine for 3 years and then also 4 games in the AHL. Boeser played at UND for 2 years before signing and all three are in a position of acquiring a degree over the next few years.

  • TheRealPB

    I’ve been around the NCAA for a number of years now — I also had serious doubts about it, mostly because of the (well-deserved) poor reputation of athletics programs in the US in terms of what they did NOT give to those enrolled in them and the exploitation of the players’ labour. I still think that’s very much true in football and basketball but I think hockey is a little different. Not as good as lacrosse or track and field or skiing or swimming in terms of the performance of the student athletes both in sports and the classroom but much better than I expected. I’ve actually been asking a number of hockey players about their decision to go the NCAA route — there are some weird quirks for hockey that don’t exist in other sports, such as making commitments when they are 14-15 but not actually showing up often until they are 19 or 20. Many of them take the Tier 2 route — I was really surprised to see how many of the players in Hockey East had played in the BCJHL or AJHL for example. And some of the programs are absolutely stacked — watching Boston University with McAvoy, Bellows, Greenaway, Fabro, Keller, Forsbacka Karlsson and Krys take apart other teams was something else. But even those that don’t have a ton of first and second round picks have players who will end up having a decent pro career in the minors, in Europe, or will actually get a decent degree. Most that I’ve met are majoring in business, but there are a fair number in other fields. Interesting to hear Boeser talking about finishing up his semester after the season ended in Vancouver and having a Canadian Geography class to complete. It definitely seems like a good option for a lot of players including pretty good prospects and gives them more flexibility in the (likely) case that a pro career doesn’t pan out — after all making it in any of the major sports is about a 2% likelihood.