September 27, 2010

College or major junior requires long-term thinking

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Noted philosopher and baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”

As talented, young hockey players enter their mid-teens and high school years, they are presented with that very scenario. A fork in the road. And deciding which path to take can be a very difficult decision to make.

On one side there is the college hockey route. Once that choice is made, there are still a number of different considerations to factor in, including which school to attend. College, in general, is about the experience: young people moving away from home, gaining independence, making choices, accepting responsibility and gradually transitioning into adulthood.

The majority of people who attended college will include their college years as some of the best years of their life. That could be for a lot of different reasons -- some productive, some probably unproductive. What is common to all, though, is that the college experience is the bridge to adulthood.

The college hockey experience includes all of those elements, plus the opportunity to play a very high level of competitive hockey. In essence, it allows the student-athlete the flexibility to pursue two career paths simultaneously -- academics and athletics -- and provides a great deal of flexibility for the future.

Choosing the other course, major junior hockey, takes a player in a very different direction and typically on a much faster journey. The Canadian major junior hockey world is structured very similarly to the professional hockey world, which is quite different from college hockey in that respect.

Hockey is clearly the No. 1 focus; it is more like an apprenticeship for professional hockey. There is the opportunity to pursue academics at the same time, but the environment doesn’t really lend itself to success in that area. A player needs to be extremely disciplined and driven academically to succeed.

So, which choice is best for aspiring hockey players as they begin their journey into hockey adulthood? Great question. And it very much depends on the player, their skill sets (both academically and athletically) and their goals in life. It’s not an easy decision, and very often it has to be made when a player might be too young to really understand the potential consequences.

Unlike other major sports, very few hockey players jump directly from high school to college. For all but a few, there is a stop in between: junior hockey, which is different from major junior as it doesn’t cost a player future college eligibility. A year or two, or sometimes three, of seasoning in the junior hockey incubator allows players to mature mentally and be physically ready to compete in the college hockey world.

Major junior hockey provides another alternative for players, but one that comes with a price. The majority of junior hockey leagues across the U.S.and Canadaare viewed as non-professional by the NCAA, and thereby serve as the competitive training grounds for teenage hockey players prior to attending college.

However, the highest level of junior hockey, the Canadian Hockey League, which is comprised of the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- with approximately 60 teams spread across Canada and sprinkled throughout five American states -- is considered by the NCAA to be a professional league. Players who participate in that league are largely ineligible to play college hockey in the U.S.

From that respect, the major junior hockey league teams have a significant advantage when competing head to head with colleges for the service of potential recruits. Major junior teams are comprised mostly of 17- to 20-year-old players, but there are a few 16-year-olds and even a few 15-year-olds who have played.  

In contrast, college hockey teams are restricted by NCAA rules to initiating contact with prospective student-athletes until they are entering their junior year of high school. The player/family can contact the school if they choose, but the school can not contact the player. Quite obviously, the advantage goes to junior hockey in terms of the ability to make a strong first impression.

But this decision is really just not about first impressions. It requires a great deal of thought about the future. And predicting the future is not easy. Managing the here and now is. Being able to understand the potential long-term ramifications of today’s decisions is not.

So how does a player choose?

Succumbing to what we think today is tough not to do. A bird in hand might be more than two in the bush. It is difficult to resist temptation when someone is telling you how great you are, how much greater their program can make you and how the road to your NHL dream runs through their major junior hockey program -- especially if you are 16 and the other option requires two more years of junior before you can start college, and especially if you have had no or limited contact with any college hockey programs.

When you boil it all down, it very much depends on the skill sets and goals of the player. A projected first-round draft pick could make a strong case for choosing major junior hockey over college. That being said, there have been many first-round picks that have never played a game in the NHL, let alone made a career there.

Both routes provide similar athletic experiences and both have proven successful gateways to professional hockey. College hockey has a shorter season with fewer games and more practices. Major junior has more of a professional league schedule and environment, including the potential of being traded to another team.

The biggest difference is the commitment to academics. If a player is not as committed to performing in the classroom as he is on the ice, then he is probably best off to go the major junior route.  

As a former college hockey player, I can speak from experience in saying that the greatest benefit of college hockey is the flexibility that it provides for life -- if players take advantage of the opportunity and are serious academically. I was fortunate enough to play professional hockey for four years. But I also had to be prepared to transition to a career for the next 40 years.

That’s the scary part. But it also might be one of the benefits that major junior hockey provides – a desperation to play at the professional level. While getting an education during or after a junior hockey career is possible, it is much tougher to do and the environment is not very conducive to doing so.

When facing the choice at the fork in the road, the most important consideration is not where the path will lead you at the start, but where it will take you much further on.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com