North American hockey’s cold war

NCAA and CHL battle for prospects Photo: Eric Kilby

SANTA CRUZ, July 19, 2013 — For elite prospect Michael McCarron, there are few questions about where he will play in the future. The Montreal Canadiens selected the Gross Pointe, Mich. forward 25th overall in last month’s National Hockey League (NHL) draft. The larger question is where McCarron will play for the next two seasons, or until the Canadiens think he is ready.

McCarron was set to attend Western Michigan University but, after being drafted by Montreal, he de-committed and will now head north of the border to play for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Even though everyone knew McCarron had committed to Western Michigan, the Knights took a gamble and selected him anyway in the OHL bantam draft. 


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McCarron’s story is nothing new. NHL teams are advising their prospects to choose the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) over the NCAA with increasing regularity. This emerging pattern is only serving to exacerbate an already tense relationship between major junior and college hockey in North America. 

For most young Canadian players, major junior has always been the goal. The CHL consists of three leagues: the Western Hockey League (WHL), the OHL, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Most towns have a CHL team close by and kids grow up idolizing the players, hoping to one day emulate them.

In the U.S., however, elite players are expected to play college hockey. Many of them play in the United States Hockey League (USHL) before they start college. The USHL works within the NCAA guidelines to preserve their college athletic eligibility. 

Conversely, once a player so much as dresses for a CHL game, even a preseason one, their NCAA eligibility is burned. It is a key decision, especially for American players like McCarron. Many parents are uncertain about their kids’ chances of playing professionally and they are excited about the prospect of a college degree as a fall back. 


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If a player decides to play in the CHL, they will most likely move away from home at sixteen or seventeen, often to a different country, and live with a billet family. It is a huge adjustment. They will attend a local high school where their grades will be monitored by their team’s education coordinator. There is a massive amount of travel and even more hockey. Players will be expected to perform on the ice as well as in the classroom.

When a player finishes in the CHL, they will have accumulated money for books and tuition at any university or trade school they can get into. While they can attend a division one NCAA school, they will not be eligible to play sports. 

NHL teams prefer the CHL for many reasons, first, their prospect will be able to attend training camps while retaining CHL eligibility. Once a college player steps on the ice at an NHL training camp, they will be considered pro and they will burn their eligibility. Junior players can be sent back to junior, college players cannot.

NHL teams also like the seventy-two game schedule in a CHL season as opposed to thirty-four in the NCAA. Players are on the ice more for practices and they will play more games in a season which is closer to the grind they will face in the NHL.


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Players like Michael McCarron are hoping they will have a successful NHL career and never regret not going to college. After their final CHL season, they will have eighteen months to cash in on their scholarship money to attend school. The fact remains that most elite CHL players go pro when their junior days are over, whether it is in the NHL, North American minor pro or European leagues. 

NCAA hockey has produced it’s share of elite players and the college route may be a better fit for some players. Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, and Ryan Miller all played college hockey. 

The decision on whether to play junior or college is ultimately up to the players and their families. Everyone involved must weigh the odds of a player’s realistic chances of playing professionally. The CHL exists purely to develop pro hockey players while the NCAA preserves the idea of student athletes where education is paramount.

College hockey and major junior are vigorously competing for talent and the recent defections of Michael McCarron and others has the NCAA fuming. While there is no clear end or resolution in sight to this increasingly bitter competition, the fact remains that each route has it’s advantages depending on the player. 

Elite players and their families ought to do everything they can to educate themselves on the risks and advantages of one over the other. They would do well to be wary of agents or family advisors. Nobody wants to see a player’s eligibility burned if they do not have a realistic shot a pro hockey. Players, particularly U.S. players, and their families should not be allow themselves to be lied to or frightened away from the CHL if they feel it is the best route.

Players are being forced to choose at a young age. These decisions will have irreversible repercussions for the rest of their lives. All parties involved would do well to remember that, while they are elite prospects, they are still just kids playing a game.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.


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Russ Rankin

Raised in the decidedly non-traditional hockey region of Santa Cruz, California, Russ Rankin fell in love with the game as a kid while watching the "Miracle On Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He began playing recreationally as an adult when the Sharks joined the NHL in nearby San Jose and regularly attends Sharks home games. His favorite NHL team is the New Jersey Devils, which he has been following since the 1987-88 season. In 2007, with more and more U.S. born players (particularly from California) making an impact in the WHL, Rankin pursued his passion and knowledge of the game into a job scouting California for WHL clubs. He can be seen at rinks all over the state searching for the next great crop of players.

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