In part one of the hockey recruiting tutorial we took a look at the American junior hockey leagues, and how that supplied talent to college hockey. Today I decided to place our focus on the leagues to the north in Canada to talk about the added competition that NCAA coaches deal with when recruiting talented Canadian hockey players. We also will wrap up with an explanation of the NHL draft and collegiate eligibility.
Understanding the Canadian Junior Hockey League
Much like the American junior hockey system which we covered in part one, the Canadian leagues are broken into three tiers as well. Canadian junior hockey is broken into Tier One (Major Junior), Tier Two (Junior A), and Tier Three (Junior B), with the players competing in these tiers being aged 16-20 years old.
The most famous junior hockey leagues in the world, and the number one supplier of players to the National Hockey League, operate in the top tier of the Canadian junior system. Named the Canadian Hockey League, or CHL, the CHL itself is composed of three leagues, divided along geographic lines, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL), and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Outside of competing against fellow NCAA coaches for recruits, college coaches must also recruit against CHL franchises for the best young hockey talent in North America. As Spartan hockey fans have seen this summer, with the departure of Josh Jacobs to the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, the recruiting battle can continue once a prospect has landed on campus.
The three leagues tend to have a different style of play, and players are assigned their league based on geography. The OHL is made up of players from Ontario, as well as Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. The WHL encompasses Western Canada, and stretches from California in the west to Minnesota in the east. Finally the QMJHL pulls it's players from eastern Canada, and New England. The WHL is the league with the earliest draft, as they hold a Bantam Draft, with players eligible for selection in the year with their 15th birthday. The OHL Priority Selection draft and the QMJHL draft is conducted with players who are 16 years old. There is the OHL Exceptional Player exemption, where a 15 year old can enter the league, but those players have a zero percent chance of ending up in the NCAA. (Connor McDavid, this year's NHL #1 draft pick, was granted exceptional status).
The CHL and Eligibility
So, as some of you may already know, playing in the CHL makes one ineligible to compete in NCAA hockey. Why is that you may be asking? Well, you see the CHL pays it's players a monthly stipend, which in the eyes of the NCAA makes them professional athletes, and since the NCAA is a purely amateur endeavor we can not allow professionals to sully our college hockey. Ok, so as this letter from the NCAA in 2013 states, it is not just the stipend that makes CHL players ineligible. Still the fact that a $50-$150 biweekly stipend somehow separates 17 year olds from amateur and professional is laughable.
The fact is that there is no change on the horizon to allow CHL players to play in the NCAA, so recruiting in hockey starts at a young age. If you are interested in a player from California you better be on his radar by age 15, because if not the WHL will gladly gain his affection after drafting him. The CHL offers more hockey than the NCAA route can offer, with teams playing 60 regular season games and then playoffs. Players in high school still attend school (which like US Junior hockey requires a flexible and forgiving teaching staff) and for those kids not interested in college, or looking to delay college, playing in the CHL is a great opportunity for them.
Of course the CHL does not offer a college education the way playing in the NCAA does. The OHL education package expires 30 months after a player has played their last game and the amount of aid is multiplied by years of service in the league. So if you are a fringe player, unlikely to go pro, spending just a year in the OHL versus possibly 4 in the NCAA will probably come back to bite you in the way of student loans eventually. This of course assumes that everyone is cut out for college which, sometimes they are not, so the CHL is still an exciting option to 16 year old kids.
NHL Draft and NCAA Eligibility
One of the biggest tools used to recruit players to the NCAA or CHL is being able to progress a young man through to the National Hockey League. The CHL is still the track that produces the most players in the league but the NCAA has seen increased numbers, with 31% of the NHL in 2013-14 having college ties. Currently the NHL draft age requires players to be 18 on September 15 and no older than 20 on December 31 of their draft year. This means that players can be selected before they arrive on campus to play NCAA hockey, or after their freshman or even sophomore year if they enrolled early. Being selected in the NHL draft does not effect a player's NCAA eligibility, meaning they can skate at summer camps with their organization (as long as the player pays for everything) and still suit up for their college team during the season.
NCAA players have up until 30 days after they leave school to sign a contract. This puts pressure on NHL teams to keep a constant relationship with their prospects and to sign them early as well. Teams hate losing a prospect they bought low on when he has a great senior season, and now they want to wait 30 days to become an unrestricted free agent. It is a situation that the Columbus Blue Jackets experienced just this summer, when defenseman Mike Reilly from Minnesota held out until signing with the Minnesota Wild. Possibly due to the fear of losing prospects NHL franchises will often pressure those with NCAA commitments to play in the CHL instead. Columbus did that with Sonny Milano, a 2014 1st round pick who chose to play in Plymouth of the OHL instead of Boston College, and speculation has begun they will also pressure University of Michigan defenseman Zach Werenski to forego his sophomore year and report to the OHL.
NHL teams can extend entry level contracts to players in the CHL (and of course pay out signing bonuses) and as long as the player plays no more than 9 games in the NHL they can be returned to junior hockey without a year ticking off the contract. A player who belongs to a CHL team cannot play in the minor leagues until they have aged out of the CHL (20 years old). So rather than risk losing a prospect later, NHL teams sometimes feel a need to sign a player to their entry level contract quickly and then send them to the CHL to develop, rather than risk letting them develop in the NCAA for another team possibly. It is just another part of the hockey recruiting puzzle that NCAA coaches and fans must deal with.