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Monday, August 23, 2010

The Path Taken

Noted philosopher and former professional baseball player 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. And once that choice is made, there are still a number of different considerations to factor into the equation as it relates to 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. And that could be for a lot of different reasons, some productive, some probably very 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 of the college experience, 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 from that respect 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. Quite different from college hockey in that respect. Hockey is clearly the number one focus. Really, 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.

A difficult decision

So which choice is best for aspiring hockey players as they begin their journey into hockey adulthood? It’s a 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. A year or two, or sometimes three, of seasoning in the junior hockey incubator allows players to mature mentally and physically to step into the college hockey world and be prepared to compete.

Major junior hockey provides another alternative for players. But it comes with a price. The majority of junior hockey leagues across the United States and Canada are viewed as non-professional by the NCAA and thereby serve as the competitive training grounds for teenage hockey players in high school and in their post-grad years prior to attending college.

However, the highest level of junior hockey, the Canadian Hockey League, which is comprised of the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and 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 these “major junior” leagues are pretty much ineligible to play NCAA hockey. There is a limited amount of petitioning that can be done to reinstate eligibility. But in most cases, once a player has chosen the major junior hockey path there is no turning back. The college hockey door is pretty much closed.

From that respect, the major junior hockey league teams have a significant advantage when competing head to head with college hockey teams for the services of a potential recruit. Major junior hockey teams are comprised mostly of 17-20 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, advantage junior hockey in terms of the ability to make a strong first impression.

Predicting the future

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? Again, not so easy.

So how does a player choose? Succumbing to what we know 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 National Hockey League dream runs through their major junior hockey program. Especially if you are 16 and the other option requires two more years of junior hockey before you can start college. Especially if you have had limited or no 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 National Hockey League, 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 little shorter season with fewer games and more practices. Major junior hockey has more of a professional league schedule and environment, including the potential of being traded from team to team.

A big difference

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 players for life. If they 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 forty years.

That’s the scary part. But that also might be one of the benefits that major junior hockey provides. 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.

To me the greatest factor to consider when making a choice is that there is no guarantee that a professional hockey career will happen. Even if it does, there is no guarantee that it will be long enough or lucrative enough to be able to ensure financial independence for life. The only real guarantee with a professional hockey career is that it prepares a person for absolutely nothing when it comes to the rest of your life.

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.

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