ROAD TO THE NHL: The World of Junior Hockey
So you want to be the next NHL superstar? Not so fast. The road to the NHL is almost as tough as trying to score on Martin Brodeur. In other words, the odds are slim.
Let’s say you’re a 12-year-old kid with dreams of becoming the next Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. Seems pretty young to start thinking about a career in the NHL, right? Not really. Which leagues you choose to play in now could directly affect your chances of making it to “the show,” a term hockey players use to refer to the NHL.
You’re probably already on a Pee Wee or Bantam team, which are common leagues for players just beginning their hockey careers. Some coaches in these leagues even say that you must start “getting serious” about your career as young as age 11.
Once you turn 16, you are eligible to play at the next level: junior hockey. But now you have a decision to make. Do you choose to forego a college education and try your luck in the junior leagues? Or do you choose to finish high school and hope to get recruited by one of the nation’s premier Division 1 programs?
Let’s say you decide to go straight to the juniors. This is beneficial because you are able to begin playing NHL-style hockey at a young age, thus giving you the upper hand on all of the college players that are competing under NCAA rules and regulations. Historically, most NHL players have been products of the junior leagues, which offer a more complete preparation for the NHL.
Your best chance of making it to “the show” would be to pack up and move to Canada to play in one of its esteemed junior leagues. Canada has many tiers of junior leagues, with the three “major junior” leagues as the top tier and most successful at integrating players into the NHL. The Canadian Hockey League is the organization that houses three prestigious leagues (OHL, WHL, and QMJHL) and is known for feeding directly into the NHL. Inferior to the major juniors are the Junior A, B, C, and D leagues, but the only league of any relevance is the Junior A league from which the occasional NHL prospect is able to emerge.
If you prefer to stay in the States for this step in your career, the United States Hockey League is the place for you. The USHL is basically the domestic equivalent to Canada’s Junior A league. Some NHL players have been drafted from the USHL, but the amount still pales in comparison to the number of players recruited from the CHL’s major junior leagues.
But what if you are not ready to dedicate all of your time to pursuing an NHL career? After all, you are still a teenager. At 16, you want to be learning how to drive your first car, not changing your permanent mailing address to your team bus. In order to maintain a little normality in your life, you could choose to attend college and become a student-athlete. This option offers two major advantages: you are given more time to develop as a player and you can earn a college degree, you know just in case the whole NHL thing doesn’t work out. Although the safer choice, college hockey does not offer nearly as many opportunities to showcase your skills in front of NHL recruiters and competes at a lower level than most junior teams.
Regardless of whether you chose to participate in juniors or attend college, your next step is to enter the NHL Draft. All players between the ages of 18-20 years are eligible for the draft, the system through which each team in the NHL chooses their next generation of players. The NHL Draft consists of multiple rounds and plenty of foreign competition.
Congratulations! All of your hard work has paid off: an NHL team has decided to sign you. You’re on your way to playing hockey on a national level in front of millions of fans. Don’t be too upset at how low you were drafted though; you can’t forget about all those foreign players being imported from Europe and Russia who were bred for the sole purpose of scoring impossible goals and delivering bone-shattering hits to opponents.
So now that you have an official contract with an NHL team you are finally ready to lace up your skates and hit the ice, right? Nope, not yet. Before you are able to compete for legendary Lord Stanley you must serve your time in yet another league: the minors. The NHL usually sends its new players to the American Hockey League as the final preparation stage before the big show. Each NHL team has an AHL affiliate team where newly drafter players are sent to develop before joining the official roster, so basically the AHL is predominantly comprised of players that already have NHL contracts.
After grinding it out in the minors for a couple of years, you finally receive the news you have been dreaming about: you have been called up to play for your NHL affiliate! Time to pack up your hockey gear and move (yet again) to another new city. You are finally skating alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Cheers, you’ve made it!
Don’t get too comfortable, though, the NHL can send you back down to the minors at any time (and cut your salary) if you’re not performing.
Assuming you don’t get sent back down to the minors and barring any career-ending injury, you will probably only spend 5-6 years in the NHL. Seems like a lot of preparation for only a few years of “living the dream” and basking in the glory of being able to call yourself an NHL player.
The road to the NHL is quite exhausting and therefore only traveled by few. So, kid, are you still sure you want to be the next Sidney Crosby? Well, in that case, you better start looking into some quality U-13 teams in your area. In fact, you’re already falling behind.