18 April 2019
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Routes to the National Hockey League

The avenues to professional hockey may at times, seem like freeway on-and-off ramps.  While some options are limited, the paths vary wildly and stories surface yearly about an inspirational player that shrugs off the odds to 'make it'.

Before considering these paths, the cost to become involved must be considered a major factor, as should the potential rewards.  Hockey is an inherently expensive sporting venture and the bleeding can be limitless unless frugality is embraced to some degree.  Tournaments, which when attended can give maximum exposure to club teams, scouting and recruiting staffs, and more importantly-give a player's development a boost to hone the competitive edge.  Equipment is perhaps the greatest cost.  Pads, skates, protective gear, tapes, sticks, and various other items, can deplete a guardian's wallet in a hurry.  Goaltenders provide their parents with even more trips to the bank-teller.  Tuition in college, if that avenue is explored, is a major expense that must not be taken lightly.  The rewards are great and the educational and life experiences can be immense in return.  There are representative teams in every city that can have gaudy expense lists, but provide maximum exposure.  The camaraderie a player experiences in the dressing room and on the ice at each level, can last forever.

The European leagues, such as the Swedish Elite League, Kontinental Hockey League, German League, and the corresponding pro/junior leagues are producing a wealth of superb, top-level players.  Differences in ice-size and intensity levels have supplied arguments to the effectiveness of the system, but the truth is that these players can be considered some of the best talent in the world.  Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Vokoun, Henrik Zetterberg, Jochen Hecht, Cristobal Huet, Anze Kopitar, and Pavel Datsyuk are extreme highlights of the elite level of play translating to the National Hockey League effectively.  Lidstrom in fact, became the first European captain in NHL history to lead his team to a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008. 

In examining the route taken by the majority of players, the Canadian Hockey League provides the best balance.  A player is scouted very soon in their junior career and drafted most times as a 14 or 15 year-old.  Though most players on a Major Junior team are 17, 18, or 19 years-old, there are many examples of a player cracking the lineup at age 15 or 16.  These young players can prove to be instrumental in winning a championship.  Evander Kane is one example, winning the Memorial Cup with the Vancouver Giants as a 15 year old, though he only played a fourth-line role.  As a 17 year-old, Kane will now be eligible to be drafted to an NHL team this summer, and recently won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Ottawa.  There are also opportunities for 20 year olds, as each team has a certain amount of 'overage' players allowed onto their roster.  The CHL is the traditional route and biggest pool of professional prospects for the NHL.  Many of today's stars have advanced through the CHL, with some fine examples in Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier, Jarome Iginla, Shea Weber, and Zdeno Chara.  Players receive an ultra-competitive environment on a rigid and long schedule, are afforded elite coaching, and are exposed to life with the media.  If a player does not respond by becoming drafted to the NHL, or picked up by an ECHL or AHL team after his junior career, the CHL also set a post-secondary program in place to grant tuition to college and/or university.

The NCAA is also rapidly churning out world-class players.  The duality of gaining a post-secondary education while playing competitively, can push a young man to become a well-rounded individual.  In many cases, it molds a much more 'NHL-ready' skater, as the schedule is not as intense and the player is generally older when graduating.  Blake Wheeler, Kyle Okposo, John-Michael Liles, and Andy McDonald are perfect examples of this.  In some cases, players can opt to be part of both avenues as well.  Many players that opt to go to this route are often attracted to becoming agents, lawyers, managers, and other figures that affect the teams on the ice, such as Toronto Maple Leafs' General Manager, Brian Burke. 

Sometimes a player can emerge from beneath the pile to give hope to the masses.  Undrafted players can battle through adversity to rise through the ranks and establish himself as a player.  There are other trails being blazed through the wilderness as well.  Some players, such as Thomas Vanek, have left Europe to play in the NCAA, and then enjoy a career with the Buffalo Sabres.  Players will respond to situations differently and thankfully, there is no cookie-cutter approach.

Of course, there are positives and negatives along every path.  In sitting down with your young athlete, realize what choices and options suit the family best.  It can help a young player grow into the person they will ultimately become.  The odds are stacked against each and every kid, but the dream and development as a person is what is most important.

 

6 February 2009

Robin Keith Thompson

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