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Major Junior or NCAA? Part 1: The Case for Major Junior

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Major Junior or NCAA? | Young players playing in an indoor ice rink - SkateGuard

If you grow up playing hockey in North America, there are essentially two paths to the NHL once you reach the age of 16: the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the U.S. or Canadian major junior hockey, comprising the Ontario, Quebec Major Junior and Western hockey leagues (OHL, QMJHL and WHL, respectively). Sure, a handful of players, such as Phil Housley and Tom Barrasso, have gone straight from high school hockey to the NHL over the years, but virtually all North American players come through either NCAA or Canadian major junior hockey.

Which is better? Many families dedicate countless hours in pursuit of clarity on that question. It may be cliché, but I feel very strongly that there is not one right answer. What’s best for one player is by no means best for another. I will go over some of the dynamics that I have seen over the last 20+ years, in hopes of arming players and their parents with the necessary information to make the right decision for them.

In this edition of 3/8ths of a Thought, I will discuss the pros and cons of playing major junior hockey.

For me, the biggest advantage of going to play major junior hockey is that you are guaranteed to be in a position where the main decision-makers are solely focused on hockey. In major junior, the direction of the program is dictated by team ownership, the general manager and the coaching staff. All three of these are almost guaranteed to be “hockey people.”

In the NCAA, the direction of the hockey program is dictated by the coaching staff, which reports to the athletic department and, ultimately, the university itself. The coaches are obviously going to be hockey people. However, of the 64 schools that currently offer Division 1 men’s ice hockey, it is difficult to find more than 15-20 of them where hockey would be considered the most important sport on campus. This means that, in all likelihood, someone who is more well versed in football or basketball will be running the athletic department, and the decision-makers at the university level are going to dedicate their focus to other sports in addition to hockey.

This doesn’t guarantee that every major junior program is well run, and it also doesn’t mean that every hockey program at an NCAA school that has a big-time football program is poorly run. But I personally have seen a number of instances where NCAA coaching staffs with limited hockey acumen were able to have decade-plus runs in high-profile jobs because they won 12 to 15 games a year, kept players out of trouble, and played nice with the athletic department. Of course, that situation can arise in a major junior program, but the risk is lower, given that everyone involved has a background in hockey.

Some other advantages to major junior:

  • The ability to escape a less than favourable situation – that is, there are far fewer complexities to changing teams in major junior than in NCAA hockey. This advantage isn’t as pronounced as it used to be, given the introduction of the NCAA’s transfer portal.
  • The ability for Canadians to get their tuition paid for at a Canadian university of their choice (generally). There are some NCAA schools with fantastic hockey programs whose degrees aren’t recognized particularly favorably in Canada.
  • Players are able to stay closer to home. With very few exceptions, a Canadian player is likely going to be meaningfully closer to home playing major junior than if they were to go play in the NCAA.
  • Living expenses of a player are typically in Canadian dollars in major junior, while all 64 NCAA Division 1 programs are in the U.S., where your living expenses will obviously be in U.S. dollars.
  • Generally speaking, your ability to leverage hockey to network is greater in Canada. All else being equal, name recognition is higher for major junior players in the communities they play in versus players in NCAA Division 1 hockey.

This list is obviously not exhaustive, and not all of these factors are going to apply to everyone. As I said before, each and every player’s circumstances will be different. There are certainly downsides to the major junior route, and I will touch upon those in another post. Ultimately – and you will hear me repeat this – the most important deciding factor is where you feel comfortable as a player, valued as an individual, with the environment and the resources around you to empower you to thrive, both on and off the ice.

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