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Major Junior or the NCAA? – The NCAA Case

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The NCAA Case | Picture of juniors facing off at the puck drop - SkateGuard

In Part 1 of this series, we made the case for why some 15-to-17-year-old hockey players might benefit from heading down the path of playing Canadian major junior hockey. But we also understand that every kid and every situation is different. So, today, we will take a look at the other main path North American players can take in pursuit of reaching the NHL: NCAA Division 1 hockey.

I have found over the years that just about everyone – those who grew up around hockey and those who didn’t – can easily understand the advantages of playing NCAA Division 1 hockey. The attention-getter is almost always the fact that a player can get a relatively lucrative scholarship to play. Earning a scholarship often pays all, or at least a substantial amount, of your postsecondary schooling, and that gives you a massive leg up on other members of society (all else being equal). The amount of student debt in the United States alone is up 66% in the last decade, and it currently stands at more than US$1.77 trillion (yes, with a “T”)[1]. So having your university experience paid for, even in part, is a big deal.

But what about the game? Well, it used to be said that players had to be accept that the level of play in the NCAA would not measure up to Canadian major junior. But that has changed, and you would be hard pressed anyone willing to make that argument anymore. Top-notch hockey, and someone else footing the bill for your education? That’s a tough combination to beat!

There are other advantages to playing NCAA hockey, including:

  • Particularly for those who are highly academically inclined, hockey can be an avenue to get into schools that you otherwise would have a much more difficult time getting into. Hedgeye Risk Management CEO and former Yale hockey player Keith McCullough never hesitates to point out to his listeners and followers that he had “the lowest SAT score in his class at Yale” (NOTE: this can apply for Canadian universities as well, to a degree. However, the most elite educational environments in Canada are typically housed within specific programs at top universities, and being a hockey player doesn’t typically hold much sway when it comes to getting into those elite programs.)
  • For “late bloomers,” the NCAA can be a great option. Many players don’t leave college until age 23 or 24 and go on to have great careers. By comparison, players age out of major junior at 21 at the latest. If you are someone that needs more time to mature physically, mentally, or both, the NCAA is likely a much better option.
  • The practice-to-game ratio is higher in the NCAA, and typically only playing two games a week, rather than the usual three in major junior, can allow for the type of physical development that many players desperately need. It also lowers the risk of injury.
  • The experience of playing highly competitive hockey, going to school with, engaging socially and, in all likelihood, living with the same group of individuals tends to form greater lifelong bonds. Generally speaking, I find that my friends and colleagues who played NCAA hockey are much closer with their former teammates than major junior players are.
  • To elaborate on that point, university alumni networks in general are much stronger in the U.S. than they are in Canada. When two people in Canada discover that they attended the same university, it might be a pleasant surprise, but it really doesn’t hold much weight. Alumni networks in the U.S. are almost an extension of one’s family. That can be especially beneficial when trying to navigate the job market. Figuring out who the prominent alumni are in your field and fostering relationships with them is important no matter which side of the border you are on, but the probability that it will be a springboard for your career is  meaningfully higher in the U.S.

I will place the same caveat on this blog post as I did the preceding post on the case for major junior hockey: this is not an exhaustive list. There are obviously many reasons to give each of these paths strong consideration.

Finally, I want to touch on one point that has always bothered me both as an observer of all things hockey and as a finance professional. It’s the number of parents who view their child’s participation in youth hockey as an “investment.” They justify this idea by telling themselves that at the very least, their kid can get a scholarship. I am here to tell you right now that this is nothing short of insane. You are better off going and playing the lottery.

Even for the very small percentage of players who do go on to play either NCAA or USports (Canadian university hockey), the chance that they will truly get all of their schooling paid for is quite low. NCAA Division 1 schools break up scholarships (most programs get 18 full scholarships, but spread those among 25 to 28 players, typically), so there are often only a handful of players on each team that are truly on “full rides.” Division 3 schools don’t even offer athletic scholarships. Neither do Ivy League schools, so anyone that tells you they, or someone they know, got a hockey scholarship to Dartmouth, Cornell, Princeton or any of the other Ivy’s is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading you. All of those schools operate on “need-based financial aid.”

All of this is to say that if you are putting your kid through youth hockey with the idea of making or saving yourself money down the line, drop it. Right now. For everyone’s benefit.

For some players, the benefits of the NCAA are obvious. But anyone fortunate enough to have to make a decision between the NCAA and major junior hockey owes it to themselves to consider the merits of both paths. It is all about finding the right situation for you.

Lastly and most importantly, a word to the players: take ownership of this process and make the decision that you feel is right. Inform yourself. Talk to as many people as you can. Make your decision for you – not for your parents, your agent, your youth hockey coach, your friends, your siblings, or anyone else. You will be far happier in the long run if you do.

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