The CHL vs. NCAA debate has gone on for long before Neutral Zone and will likely continue well into the future. As a staff spread out throughout North America we wanted to shed some light on the topic from a neutral, unbiased perspective. Our scouts provide a unique perspective as we have both NCAA and CHL coaches as well as former NCAA and CHL players on our staff.
Depending on where you live, the idea of what the NCAA is or what the CHL is changes. For a kid growing up in Toronto the OHL represents his best and maybe only real option to become a pro. College is for late developers who aren’t good enough to play in the CHL. For a kid growing up in Minnesota the WHL is a foreign league for players who can’t get into college. If you are born in Massachusetts you think the QMJHL is a league for french speaking players and bad students. These assumptions are not the truth and they are dangerous for our game, especially to the players and their families who are just trying to make informed decisions.
The CHL is a culmination of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Western Hockey League (WHL). Participation in any of these leagues is prohibited by NCAA. Players are allowed to attend camps as long as they spend less than 48 hours with the team and are not compensated for their attendance or sign a contract.
QMJHL: The Quebec Major Junior League is the smallest market of the CHL teams, both in population and US affiliate territory. The only area they can recruit US players from are the New England states (Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut). They are currently the only league that does not have a US franchise.
Geographically the QMJHL isn’t confided to just Quebec; it is spread throughout the Eastern Canadian provinces such as New Brunswick (Moncton, Saint John, Acadie Bathurst), Nova Scotia (Halifax, Cape Breton) and Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown).
The QMJHL faces several hurdles in competing with its CHL counterparts. Their struggle in Canada is that they only draw from two major Canadian cities which are Montreal and Quebec City.
The struggle they face in the US is that their US territory is located in the most academic dense population in the United States. The message to players growing up in New England is that college hockey is the ultimate goal and the QMJHL is for players who don’t care about school. The other message is that the QMJHL is a French speaking league which isn’t suitable for American players. There are very few interactions between QMJHL staffs and US midget, prep or junior hockey to the point that most QMJHL teams don’t even have full time US scouts. Maybe the biggest problem in their US recruitment is not having a team in the US, so players don’t grow up watching or understanding what the league has to offer.
Both of these assumptions are off base. First, the QMJHL, like all the CHL leagues, have a strong commitment to academics, especially for players who haven’t graduated from high school. Second, while Quebec is a French speaking province, New Brunswick is bilingual and Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and PEI are English speaking. The QMJHL is set up so that players who are not fluent in French can play on any team in the league.
Given that the QMJHL does not have a team or a presence in the US, coupled with the fact that they are drawing from less populated hockey regions, makes the QMJHL the least deep talent pool among the CHL leagues. That is not to say the top end isn’t as strong or that the league overall isn’t high quality because it certainly is.
OHL: The Ontario Hockey League is considered the crown jewel of the CHL. It is located in Ontario but has teams in Michigan (Flint, Saginaw) and Pennsylvania (Erie). They have a favorable US territory between New York and Wisconsin which gives them several major hockey markets to select players from such as Michigan, Illinois, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Missouri. The league also does a nice job working with these US territories to educate them on the opportunities in the OHL. Many of these American players grow up going to some OHL games and witness players in their youth program move on to OHL teams. For example, the leading scorer in the OHL this season is American (Alex DeBrincat) as is the second leading goaltender (Tyler Parsons). Last season 3 of the top 5 scorers where American as were the top 2 goaltenders.
Ontario is the largest populated province in Canada and the city of Toronto is the biggest hockey market in the world. The Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) is likely the most talented midget league in the world and is the largest talent feeder to the OHL.
One of the issues the Ontario Hockey League faces is a pending lawsuit over unfair wages. The other battle the league faces is many teams in the league are not making money and therefore creating a “have and have nots” mentality where some teams can buy themselves success while others cannot.
WHL: The Western Hockey League is the largest geographical area in the CHL. The league spans from the most Western Canadian city of Vancouver through Alberta, through Saskatchewan and into Manitoba. The league goes as south as Portland, Oregon and as north as Prince George British Columbia. The WHL is the only CHL league which has a bantam draft (14-15 year old’s), as the OHL and QMJHL draft players a year older. The WHL has a solid US territory including the country’s “state of hockey” Minnesota. They have everything west of Minnesota, which includes youth hockey growth areas like California, Arizona and Colorado. The WHL has the most number of American teams with five. Four are located in the state of Washington (Everett, Seattle, Spokane and Tri City) and one is in Oregon (Portland).
The Western League having its draft a year younger than the other CHL leagues is both a blessing and a curse. It allows them to develop relationships a year earlier and educate the parents and players on their league. The curse would be that evaluating bantams is a risky business, so first round picks could never grow or develop and undrafted players could become top echelon prospects. The massive landscape of the WHL is also a blessing and a curse as well. The blessing is they draw from several major hockey markets like Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, etc. The curse would be the expense of travel and scouting to cover the prospects in all those regions. For example, when Brandon Wheat Kings go to play Portland Winterhawks the teams have to travel over 2,100 km to play.
CHL In General:
The Canadian Hockey League is the largest feeder system to the NHL in the world and that is why the NHL compensates teams for Draft Picks. The league has a high standard of taking care of its players. The players in the league get their equipment, housing, insurance, meals, training and education provided for by the teams. While Europe has some strong U20 leagues and the US has the USHL; no league can compare to the CHL’s alumni.
In talking with NHL scouts around the US/CAN why they like to draft CHL prospects; we get a multitude of answers. They play an NHL type schedule, player stats have a history of translating at the next level, and the technology available to NHL staffs in CHL is far beyond any other league in the world. Analytics department can track everything they want on CHL prospects and scouting staffs can watch prospects online, get shift by shift breakdowns and watch from different angles. One thing however was certain, the NHL brass likes the skill density in the CHL and the way the game is played. The CHL tends to be a more NHL structured, puck possession game played with skill and speed. Keep in mind the majority of players in the league are in their teens.
NCAA hockey is broken into three main valves as well; Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3. Division 1 has 60 teams, Division 2 has less than 10 and Division 3 has 78 teams. There are several differences between Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3 schools and programs, but Division 1 Schools are the highest caliber programs. They have full time coaching staffs, large scouting and equipment budgets and some schools have the ability to offer hockey scholarships. There is no talent difference between Division 2 and Division 3 hockey at this point and the two divisions intermix games and even league affiliations (before this year anyways).
Unlike the CHL being broken into three geographically separate leagues, the NCAA Divisions have no geographical affiliation. In Division 1 for example there are teams as far west as Colorado, Arizona and Alaska and teams as far east as Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. While the parity in college hockey is hard to find in other levels, there are major differences from team to team. A player who plays for a Military Academy such as Army or Air Force is going to have a much different experience than someone who plays for Boston University. A Boston University player at a big school in an urban setting will have a much different experience than someone at a smaller school like Sacred Heart or a rural school like St. Lawrence. Therefore, it is hard to loop all of college hockey under one umbrella because there are a lot of difference school to school and league to league.
The NCAA has some major advantages; the teams are part of the schools they play for. Therefore, the athletes have access to the schools housing, cafeterias, training facilities, academic facilities and a host of educational opportunities. The athletes are in an environment that not only encourages, but requires, academic performance in order to maintain their eligibility. The other advantage to the NCAA player is that they cannot be traded as that is forbidden in the NCAA. The players are representing their school and they get the opportunity to play in front of their classmates and friends instead of playing for a franchise in front of strangers.
Another major advantage for the NCAA is that they are not tied to geographical regions. College hockey teams have players from all across the US and Canada and a growing number of European players as well.
The NCAA route is different today than it was twenty years ago as the number of players that have gone on to have professional careers has skyrocketed. The old adage that the CHL is for Pro’s and NCAA is for Joe’s is no longer the case; today NCAA alumni make up nearly a third of the NHL.
In talking with NHL scouts throughout North America, they like NCAA players because the players are bigger, stronger and older than those coming out of the CHL. There isn’t a rush on development because there are hockey players in college that are in their teens and some in the mid twenties. The 18 and 19-year-old first round pick is going to have to play in league where most everyone is bigger, stronger, older and more experienced than they are, so they learn to adapt before making the jump to the NHL/AHL/ECHL.
The NCAA route is not without its struggles. For starters, to play NCAA hockey you have to graduate from high school meeting certain academic requirements. Therefore, the youngest players in the league are typically 18, so it is not an option for a high end 16 or 17-year-old the way the CHL is. Another struggle the NCAA has is that some schools don’t offer scholarships so players have to pay sometimes large sums of money in order to play. Even the players who are awarded scholarships will not get them until they are 18, 19 or 20 while the CHL team can offer them a contract at 16. The NCAA has also recently become somewhat of a meat market where schools are over-recruiting and decommitting prospects, cutting players and messing with verbally agreed upon scholarship packages. The NCAA also plays far less games than the CHL or NHL. The counter-argument that Jack Eichel made was that it gave him more time in the gym to develop and more practice time on the ice. However, many players making the transition from NCAA to NHL after their rookie year talk about the biggest adjustment being the number of games and length of the season having to perform night after night.
While the NCAA vs. CHL debate always creeps into an NHL discussion, it’s worth noting that arguably the biggest selling point for NCAA is the different divisions and the greater opportunities to play as the NCAA has over 2x the number of teams compared to the CHL. The Division 2 and Division 3 option allow for lesser talented players to continue to play high level hockey and get an education whereas the CHL doesn’t have another division for the next level prospects.
Hopefully we have presented the two sides in a fair and balanced way showing just some of the basic advantages and disadvantage of each route. With that basic understanding we will look at 5 different areas of argument that we hear in our travels on the scouting path.
Draft vs. Choice
The CHL runs on a draft system where college hockey runs on a free agent recruiting system. The positive to a draft is that the player can just focus on playing hockey and let the draft determine where they end up. This avoids the NCAA problem where 14 and 15-year-olds are flying all over the country to look at schools that have shown interest, without even a basic understanding of their major of interest. The contract is clear cut, it’s black and white and its transparent for all parties involved.
The choice for the NCAA prospect can be a major advantage, especially if he was drafted to a low budget organization or an undesirable location. Also, the draft is for Bantams or minor midget so the late developer could get lost in the shuffle. The choice aspect allows the player to look at several different options with their family and pick the school that is the best fit.
From a more league-wide perspective the CHL Draft system is designed to help bring parity to the league as Jack Eichel (BU) wasn’t going to play at a non-major hockey school but Connor McDavid could end up at a mid-market team. The recruitment from the college perspective allows for a much larger talent pool across countries and regions because they aren’t tied to a geographical area the way CHL teams are and they can negotiate with different scholarship offers to form the team they want. The CHL is more confined both geographically and with contracts and what they can offer player to player, but luckily for them their regions are flowing with talent.
Contract vs. Scholarship
Every player in the CHL has a contract with the team. These contracts are standardized in large part but there are differences when it comes to elite 16-year-old players and overeager’s looking to play for one year. The plus to a contract is its transparency; the player, the agent, the team and the family are all on the same page knowing exactly what the expectations are and what the deal is. The negative is that signing the contract terminates the players NCAA eligibility. The CHL player can earn some money for expenses and also sign endorsement deals which is forbidden in the NCAA.
From an NCAA perspective, some schools in Division 1 offer scholarships and all schools offer some level of financial aid or academic merit. The positive here is the player can get a high-quality hockey experience and education simultaneously for free. On the flip side, scholarships are not available at every school and some players will be paying over $50,000 per year in order to play college hockey. The biggest challenge that faces colleges on this front is that players cannot sign a National Letter of Intent until November of their senior year. Therefore, the colleges are often two years behind the CHL when they can officially offer a player.
NHL vs. Career
This is the most exaggerated of the CHL vs. NCAA narrative. The idea that college hockey players are more focused on their outside of hockey career where CHL players are only focused on playing professional hockey. Both leagues prepare players for the National Hockey League and both leagues have education packages which allow players to compete on the ice while getting an education off the ice. There are CHL players who go onto CIS and have great careers away from hockey. There are American players who don’t go onto the NHL and take advantage of their education package and go on to graduate from a school of their choosing in the US or Canada. There are college players who play one or two years and go onto professional hockey and never graduate. We could go on and on, but the primary difference between leagues from an NHL track perspective is that schools are not financially incentivized for their players to be drafted in the NHL, where CHL teams are. The result of this is that CHL teams are looking to win games, but they are also looking to produce NHL talent, where college hockey teams would be more inclined to take a 21-year-old freshman who is better today than the 18-year-old, but has far less NHL upside.
The Have’s and the Have Not’s
NCAA likes to make an argument that they have great parity as opposed to other leagues. There is certainly some truth to this as bottom 20 teams defeat top 20 teams with regularity. This is largely due to the age range in college hockey where the big schools like BU, BC and Michigan are playing with the top 18 and 19 year old’s in the US whereas Union and Yale are playing with predominately 21 year old freshman. However, the top programs have a major advantage over the bottom teams. If you compare North Dakota’s facilities to say Holy Cross, it’s a major difference. If you look at a school like Michigan and what they offer for scholarships as opposed to a non-scholarship school like Union or Dartmouth, it’s a major advantage. Lastly, the budgets that a Wisconsin or Penn State have is significantly higher than many of the teams in the WCHA or AHA.
The CHL parity is pretty strong as well given their draft and ability to trade prospects. However, as it is in professional sports, most teams that find themselves out of the playoff hunt will trade away assets to build for the future. As a result, the second half of the season becomes a few talent stacked teams and a few talent depleted teams. Regardless of performance, the attendance in every CHL league shows a very telling story. The top attendance teams like London Knights (OHL), Quebec Ramparts (QMJHL), Calgary Hitmen (WHL) average well over 8,000 fans per game where as the lower tier teams can get under 2,000.
The last part of the discussion is that NCAA programs don’t have to make money; many athletic teams they support run at a loss whereas CHL franchises are independent businesses. Many CHL teams do not actually turn a profit and some are used as a tax write off for wealthy owners, but for the most part the CHL franchises are businesses and are trying to make money. **Some teams like Kitchener Rangers (OHL) are actually non-profit organizations.
The Path to the NHL
Both the NCAA and CHL present different opportunities in regards to the path to the NHL. The CHL game mirrors more of the NHL game, the players are younger, more skilled and play a possession style game. College hockey is bigger, faster and stronger but several years older. Therefore, there is no “right” way to go, but there are differences on the path to the NHL.
Most NHL Draft picks playing in the NCAA were drafted before they stepped foot on campus. This gives them the opportunity to stay in college for four years and become a free agent like Jimmy Vesey (NYR) did at Harvard. The other option available to a college player is that they can leave school early and join the NHL ranks or AHL ranks whenever they please. However, once the player signs a professional contract they are no longer eligible to play NCAA hockey. The CHL on the other hand, allows players to join professional clubs and then move back to their CHL teams. This allows the player to get some NHL experience and also makes the players more readily available for NHL clubs, thus their opportunities. However, as part of the standard CHL-NHL contract, a CHL player cannot leave the league before he’s 20 years old to play in the AHL. Their options are NHL or CHL before 20 and that is it. This doesn’t apply to many players but it is worth consideration.
The CHL and the NCAA are the two best pathways to the NHL. One could argue that one is better than the other, but at the end of the day they both have their strengths, their weaknesses and their uniqueness. The CHL has deep Canadian roots and history and NCAA has deep roots and tradition in the US. The key for players and their families is to figure out where they have the best opportunity and which avenue is the best for their situation. Playing college hockey doesn’t mean you are not good enough to play in the CHL, and playing in the CHL doesn’t mean you aren’t smart enough to play in the NCAA.
If you have the chance to play in either CHL or NCAA, consider yourself lucky because it’s a real privilege.
For more in depth look at these topics we would recommend the following websites. Unfortunately, some of the most outspoken critics of the NCAA have never been to an NCAA game and some of the biggest critics of the CHL have never attended a game in person.
College Hockey Inc (www.collegehockeyinc.com)
Canadien Hockey League (http://chl.ca)
Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images