The largest feeder leagues to the NHL are the CHL and the NCAA.
The CHL is the Canadian Hockey League which is actually the parent league of three separate Canadian junior leagues: WHL, OHL, and QMJHL. The WHL has 22 teams, the OHL has 20 teams and the QMJHL has 18 teams for a combined total of 60.
The NCAA is a combination of colleges and universities in the United States which are also broken down into three sub-leagues: Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3. NCAA Division 1 is the highest caliber and consists of 60 programs, many of which offer financial scholarships based on the player’s ability. In NCAA Division 2 there are 6 programs but the NCAA does not sponsor a national championship. In NCAA Division 3 there are 81 programs.
The different divisions in the NCAA makes it unique in comparison to the CHL which are all in the same division. Most (but not all) teams in the NCAA offer scholarships for hockey; NCAA Division 2 is allowed to but most programs do not and NCAA D3 is forbidden to give scholarship money based on a players hockey ability. That does not mean an NCAA D3 prospect cannot receive scholarship for academic achievement or community service, etc. but they cannot receive money based on their athletic ability or achievements.
There are several important differences between NCAA and CHL hockey, many of which are featured in our weekly blog. However, the biggest differentiation is amateur status. Players who sign a CHL contract are agreeing to a form of compensation for their participation as well as the right and ability to make money from endorsements and other opportunities. The NCAA does not allow its players or prospects to receive compensation for their participation in sports or endorsement deals. Therefore, players who have signed CHL contracts are forbidden from playing NCAA (with some exceptions based on the number of games played).
While there is a lot of debate over which route is the “better” route; it’s the wrong question. Both routes have produced elite level prospects at the pro level; the better question is what do the leagues offer and where are the advantages and disadvantages of both.
- Bigger, Stronger and Older competition given the age of the players are 18-26
- No geographical limitations for the prospect pool
- Schools don’t need to make money, it’s not a business for them so it is development friendly
- Trades are forbidden by NCAA so players know that where the school they sign with is the school they’ll graduate from
- Players get to choose where they want to play, they are not drafted
- Every player in the league is required to get an education at the school they are playing for and over 95% of all NCAA hockey players graduate from college.
- Allows for a longer and more delayed development path as players enter the league older and graduate older
- Players are protected by the NCAA rules in areas such as insurance, scholarships, education, etc. Everyone in the league, regardless of ability, gets these same protections.
- The 2:1 practice to game ratio allows players more time to develop in practice and in the off-ice conditioning than they would get playing more game schedule.
- The overwhelming majority of NCAA commitments are “verbal” and represent NO binding commitment by the school or the player
- Unless a player is under scholarship, which is only eligible at SOME NCAA D1 programs, the majority of NCAA players must PAY large sums of money to attend these schools. Some of these schools cost nearly $70,000 USD per year.
- To attend NCAA the player must complete his/her high school degree and pass the NCAA Clearinghouse. Now, this means that no matter how elite the prospect is, they cannot play at 16 or 17 unless they have the necessary educational requirements. The average freshman in NCAA hockey is over 20 years old.
- NCAA programs play, on average, less than 35 games in a season. Their seasons start in early October and end in early April which is shorter than CHL or NHL seasons.
- NCAA has a much lower percentage of NHL Draft picks in the league than the CHL
- Elite prospects in US/CAN are being pressured and pursued by NCAA programs through family advisors to verbally commit to their schools at ages 14, 15, 16 and 17 years old which is, in many cases, years before they are able to sign a National Letter of Intent and make their commitment legally binding.
- Players are drafted and not recruited which takes away the pressure of players having to visit schools and make decisions years before they are able to sign legal contracts
- CHL has a standard player’s contract and CHL organizations sign which is legally binding. There are no “verbal” commitments in the CHL, the player, and the team knows what they are getting.
- The players know their value because of the draft; meaning they know they are the 5th round pick or the 10th round pick where NCAA prospects can only guess at their value.
- CHL plays an NHL schedule
- CHL organization recieve compensation from the NHL for players on their team who get drafted and go on to play pro hockey. This is refered to as a “development fee.” This is significant because it shows the NHL sees the CHL as a premier development league and makes the CHL organizations incentivized to develop their players for the NHL.
- Elite players can play at ages 15 in WHL or 16 in OHL and QMJHL instead of having to wait until they graduate from high school in order to play.
- CHL organizations can only have a few “over-agers” and the oldest a player can be in the league is 21. This leads to a more skilled game of prospects with a focus to move these players into professional hockey.
- A CHL player has the ability to earn money, receive an education package for their schooling as well as endorsement opportunities.
- It costs $0 for the players to play in the CHL, they are provided with equipment, ice time, training, and housing free of charge.
- A player can go up and down between NHL and CHL throughout a season and be signed by an NHL team while playing in the CHL. An NCAA player loses eligibility the second they sign a pro contract.
- CHL players who are drafted in the league (non-free agents) have little to no say in where they play because of the draft system.
- Canadian and US players are regionalized in regards to what leagues they can play in. For example, a US-born player in New York can only be drafted in the OHL as the OHL owns that territory. A Quebec born player can only be drafted in the QMJHL and not the OHL and WHL. There are some exceptions but it is very rare.
- CHL organization are not directly affiliated with colleges and universities so the educational partnerships are loosely based and graduation rates are far below NCAA.
- Players must be able to make a pro organization by age 20 or 21 because they will have lost NCAA eligibility and will be aged out of the CHL. The development process is forced to be quicker.
- The oldest players are 20 and 21 years old which makes the jump to the professional ranks against 30-year-old’s more difficult and makes it harder for scouts to project their pro upside.
- The CHL is a collection of individual teams which are businesses similar to NHL, AHL and ECHL teams. This makes for an uneven playing field where top budget teams have considerable advantages over lower budget teams and parity isn’t as strong as NCAA.
- The CHL allows trades; therefore, at any time a player can be moved from one team to another without their consent or approval.
Education vs. Hockey
The biggest misconception about these two development paths is that the NCAA is for serious students and the CHL is for serious hockey players. Meaning someone who cares about life after hockey should go to NCAA and someone who is focused on playing in the NHL should go to CHL.
This is a major misconception in the hockey community on both sides. First off, while the CHL is the largest producer of NHL talent, the majority of the players in the league do NOT go on to play professional hockey. Over the past ten years, the number of players who are graduating from University has increased and players are taking advantage of the increased competition in the USport (formerly CIS) level. In the CHL players agreement, the individual teams have an educational package for the prospects who don’t go on to sign a pro contract (players have 18 months after leaving the program and playing pro hockey to enroll in a school for the contract to be in effect). Therefore, an elite American player could request a full scholarship to an American university as part of their educational package at age 16 and regardless of how that player performs, regardless of whether the player gets hurt or sick, they are entitled to that scholarship as it is a legally binding contract. In the NCAA, a player is verbally committed at 16 and if they don’t pan out or they get injured before they sign the NLI then the player’s scholarship offer and place on the team could be taken away (this is a growing trend).
In regards to the NCAA as a strictly educational argument is false on two main fronts. First, the top prospects in the NCAA; the Jack Eichel, Clayton Keller, Casey Mittelstadt are not staying enrolled for four years and are mostly all one year and done prospects. It’d be hard to make an argument that they went to their respective schools for the education when they left after two semesters to pursue pro hockey.
Not only are the elite players only staying for one or two years and not graduating but the NCAA as a whole is producing more and more players to the NHL than ever before. In the 80’s very few NCAA players made it to the NHL, that number grew slightly into the 90’s and reached 20% of the league total population by 2000’s. Today that number has grown to over 32% and NCAA players now make up one-third of the league. This trend is not slowing down, it’s growing so the argument that CHL is for serious hockey players and NCAA is a 50/50 education and hockey scenario is blatantly false. NCAA programs, in my cases, have more resources for training, medical staff, larger budgets for coaching staffs, travel, accommodations and ice time (for practice).
Both options as noted earlier have certain strengths and weaknesses; from an educational perspective a player in the CHL can lock down a college/university scholarship at age 16 and for NCAA a player who is serious about becoming a pro hockey player can play in an environment where they have every advantage to do so.
What makes this debate tricky is that the only ones talking about it are incentivized one way or another. The best way to approach this subject is to remove the idea of one route being better than the other route because that will just lead to biased information. The better question is what does each league provide the player, what is the player looking to get out of the experience and how will that organization or team help them accomplish their goals. There is no “right” answer here, but players/parents/agents should be informed
“X team is better than Y team”
The comparisons of how Northeastern would do against the London Knights is fairly ridiculous and for a variety of reasons. The biggest issue is that it’s not a level playing field and second how do you judge who is better. If the two teams played straight up the college team will almost always win and it’s a function of having 22, 23, 24, 25 and even 26-year-olds on the ice playing against 16, 17 and 18-year-olds. Physical maturity wise it doesn’t even make sense. However, if you wanted to judge it by how many players on those two squads will go on to have a career in the NHL than the London Knights would likely win but that is because Northeastern typically recruits 4 year college players and not one or two years NHL draft pick types like Michigan, BU, and BC.
“If you go to the CHL you cannot play college hockey”
If you sign a CHL contract and play a season than you cannot play NCAA hockey but that is not the only form of college hockey out there. There is USport in Canada which is growing in competition and most of those rosters are filled with players coming out of the CHL. The USport is a great option for players looking to play competitive hockey and also earn their university degree.
The Draft system of the CHL is a better standard than recruitment process in the NCAA
This is a complex and interesting debate which we will discuss more and analyze in our weekly blogs. However, you could not say definitively that one produces better results than the other. The positives to the draft system are that kids are not being exploited and their phones are blowing up all day long from schools trying to recruit them. Families don’t have to go visit 15 organizations before making a decision on where to go. The draft is supposed to put each team on a level playing field, it is supposed to bring transparency to the process to show a kid exactly where they value that player and it is supposed to bring parity to the level of play. Those are the major advantages. However, in the NCAA model, the player gets the right to choose where they want to go and they are able to test out several different organizations to see what is the best fit for them in regards to the school, the coaching staff, the facilities, etc. The player may not know if they are the #1 recruit or the #25 recruit but the scholarship offer (for schools that offer scholarships) will give some indication of the school’s interest in that player. Also keep in mind that the school cannot trade the player so they may take more time evaluating before offering a scholarship. The parity in NCAA hockey is excellent in comparing the top 25% to the bottom 25% so the idea of the draft bringing more parity to the CHL isn’t entirely true. While CHL boasts about its transparency as it relates to contracts over verbal commitments and drafts over recruitment; the CHL clubs actively trade players all the time to help make their team better or build for their future and those trades are not always beneficial for the players. So it would be hard to say one system is better for the player than the other; more importantly is understanding how they both work and what the upside and downside is to each option.
The NHL-CHL agreement does not allow NHL drafted CHL players to play in the minor leagues before age 20 which is a detriment to a CHL player where NCAA players can sign AHL or ECHL contract at any time.
This relates to such a small percentage of players that the rule is almost insignificant. Very few players would want to leave the CHL or the NCAA to sign a minor league contract; most leave to sign an NHL contract. However, while this rule is true and its purpose was to protect the CHL and keep players in the league it is not entirely negative. It forces the NHL organization to give the player an NHL deal at 18 or 19 years old whereas the NCAA could get a player to leave school early and stick them on the AHL or even ECHL team all year. Again, this pertains to a very limited amount of players each year; but the idea that it holds CHL players back is overstated and not necessarily true.