For many young hockey players the decision on whether they will play in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the banner league of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Western Hockey League (WHL), or, alternatively, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). is being made at a younger and younger age. This important decision is typically made at the family level and it is important that each family is made aware that this decision will have implications on the development of their child both as a hockey player, and as a person for years to come. Very recently the importance of the decision on where players spend their developmental years was highlighted by Auston Matthews’ decision to play his draft eligible season with the Zurich Lions of the Swiss National League. While the decision by Auston Matthews to play this season in Europe has little or no impact on the average Canadian hockey player, his decision to avoid more traditional development leagues, like the CHL., or NCAA, very publicly reinforces the need to approach this decision on an individual basis. This article will highlight why Auston Matthews made the decision to choose such an uncommon route to the National Hockey League (NHL), as well as raise the questions that families and young players need answers to when making a decision on where to play their developmental years.
Let's start by looking at why Auston Matthews chose such a non-traditional developmental path, and how this decision is not ‘trail blazing’, but in fact a unique response to an uncommon situation. Last season Auston Matthews dominated the United States National Team Development Program accumulating 117 points (55G-62A) in 60 games, breaking the record of 102 points in a season set by Patrick Kane in 2005-2006. Matthews could have followed the path set by Kane, who went on to play his next season for the London Knights of the O.H.L. where he scored 145 points (62G-83A), and would later be drafted first overall in 2007, and go on to score 72 points (21G-51A) in his rookie campaign with the Chicago Blackhawks, but chose not to. Looking at the success Patrick Kane has had on the ice may seem like an excellent option for Auston’s development, however, Matthews declined to follow this path, and the reasons why are important for they demonstrate how each players decisions should be made on a case by case basis. Matthews cited the ability to play for former NHL head coach Mark Crawford, as well as the opportunity to play against older and faster competition as why he choose to spend his draft eligible year with Zurich and this makes sense in Auston’s case. Having missed draft eligibility for the 2015 draft by a mere two days, Auston found himself in a unique position that not many other young players have. Having already played an exhibition game for Team U.S.A. against Austria in the 2015 World Hockey Championships, and being already physically mature at 6’2” and 210 lbs, Auston knew that returning to the U.S. National Team Development Program at Ann Arbor would not push him to develop further as a hockey player, so he explored other less conventional options. Matthews initially considered all his options, having visited NCAA schools such as Boston College, Boston University, North Dakota and Michigan as well as having his rights owned in the WHL by the Everett Silvertips, allowing him to play in either of the traditional development leagues should he have chosen to. However, since Auston will turn 18 on September 17th, 2015, he is eligible to play professional hockey in Switzerland, which require its players to be 18 or older, allowing him to play against more challenging competition while he prepares himself for the rigours of the NHL. Furthermore, this option provides some financial stability for himself and his family as he will earn a professional salary this season with the Zurich Lions, while maintaining his eligibility for the World Juniors this year. There are other examples of players playing professionally before their draft-eligible year, such as Leafs prospect William Nylander who suited up for Rogle of the Second Division in the Swedish Hockey League, but was eventually called up to Modo of the Swedish Hockey League midseason prior to his selection 8th overall in the 2014 NHL entry draft. Still, at least as far as North American-born players are concerned, there are very few other recent examples of players playing professional hockey before they are drafted into the NHL. This will likely remain an uncommon decision for most North American skaters due to the potential problem it creates with regards to player visibility, as well as the unique scenario and high level of skill that coincides in making this a realistic option. For Matthews, however, he does not have to worry about scouts being able to see him on a regular basis due to his already impressive hockey career and reputation, as he is projected as the first overall pick in 2016.
While the option to play professionally in Europe, prior to being eligible for the NHL draft, is an option not open to many, the example set by Auston Matthews reinforces the necessity of being fully aware of one's options when it comes to a hockey player's development. Whether one chooses the CHL, NCAA or to play in the United States Hockey League (USHL). as an import player there are many leagues for players to consider while they develop and prepare for the NHL draft, each with their own unique perceived strengths and weaknesses. For instance, consider the CHL which provides, what it believes to be, the closest comparison to an actual NHL season, having players play more games than anywhere else (68 games in the QMJHL and OHL and 72 in the WHL). It is the most traditional route for Canadian hockey players and provides players a league for development with high NHL visibility for players of ages 16 to 20. In addition, the CHL also provides an education package for players that enables players with the opportunity to attend a Canadian University for as many years as they played in the CHL. While this package is subject to a variety of rules and regulations, as well as varying in size from player to player, it is available to all players who suit up for at least one game in the CHL.
Currently, public perception suggests that the CHL is where players and families believe that they have the best chance of being drafted to the NHL, and statistics show that more players are drafted out of the CHL than anywhere else. However, choosing the CHL simply because it has worked for many does not necessarily mean it will work for all players .
Apart from the CHL, the other popular destination where players typically choose to hone their craft prior to playing professional hockey is in NCAA Division I hockey. Teams in the NCAA play approximately 40 games per year, which is significantly fewer games than in the CHL. However, having fewer games allows players more time to for education, workouts and practice. Furthermore, NCAA programs typically have excellent facilities and staff that aid in the physical development of their young athletes. In addition to the player’s hockey development, college athletes simultaneously attend classes and earn a degree which will serve them beyond their hockey playing career, and statistics show that between 88-92% of these student-athletes do earn a degree. In comparison, only ~20% of players who have played their developmental years in the CHL cash in their education package and go on to earn a post-secondary degree. These benefits coupled with the ‘college lifestyle’ can attract young players and remain an excellent option for players who put a premium on their education and/or are slower to physically develop, as they are able to play between the ages of 18 and 24, allowing more time for physical and mental maturity to be achieved. Prior to playing in the NCAA many American players play a season in the United States Hockey League or USHL and progress to the NCAA, an option that is open to Canadians as well, though there are some limitations placed on importing non-American born players.
In conclusion, there are a variety of leagues for young hockey players to develop their skills and attract the attention of scouts during their development as a hockey player, and it is in the player’s best interest to be informed as to what those options are, and the implications of those decisions on the players future. Many players and parents are not made fully aware of all of the opportunities available to them, and this lack of knowledge leads many Canadian players to assume that the CHL is their only option for furthering their hockey development, and their best chance of making it to the NHL. This very well may be the case for some young hockey players, but, it is certainly not a universal truth. While the CHL is an excellent option, players and families need to be made fully aware of all their options and not simply rely on the traditional, more common route and seek out the best option for that specific hockey player. The best way for families and players to be aware of all of their options is to seek out professional assistance in making this decision, however, doing personal research on the various options available to young players is very important, as well. The more proactive one is in preparing for the long journey to the NHL, the more likely one is to make the right decisions that allows a player to flourish and have a successful hockey-playing career.