CHL vs. NCAA: Know Your Options

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get clear yt

The never-ending debate and driving force behind me writing the Junior Hockey Truth—the CHL vs. NCAA debate. Which is better? Which is the ‘smarter’ route? Which to choose?

Before I started this site, I vowed that I would never say one route is better than the other. The right answer to the smartest route is very, VERY much dependent on your family goals and situation.

Those values will influence the route your son chooses, and each route has its own rules…

One interesting thing I’ve realized since starting Junior Hockey Truth is that the “rules” and policies surrounding junior and college are all self serving for organizations and leagues, not for players who play. These policies aren’t the international laws of hockey handed down from the heavens. The governing bodies who make the rules are autocratic…

The NCAA saying that the CHL leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL) pays players like professionals is a little harsh, considering it’s basically gas money. I mean, the NCAA makes billions off of its athletes without paying them. How is that fair? What’s wrong with giving the boys a meager skim off the thousands of seats they sell every night? Sure, The NCAA gives free school and it’s about being an amateur student athlete first, but the CHL gives school too. Insiders know the rules and the pay aren’t truly about amateurism…

Meanwhile, the CHL says it’s the fastest route to the Show, which is not untrue, but it’s also pretty mum about how it chews through many young players who only get half their school covered. The education is free, but few players get all of their school covered and their careers are effectively done at 19. What does the 18 year old who blew his eligibility do for three years in Junior A knowing he’s going no where? How does he pay for school? The scholarships are also bargaining chips to recruit young players before they commit to NCAA…

It’s common knowledge that the NCAA gives scholarships and can extend a player’s amateur career, i.e. give him more time to catch the NHL’s attention. Yet, many fail to see that not all of these scholarships are full rides, so parents can end up paying thousands. Some scholarships also get reduced when promises get broken or ice time dries up. (Let’s not mention division III schools here which can’t give athletic scholarships and can’t get legitimate pro options.) Meanwhile, a CHL scholarship is guaranteed and the player does not have to play hockey to use it, but once he goes CHL he closes off his NCAA option at a young age. He’s really betting a lot at an age when he is too young to know (or care) what he wants.

And then of course, you get guys like me who ride the pine in the CHL for two years and a game, get 3 years of school paid for, and get offered NCAA scholarships too. Many players can go both ways and come out winners. I don’t want you to think everybody is shady. For the most part, I think all routes are sweet and have huge upside. You just have to know what your son is getting into. Hence this site exists.

Many articles and sources of information online are written by bloggers and journalists who have never actually played junior hockey. They do research, hear hearsay and read league websites, but they write as glorified fans. I recommend that you gather all the info you can from leagues, teams and especially any players you know who have went the route your son wants to take. Weigh real evidence. Make your decision based on fact.

Why I Chose Major Junior (CHL) Over NCAA Hockey

I actually wanted to go NCAA for the longest time, but I learned that getting a scholarship wasn’t as easy as it sounded. I explored other options and ultimately decided to play Major Junior when I was given the chance.

My dad loved the idea that my school was guaranteed in the CHL as long as I played. I looked at it like this when I was 17—if I believe I am good enough for the NCAA in the future, I should be good enough to get my school covered by the CHL now. That was entirely my decision and rationale.

I also know guys who had their school covered through the CHL and got full degrees and even part of their masters degrees paid for. I know others who never used a cent of the money even though they had it. The classroom just wasn’t there favourite place. Heck, I even know guys like me who made money as 20 year olds in Junior A after the CHL (but I probably shouldn’t talk about that).

Check out this bonus interview I did with Calgary 770AM Radio about CHL vs NCAA. Click here and subscribe.

A few of my former teammates were adamant in betting they would get the NCAA full-ride, so they crossed the country to put themselves in the best position to be scouted. They knew what they wanted and played to win, so to speak. I watched them sign letters of intent while I played out the clock waiting for junior to end and CIS to start. Some of those guys got full rides and are probably going to make a million this year on Wall Street instead of drilling on the oil rigs. Others never got the scholarship…

Few people talk about the players who want to go NCAA and never do get their scholarship, or get it and then watch it get reduced (or their playing time reduced) so much they gave it up and went back to junior. These players are basically cornered into riding the pine in the NCAA while paying for school. It’s not the holy full ride proponents say they get.

Also, nobody trumpets about the CHL players who earn one-and-a-half years of school, get cut and have no way to get the rest of their schooling since they can’t go to the NCAA. These players’ hockey careers are written off often because they just started playing junior too early and weren’t ready yet. That or they weren’t suited for the CHL game, due to size or development; they could have flourished in the NCAA if given time to develop.

You also hear many stories of players who skipped school altogether. These players are super content to make a very modest salary in the minors or bounce around Europe for good cash, and then turn into coaches in their 30s. I mean, you get to play hockey for a living. That’s pretty cool. It’s a grind, but so are many other vocations.

These are the different routes available. Whatever one is right for your son is right for your son. Figure that out first and figure that out as soon as you can. Aim for the end goal and let that end guide your family’s decisions.

I’m not a parent, but the consensus I get out of most of my readers is that they want to offer their son the best option available to him, whatever that may be, and it must include having some kind of fall back if he doesn’t make the NHL—school. As a parent you shouldn’t sit back and let the chips fall where they may, but you also should consider what he wants most rather than push him one direction or the other…

The Best Junior Hockey Option For Your Son

So what is that best option?

I can’t tell you that. Again, you need to get clear on what you want and value as a family and what your son wants.. Each route offers a path to the NHL, free school, a career in hockey and life opportunities. It’s really a matter of preference.

There is no right or wrong answer to where your son should play.

There is no guarantee that he’ll play enough years in the CHL to get all four years of school covered.

There is no guarantee that he’ll get a full scholarship in the NCAA.

And there is a ton of possibility that he could get whatever he shoots for.

Help your son discover what he wants, so he chases it as hard as possible. It’s his dream and yours to support. He is going to find the most success chasing the route he is most passionate about, not what you think will provide him the most security after hockey. EVERY route can get him some free schooling, and EVERY route can lead to pro hockey.


Here is why some players choose the CHL:

Guaranteed schooling—if you play, they pay. What tipped me over the edge in major junior was knowing that if I was as good as I thought I could be, I could have three, maybe four years covered. My third year I played 12 minutes and got a year of tuition. In total, I got these three years for starting eight regular season games and sitting on the bench for eighty. School paid for to sit on my ass. What a deal! In the NCAA, I would have been paying for most of my tuition in that situation.

The best players also get their school agreements upfront, with extras, etc.

Quickest Route to the Show—Major Junior plays an NHL schedule, so if a player can crack it in Major Junior he will have proven he can handle the rigours of playing three times a week with travel. Unless you’ve played junior, you may not understand how draining that can be physically and mentally. It counts.

Who cares about a big degree?—Some guys want to play hockey forever, some guys want to do trade school, some guys will work in the family business and can attend the local university rather than get an MBA. I played with guys from each of these categories. Why not play in the big rinks and get the quickest shot to the show if school isn’t a big concern?

NCAA isn’t a guarantee—Not all scholarships are full rides. In fact, many aren’t. For an out-of-state American or a Canadian, it can cost a lot to go NCAA if the player doesn’t have a full-ride. The scholarships are also renewed, year-to-year, and some players get squeezed out of what they were promised, but we’ll save that topic for another day.

Professional Atmosphere—Most Major Junior clubs have bigger budgets than the Junior A teams (excluding USHL). Most times, the player gets treated like a pro with all the extras of the pros. Bright lights, big cities…

Here is why some players choose Junior A-to-the-NCAA:

Junior A chooses them—Let’s pretend you’re 16. Your Major Junior team says you’re not ready to play junior, but a Junior A team is offering you a spot and ice-time. You start playing Junior A since you know you can still jump up to Major Junior. The Junior A team starts building into a contender and schools start talking to you. You decide to stick in Junior A. This is the common scenario.

Guys want to stay at home—Not everybody can play in the Show. Some guys want to be a hero at home or don’t strive to uproot in high school just for hockey.

Longer timeline for development—Is your son 165 pounds? Is he 5’9”? He may be a good candidate to go Junior A so he can buy himself extra years. More and more, NHL teams are giving collegiate players a look. Most collegiate players who sign to the NHL are older than junior, age 21 to 23. That’s development time. NHL teams also don’t have to sign a player to a contract as quickly if you get Junior A to the NCAA.

 Some Campuses and Experiences are Badass—Would you rather billet for three or four years away from home in Major Junior and be, essentially, a washed up player on a Canadian campus, or would you be a campus hero, fly to games and party your ass off while all the other kids experience being at drinking age for the first time? If you don’t think your son has thought through this angle, you’re fooling yourself.

 Get a big-time degree—Let’s say your son commits to an lesser mentioned Ivy League school such as Dartmouth. He plays four years, has his fun and gets a bachelors in Finance. He can basically get an MBA from any school in the world if he has decent grades. He picks up an MBA at Yale, takes the 4 train through Grand Central everyday, slaves away at a hedge fund and makes over a million at year by 30. Growing up in Canora, Saskatchewan I didn’t know things like this were possible. They are if your son values that career path. He may not realize it until he leaves home though. I’ve seen guys become doctors, get Rhodes scholarships and do other amazing things this way.

Wasn’t drafted by a Major Junior team—If Major Junior doesn’t notice your son at 14 or 15, that’s there loss, right?

Many people will argue that a benefit to the NCAA is that your son will get to do hockey and school at the same time. That’s true. However, if your son plays in the CHL, he’ll likely start university at 21 and finish at 24, while still playing CIS hockey. If he plays NCAA, he’ll probably start at 19 or 20, so he really isn’t finishing school any earlier at 23. In my mind, you’re playing and learning at the same time. Your son will be in the CHL or Junior A until at least 19 with either route.

Where You Live Affects Your Decisions

I go into what factors should influence your decision in choosing either of these routes in my book, the Junior Hockey Truth, and one of them is geography.

I played as a teenager in B.C. and went to school their afterward. I got asked a lot of questions from minor hockey parents over the past decade. Then and now, most of these parents seriously consider the BCHL and NCAA to be legit routes to the NHL. (And they are.) In some, but not all, places in the West, Junior A-to-NCAA competes with the WHL. In other parts of Canada, Junior A doesn’t compete with the CHL at all…

When I played CIS in Ontario, I crossed paths with guys from the NCAA and played against NCAA schools, including the defending champs at that time, Michigan State. (An American college crowd is different than any other kind of hockey crowd. Trust me.) In Ontario, Major Junior is huge compared to Junior A. The O has always been a top provincial league in Ontario, and the Junior A leagues were traditionally unstable. (It’s solidified now.) There is so much competition in Ontario that players often get the decision of which route to go made for them.

On the East Coast, it’s almost QMJHL or bust. There aren’t many scholarships out of Junior A there. Then we get to the American side…

As I’ll explain in my “Play USA Junior Hockey” Guide coming out later this year, my American readers’ choices vary.

In the Northeast, most player favour prep or high schools or the local tier III Junior A clubs because they can stay close to home and get a scholarship, even if their parents pay to play. Readers in California know full-well about top-level Midget AAA and realize their sons must leave home if they want to play any kind of decent junior hockey. There’s a carnival of options at every level for players in the Midwest now too, and the USHL is the ring leader.

Your son can go a variety of routes and will ALWAYS have the opportunity to earn some form of school, no matter where you from. There is only upside—you just need to choose a side of the CHL vs. NCAA debate at some point.

Final Thoughts

And that leads me to my parting thoughts…

  • You also have to ask yourself why your son should want a degree and how your opinion will influence his decision. I won’t get into the merits of having a degree or not, but I will say that I got one because that’s what I always thought I was supposed to do after high school. It’s what I was always told to get. I really never knew why I was supposed to want that piece of paper. I don’t regret having one, but like a many, many people my age (28) I’m not seeing the advantages my school said I’m entitled to because of the paper they gave me. But then again, I don’t make my living in a typical way. Don’t push your son toward a certain junior route because you think an undergrad degree will protect him for the future. It won’t nowadays. A degree is just a minimum at best and overrated.
  • In hockey, nobody owes your son anything. Leagues and schools grant scholarships, use them as recruiting tools and they create the rules surrounding them. Scholarships based on athletics are a bonus in life, not a right. If you want one for your son he needs to earn it first. He’ll work harder for it if he chose the route.
  • Ask your son what he wants to do because if he chooses a route YOU want him to go instead of what he wants to do, it will only backfire on him (and you) in the long run. Open his eyes to every available route and help him pursue the one he wants. That will give him the best chance to earn a scholarship.

As a parent, know that he can get his school covered by every route, so go for the one he wants the most…

by Nick Olynyk (47 Posts)

Nick Olynyk is a junior hockey expert and author of the Junior Hockey Truth, a book series for parents of bantam and midget hockey players approaching junior hockey. To check out his book for bantam and midget hockey parents, go to: www.juniorhockeybook.com

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