The Canadian Hockey League (CHL), also known as Major Junior, has long been the top level of junior hockey and quickest path to the NHL.
Comprised of the three member leagues, the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the CHL remains a top choice in each geographic region, and continues to draw top players from the United States.
The NHL still drafts more players from the CHL leagues—when you exclude the U.S.A.’s National Team Development Program from the USHL—than any other. It also offers better education options to players than it has in the past.
In part two of this two-part series, I’ll discuss why your son may want to play in the CHL. You’ll also find out what he can do today as a bantam or midget player in order to catch a CHL team’s attention and make the jump to this highest level as he exits midget.
Why Play CHL Hockey
Here are the big advantages to what the Major Junior route offers players…
More Exposure To NHL Scouts During Your Draft Year
Getting Drafted by an NHL team when you turn 18 gives you all the opportunity possible to earn a contract and eventually fulfill your dream in the NHL.
Simply put, there is no higher level of competition for junior players against their own peers than the Major Junior level. If a CHL player can be impactful, or even dominant, for his club as a 17 year old, he stands a pretty good chance of getting drafted. He’s simply shown to be among the best of the best players available.
On the lower end of the spectrum, any player who cracks a CHL squad will be playing in front of NHL scouts every night, without fail. This will not happen at the Tier II level of junior.
Another advantage to getting drafted rather than signed at a later age is that you somewhat earn the benefit of the doubt once you sign a contract with an NHL. Once you’re drafted at 17 or 18, and then when you sign at the end of your 19 year old year, you have three full years to prove yourself to the NHL team under your entry level deal. This can lead to a shot at the NHL or at least another shot at a contract. Free agent players coming out of low-level pro or college not only have to prove they are worthy of a free agent contract, but also they have to prove that they are definitively better than the player with contracts who’ve got up to five years of relationship and development within the NHL club.
Additionally, if a good college player finishes school and gets a tryout with an AHL club, he will have a tough time unseated a player with a two-way NHL contract. (A two-way deal means a player who signed by an NHL team but playing on their farm team.) Long story short, the earliest “in” you can get with an NHL club is through the CHL, and as long as you keep that in, you’re always skating on the inside lane of the track. It’s harder to pass you.
More Professional Atmosphere & Schedule
The CHL leagues play around 70 games per season depending on the league. This schedule purposely mimics the NHL schedule, even though players still may be in high school. This rigorous regime of games forces players to sink or swim fast. Players have to learn to play on five hours of sleep, battle through the previous night’s bumps and bruises, and gather the mental tenacity to play even when they’d rather not.
While some argue that junior should be about practice and skill development, it is hard to argue against the on-the-job fortitude that is forged through a CHL schedule. Junior A teams often play 48 – 60 game schedules with less back-to-back games in shorter distances travelled, and NCAA teams only play on weekends, which allows them a whole week to recoup and prepare. Only the CHL grinds it out so heavily.
Furthermore, Junior A hockey by nature maintains a smaller locus of professionalism. The coaches usually aren’t as experienced or high calibre, the organizations usually can’t offer the same facilities, and the pressure on players aren’t as high. At the CHL level, you can have an ex-NHL or AHL coach whose job depends on winning and whose roster has NHL prospects he is trusted to develop. In some Junior A programs, the coach is one-man band and he has a quota of local players he is required to take regardless of their skill level. In Junior A, the best make it on at the end of their career and the others don’t. In the CHL, those others won’t last the whole season. The demands are simply higher all around.
Education Is Guaranteed In Advance
Even today, the general consensus with the CHL is that is it a “hockey first, education second” league. However, the CHL has made great strides in their education, and I must say that I am a fan of it since it got me through most of university.
The program’s biggest advantage is also its biggest red flag: for every year you play you get a year of school paid for (more to less). As long as you step on the ice, you should be getting some university banked up while you play junior. Compared to the NCAA route, where your scholarship is not achieved until you sign with a university, the CHL program guarantees your tuition dollars are set aside the moment you step on junior ice.
This is also the disadvantage to the program. If you only step on the ice for one season, you only get one year of university paid for. Also, if you decide to play pro hockey in earnest after junior you only have 18 months to test the waters or you lose all of your school money.
What does this mean for your son? If he plays four years in the CHL, he’ll get all of his university paid for. If he plays one year in the CHL, he only gets one year paid for. What he gets is guaranteed, but he has to keep playing to get it. You really do have to earn your school.
One last hidden advantage to the program is that the schooling is not tied to hockey. While the majority of CHL graduates who don’t play pro play Canadian University (known as CIS hockey) or Canadian junior college hockey, some don’t. For instance, I played a year of Canadian university, quit and transferred schools. Nevertheless, I just had to send in a form to the head office and my CHL league, the WHL, sent my tuition money to the school. It’s was very black and white, and very easy. Additionally, I had teammates who chose to go to firefighting school, ag college or get their pilot’s license. These were all covered by the program.
3 Things Your Bantam or Midget Hockey Player Needs To Do Today For The CHL
Here are three things minor hockey players need to do in order to maximize their potential with a CHL club.
Make A Team By Their NHL Draft Year
The CHL is about playing the highest level of hockey possible and getting noticed by the NHL. If your son plays at that level he needs to solidify the self-belief that he actually can be an NHL player. He’s there for a reason. He needs to feel he deserves it. After all, the guy across the faceoff dot may very well be facing off against Sidney Crosby the next season.
With that, players who want to maximize the advantages of the CHL should really make a CHL club by age 17. This is the year of their NHL draft. It is extremely difficult to crack a club at 16, but most new players do break into the league at 17. If your son breaks in at 18, he has already missed his NHL draft year. It’s likely he can get invited to an NHL training camp, and its possible that he can sign an NHL contract before the end of junior, but for the same reasons I listed earlier in this article, it is by far most efficient to be drafted.
If a player isn’t drafted in his NHL draft year, he is now behind the 8-ball of his ideal development curve for making the NHL. Players who are undrafted at even 19 or 20 in Junior A can still beat this curve if they get NCAA scholarship and dominate that level. For CHL players, you only get one shot to do it the ideal way most guys who make the NHL do it, and at 20 you’re done.
Making a CHL team at 17 also gives you the chance to earn all four years of your scholarship. If you start at 18 you simply don’t have enough to do this. Attempting the Junior-A-to-NCAA route at 18, when most players start Junior A, still gives you the chance at four years of school.
Play AAA Or Prep School/Academy Hockey
Since NHL scouts take CHL players based on them being the best players for their age group, it’s no wonder that CHL clubs take bantam and midget players who are the best for their age group.
Making AAA hockey is competitive, especially for Canadian kids in provinces where AAA players a restricted to their home region’s team, but it’s really not impossible compared to trying to crack the CHL. Only the top AAA players make the CHL, so playing AAA is really a pre-requisite to getting noticed. In some parts of the States, it’s just as advantageous to go to prep school. In some provinces, hockey academies are becoming the favoured route (and Junior B has its place for midget aged players). And in Minnesota, high school hockey, is pretty darn elite.
However, outside of those options, you really must graduate from Midget AA or high school hockey. The CHL teams simply have too many good options at the AAA level, let along lower levels. It’s just the way it is.
Attend A CHL Camp If You Get An Invite
Most CHL team’s rookie camps are comprised of 40 to 50 players. That translates to the top 1000 players per region from ages 15, 16 and 17 getting invited to camps. If you get invited to one of these camps it is definitely not to fill a spot like a Junior A spring camp. The team does see some potential in you.
If your son’s goal is to play in the CHL and if he is a serious player, I recommend travelling the three, 10 or 25 hours trip to attend a team’s training camp. The experience alone is worth it. Case in point, my mom somehow manages to cart me across three provinces to attend the Portland Winterhawks camp. I didn’t get picked up at the camp, but they put me on their protected list six months later. That opened the door for me in the WHL as an undrafted player. The camp allowed me to see how close I was in development to the goalie they had drafted my year. I also got to be roommates with a guy who went on to be an NHL All-Star. I got to eat breakfast with a guy that was heading to NHL camp the next week. Those little things add up, and you can’t get them at a summer hockey school.
Most importantly though, you get to skate against that CHL team’s own prospects, the guys they’ve drafted. If you can prove you are on their level, it would be foolish of the team not to protect you and develop you. You’re a gift to them. Of those same two Portland camps I attended as a bantam and midget player, one drafted player was released only a couple months after he was drafted in favour of somebody else. I ended up making the WHL as a walk-on with the Regina Pats. If you don’t go, you always won’t make it.
This was part two of a two-part series highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of NCAA and the CHL. Last day I broke down why your son may want to go the Junior-A-to-NCAA route and how he can prepare himself. CLICK HERE TO GO NOW.
Put any questions you have in the comment box below. I get alerted of every question and respond to every one. I’d love to hear why you think the CHL route is the route for you or your son.
Video midway through: Radio Interview