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Campbell's Cuts: NHL dreams often shattered

Nate Hagemo looked like a sure-fire NHLer until a shoulder injury ended his career.

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Nate Hagemo looked like a sure-fire NHLer until a shoulder injury ended his career.

It has been well-documented that when Little Johnny begins his minor hockey career, his family has a better chance of winning the Powerball or 6-49 lotteries than he does of becoming an NHL player.

Let's fast forward to about a decade later, then. By this time Little Johnny has become an elite player in his age group and he's either playing major junior or college hockey or he's attracting some serious interest from one or both of them. Well now, you'd think, the odds of him cashing in on a career in the best league in the world would have just gone up astronomically.

Wrong again.

Actually, once a kid makes it to that level, he has somewhere in the neighborhood of a five per cent chance of playing in the NHL. All of which not only underlines how incredibly difficult it is to play in the NHL and how talented a player has to be to do so, but it should also be a wakeup call for anyone who thinks their kid is going to be the one to beat the odds.

Both juniors and colleges – who are competing in a sometimes rather unseemly battle for the hearts and minds of the best teenage hockey players – can be a little like snake oil salesmen when it comes to recruiting players. Both sides will be quick to claim that a player's best career path goes through their programs.

What they often don't tell players is that in junior, they might wake up one morning to find out they've just been traded to Owen Sound or in college, that if they don't perform on the ice as expected, their full scholarship can be taken away from them.

A recent examination of all the rosters of the major junior leagues and U.S. colleges from the 1988-89 season gave a stark reminder of just how difficult the jump is from major junior or college to the NHL.

The 94 rosters from that season in the OHL, WHL and QMJHL in junior and the CCHA, WCHA, Hockey East and ECAC had a total of 2,428 players on them, 113 of whom have been or become NHL regulars in the nine years since then.

While there could be some exceptions, one would expect that players performing at those levels nine years ago would have either established themselves as NHL players or not by now. That means that at the highest level of amateur hockey, just 4.7 per cent of players end up playing in the NHL.

Some of those rosters, though, had 25 or more players on them, so I decided to base the numbers on an average of 18 players per team – which is how many would typically suit up for a game. That cut the number of players down to 1,692, which brings the percentage of NHLers up to 6.7 per cent.

Which basically means that when you attend a major junior or college game, chances are that you'll be watching roughly one player on each team who has a legitimate shot at playing in the NHL.

Based again on the 18-man roster, the WHL had the best showing with 31 of a possible 324 players, for an NHL production rate of 9.6 per cent. The OHL had 31 of 360 for 8.6 per cent and the QMJHL 16 of 270 for 5.9 per cent.

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Overall, junior hockey from that season produced a total of 79 NHL players for a production rate of 8.3 per cent.

In college hockey, Hockey East led the way with 11 NHLers among 162 players for 6.8 per cent. The WCHA was next at nine among 162 for a 5.6 per cent showing. The CCHA had six NHLers among 198 players for 3.0 per cent and the ECAC had eight among 216 for 3.7 per cent.

Overall, college hockey produced 34 NHL players among the 738 that played in 1998-99 for a production rate of 4.6 per cent.

And chances are, once a player makes it to the major junior or college levels, he's going to be a fringe or average player. Of the 113 from 1998-99 who have established themselves as NHLers, just 29 could be considered above average players, while 46 would be considered average and 38 below average or fringe NHLers.

From that group, only Jonathan Cheechoo (Rocket Richard), Brad Richards (Conn Smythe and Lady Byng), Barrett Jackman (Calder) and Andrew Raycroft (Calder) have won an individual award. Only Roberto Luongo, who has been a second-team all-star twice, has made it to a post-season all-star team. Only Justin Williams is among the top 20 scorers this season and only Jason Spezza finished among the top 20 last season.

In fact, the only true potential superstars of that group would be Spezza, who played that season as an underage player for the Brampton Battalion, and Luongo.

The fact is, far more careers end up going the other way. Many of these players end up chasing the dream through the backwaters of minor pro hockey or in Europe, and a great many others are out of the game altogether after their junior or college careers end.

Some end up like Nate Hagemo, a promising defenseman for the University of Minnesota who had been an elite-level player in USA Hockey for years and was a legitimate prospect of the Carolina Hurricanes. But a shoulder injury derailed Hagemo's career and he was forced to retire last season. U of M, to its credit, saw fit to allow him to retain his scholarship.

None of this is groundbreaking news, but it is something to ponder the next time you're watching Little Johnny dart around the ice with visions of an NHL career in your head.

Ken Campbell's Cuts appears Mondays only on The Hockey News.com.

One of THN’s senior writers, Ken Campbell gives you insight and opinion on the world of hockey like no one else. Subscribe to The Hockey News to get Ken's expertise delivered to you every issue.

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