Detroit's Brendan Smith hails from Toronto but played NCAA hockey (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
Both circuits are great at producing NHL talent, but they are also in direct competition for said players. That makes education and recruitment paramount for the teams and leagues.
It's a Wednesday night in the suburbs between Toronto and Hamilton and Nate Ewell of College Hockey Inc. is busy signing in players for a showcase in front of NCAA coaches representing four different conferences. Even though some of these 15-year-olds had competed in the pressure-packed OHL Cup final two days before, it's almost impossible to keep a hockey-mad teen off the ice and four teams worth of players have shown up.
If any of these kids can be educated on the merits of college hockey in the U.S., then the night is a success, because recruiting the best teen talent around can be a tough business.
College Hockey Inc. is an educational group that promotes the NCAA game and helps potential players understand what they need to do to be eligible for the college ranks. According to their stats, more players from Ontario suited up for Division 1 schools last season than any other Canadian province or American state (Minnesota edged them this season) – so nights like this are important for the coaches who show up. Because major junior's Ontario League still gets the majority of the best home-grown talent, not to mention some of the big names from Michigan and New York.
“It helps us get in front of a lot of kids that we might not get in front of on a regular basis," said Western Michigan assistant coach Ben Barr. "There are certain areas of the continent where we have a hard time getting our message out and these events, in a place like Toronto, are a great thing.”
In a way, college coaches are recruiting with one hand tied behind their back: playing even one game of major junior wrecks your college eligibility, but CHL teams are more than happy to take on players from the college ranks – Duncan Keith went from Michigan State to WHL Kelowna, as one high-profile example.
Not only that, but NCAA regulations stipulate that a coach can't contact a player until January of their Grade 10 year (though players can contact coaches whenever they want).
And players enter major junior much earlier than they would in college, since you only have to be 16 to play in the CHL (younger if you're a phenom like Aaron Ekblad or Connor McDavid), while the youngest NCAA players – such as Michigan's Zach Werenski and Boston College's Noah Hanifin – are 17 and those players are as rare as the Ekblads and McDavids. Because you have to be finished high school in order to play college, naturally.
What all of this means is that NCAA coaches need to hit the trail early, hence the showcase for 15-year-olds.
“It’s an opportunity to see some young players that maybe I haven’t seen before or I want to follow up with," said University of New Hampshire associate coach Glenn Stewart. "And it’s good for the kids to have exposure to the coaches and maybe ask some questions about the college process.”
Robert Proner was one of the biggest names at the Toronto showcase, both literally and figuratively. At nearly 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds already, the defensively intimidating blueliner for the Toronto Titans has a great reach and solid mobility. He will likely be a high pick in the OHL draft this summer, but he came out nonetheless.
“It was a good opportunity to skate with some good players and get educated about other options," Proner said. "I came to one of these earlier in the year, too. Both routes are good options.”
But the NCAA recruiters have to play both offense and defense. While Canadians such as Mark Jankowski and Warren Foegele have gone to college recently, more high-profile Americans seem to be heading to major junior. St. Louis Blues first-rounder Tommy Vannelli and 2015 prospect Paul Bittner are two recent examples, for instance.
The fact players are more savvy now at a younger age ups the stakes. With the CHL now promoting the educational packages it offers to players more, while keeping the pro-style schedule of major junior, there's a lot to think about. And again, you can get to the CHL faster.
"Players at 14 or 15 are making decisions," said WHL commissioner Ron Robison. "That's really been the reason top players in the U.S. have come to us."
When the players weren't on the ice Wednesday night, they were provided with a presentation by College Hockey Inc. that gave them some stark realities – very few players actually make the NHL – as well as some pretty good silver linings. For the parents in attendance, one of the most beneficial would be the fact 92 percent of NCAA hockey players graduate with a degree, the highest of any sport in the system.
Will the teens in attendance buy into that combination of school and high-level hockey, or will they choose major junior, which still produces the majority of NHL first-rounders and also offers schooling packages?
That's the debate for all aspiring hockey stars and it's not going to end soon.