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How Stuff Works - College Hockey Edition, Part 3: NCAA and Junior Hockey

As part of a continuing series, please enjoy this attempt at pretending to know about junior hockey.

Thank You Terry

(Ed. - Some of you may remember IcersGuy from Front Page posting a while back, and since the current BSD staff lacks the requisite hockey knowledge to write intelligently on the matter, we've asked IG to once again provide us with some quality content. He has graciously accepted, so we hope you enjoy this added coverage. - JJ)

How Stuff Works - College Hockey Edition, Part 1: Varsity (NCAA) vs. Club (ACHA) Hockey
How Stuff Works - College Hockey Edition, Part 2: NCAA D1 Conference Breakdown

In a stroke of luck and (mis)fortune, there is a recent Penn State-related story that will help introduce the world of Junior Hockey and it's relation to the NCAA.

In early December, word came down that 2015 recruit Conor Garland was leaving his USHL team and heading to the QMJHL. Players moving around and jump between teams/leagues is quite common and not that surprising. Moving to the QMJHL means that Garland is highly thought of as a prospect, as the league is one of the better junior hockey leagues in North America. The downside, however, is that the QMJHL is considered a "Major Junior Hockey" league and is considered a professional league in the eyes of the NCAA. Once a player plays a single game for a QMJHL team, they are considered ineligible for play in the NCAA. In short, while Garland takes a huge step forward in playing in the NHL, Penn State lost a high-quality recruit. And thus is the beast of collegiate hockey.

Unlike most sports, hockey is not a straight line from high school to the NCAA. Colleges and universities are not sending their coaches to regional high schools to scout, but rather to tournaments made up of junior hockey league teams based across the United States and Canada. As for what junior hockey exactly is, well, in short, it provides an organized way for hockey players to get experience beyond what their high school or prep school teams might be able to provide, as well as an opportunity for growth prior to making a college commitment. A number of these leagues - especially the top tier leagues - are the major stepping stones in North America to helping players make the jump to the NHL. Each league/oversight association has their own specific rules about how their leagues are run, so I will try to explain a lot of this in generic terms. Let me start with the description from USA Hockey:

What is Junior Hockey?

Junior hockey is the pinnacle of the skill development program of USA Hockey. It is availabe to male athletes who are 20 & under as of the 31st day of December in the season of completion.

The program is available to high school students and graduates who seek a greater or different challenge than that which might be available through their prep school team, high school varsity or club team, or area midget teams. The principal purpose of this development program is to prepare the athlete for career advancement either in a collegiate or professional opportunity.

That second paragraph sums things up nicely, and the first paragraph gives an idea as to the age ranges. For USA Hockey, the ages range typically from 16 to 20, with a rare 15-year old making it onto a team (rare, because the results would be similar to what you would expect seeing a high school senior entering the NFL draft). 20 sort of becomes the "do something" age. If a career at the professional level doesn't seem imminent (or probable), the collegiate route is left open to the players. Also, if a player is playing at the junior hockey level when they turn 21, and then commit to a college, they lose a year of eligibility at the D1 level; if they "enroll full-time at a college that doesn't have a hockey program" prior to their 21st birthday, they can use the transfer rules to maintain all 4 years of NCAA eligibility. If you followed all that, I apologize for the blood gushing out of your nose right now. Moving along...

What is the Purpose of Junior Hockey?

The purpose of Junior hockey is really two-fold:

  1. To provide an opportunity for players in this age group to play organized hockey; and
  2. To improve and develop the skills and abilities of the participants, including the players, coaches, and officials.
What are the Goals of Junior Hockey?
  1. Skill Development: To provide talented young men with the opportunity to develop competitively in an organized, structured, and supervised environment;
  2. Quality Coaching: To provide considerable training time, quality coaching, and concerned supervision;
  3. Social Maturity: To provide players with a healthy, constructive environment in which to develop socially;
  4. Educational Advancement: To provide assistance and opportunities for the accomplishment of the participant's educational goals;
  5. Recruiting Exposure: To provide players with exposure to collegiate and professional scouts and recruiters;
  6. Advanced Competition: To provide players with exposure to national and international competition;
  7. Protection of Amateur Status: To protect, most importantly, the amateur status of all participants under the rules and guidelines established by the International Ice Hockey Federation, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, the NCAA, the NAIA, and the National Federation of High Schools

The rest of that is more or less the fluffy organizational stuff. A few things of note in that second list are the educational advancement, recruiting exposure, and protection of amateur status. All three of these play a role in the way we as Penn State and college hockey followers understand the impact of junior hockey on the NCAA.

Here's how the entire process (kinda) works. Hockey players are recruited by the teams - either through prior contact and recruiting by the teams, or through the tryouts or combines each team/league holds (some are open, some are by invite only). Teams can then offer a tender contract - think of it as an NLI - to players, up to a league-set maximum. If a player does not get a tender offer, they can enter the league's draft. If they don't get drafted, they can either restart the process, or go to another league. The thing about junior hockey is that, even throughout this process, players are allowed to tryout for teams in other leagues, even if they have a tender offer from one league. So of they have signed their tender offer with the Janesville Jets of the NAHL, they can continue to tryout and accept an offer from the USHL's Muskeegon Lumberjacks. (Naturally, they would have to ultimately pick one team to officially commit to and play for.)

There are some other, basic living questions that certainly come up as you read through this process. How are the players compensated? The teams cover the basic expenses of travel and equipment. No salary can be given, as that would violate NCAA rules. Where do they live? All are given the opportunity to live with host families - families that have been researched by the leagues to make sure they are quality hosts (much like foreign exchange students). Depending on the league, players and their families may be required to pay a monthly amount as a room and board fee to these families. Where do they go to school? The players who have not graduated high school attend schools in the area of the team for whom they play. Players who have graduated high school can further their education locally, or they are encouraged to take on a part-time job.

With those details out of the way, the next big question is: What does this mean for recruiting for a college hockey program? A lot of it is self-explanatory from the details - recruiting is based heavily on getting to see the junior hockey leagues and teams play (mostly through tournaments where multiple teams can be scouted in one weekend). Since players can move from team to team (via trades or the draft), and from league to league (more on the tiers/leagues in a later post), trying to keep track of the player and their quality of the competition can be quite the task. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of all this is that player can commit to a college for many years in the future. A 16-year-old can commit to a college for the year after they would graduate from high school. Or, because of the 20-year-old rule, he can delay for an extra year or two, to get the maximum amount of years out of his career. (The delay could also be to wait for a better line-up, in the hopes of playing more/sooner.) As an example of the "many years out" commitments, Penn State has one commit for 2014 (freshman year would be 2014-15 season), and four commits for 2015. If you think 6 months is a long time to wait for signing day, try waiting out 3 years!

In an attempt to summarize all this, junior hockey is a major role player in the world of hockey and in college hockey. Most aspiring hockey players jump to junior hockey in the USA or Canada while they are still in high school, and use it as the platform to the NHL or to the college ranks. Because they are separate leagues, junior hockey operates much like professional leagues, with set teams across the country, playing full seasons and post-seasons. The main difference, obviously, is that the players are not paid (as that would make them ineligible for the NCAA).

Colleges use junior hockey as their main source for recruiting (versus high schools, as is the norm for most other college sports). Junior hockey goes includes players from ages 16 to 20, and players can verbally commit to a college at any point during their junior hockey careers. This means that a player may commit and join the team the next season (if they've graduated high school), or they can commit for some year in the future (usually prior to their 21st birthday).

There are a few other things to note (players can jump from an NCAA program to a junior hockey team, back to a new NCAA team without losing a year of eligibility) that help make junior hockey even more confusing. But hopefully this has helped introduce you to this unique and very important part of collegiate hockey.

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