NCAA or CHL? It Depends on the Player

BY PAUL SVOBODA

Hockey fans who follow Craig Button on TSN’s NHL broadcasts may not always agree with him, but there’s no way they can challenge his credentials.

Talk about bloodlines.

Button, 57, is the son of the late Jack Button, who created and first managed the NHL’s original Central Scouting Bureau. As TSN’s Director of Scouting, the younger Button knows his stuff. He was born for it.

After helping the Dallas Stars capture a Stanley Cup title in 1999, Button eventually left Texas — where he was the team’s scouting director — to become GM of the Calgary Flames. These days, he travels North America — and Europe — scouting for TSN, where he shares his wealth of hockey knowledge with NHL fans.

With the 2020 OHL draft completed, including the selection of several Quinte AAA Red Devils graduates, Button recently spoke  about the options offered by major junior leagues to young players — and their families — compared to alternatives available through NCAA U.S. college programs.

Which is best?

“Two things are paramount,” said Button. “Number one, to understand what the development path looks like for you as an individual player. Most players need more time, not less. That’s a fact. There are players who are so good that going to the OHL at 16 seems to be a path that serves their development best. But for the majority, the vast majority will need more time. Understanding your own path, maturation, what it looks like — that is number one.

“Number two, evaluate what each option offers you. What does Option OHL offer you? What does Option NCAA offer you? You can evaluate what you are able to and what may be best suited to you.”

Button allows that the NCAA offers more freedom of choice than the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), which is the governing body of the Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and OHL. In most cases concerning U.S. college offers, players can negotiate with more than one school whereas the CHL’s individual drafts mean a player’s rights automatically become property of one team only. That said, CHL draft picks can still shoulder a certain amount of leverage.

“As a development situation, one of the beautiful things about NCAA is you get to pick where you want to go,” said Button. “I tell parents if you don’t want to go someplace, be up front about it. Just say, ‘I want to go here, to the OHL, but I am not coming to your team.’ There is nowhere that says because you were drafted by so-and-so, that you are obligated to go there. If you don’t think it’s a good situation, don’t consider it.”

Players must also determine how serious they are about education, said Button, a situation that for junior prospects several years ago was far less important than it is in most cases today.

“If you’re not a good student, then you don’t want to be a student-athlete and the NCAA is not good for you,” said Button. “If you’re interested in studies, though, it doesn’t mean the CHL can’t offer you education too. It’s about understanding the demands of each. How can you grow and develop? Who are the people involved?”

Button bristles when people try to tell him that only one route — either the CHL or the NCAA — offers the ideal package for a young player seeking the ultimate in hockey development. One direction is not necessarily better or worse than the other, he says.

“I will say this to my dying day,” said Button. “If anyone tells you one path is better, run for the hills. There is nothing that says one is better than the other. There is only one thing I will guarantee, though, and that is not doing your investigative work is a mistake and that will hurt you.”

Today, more than ever, parents need to be fully engaged when deciding where is the best destination for their young hockey prospect, said Button.

“If an organization is unscrupulous, that is up to you to investigate,” he said. “That is incumbent on parents and I can’t emphasize this enough. I say this to parents: Would you, if your 15-year-old came home and said they were going away up north, 200 kilometres away, not ask who they were going with? Just a bunch of buddies? Who is supervising? Would you as a parent do that? No way. But when it comes to hockey, we let our kids go. That’s a mistake by parents.

Again, you have to have an environment where you are maturing and developing, not just physically but emotionally and mentally too. Being comfortable and confident.”

Sometimes, said Button, not sending your child anywhere is a viable option too. Some minor midget CHL draft choices will benefit from staying home to play major midget for one season before tackling the rigours of major junior hockey, he says.

“It drives me crazy when I hear that so-and-so doesn’t have anything more to prove, it’s too bad that they have to go back (to AAA minor hockey),” he said. “There is always something you can learn. If you’re going from midget to play junior, keep this in mind, the next levels are very demanding and if you’re not ready, you’ll get chewed up and spit out. Be ready. Prepare yourself. You might score 50 goals — so what? Have you been a captain? Are you mature enough to handle a different role?”

NCAA proponents argue that the U.S. college system of fewer regular season games (34) and more practices is of greater benefit to the development of young players. Those who are pro-CHL, say playing a 68-game regular season schedule provides a much faster route to development with more competition and pressure situations.

Button stops short of suggesting one system is stronger than the other in terms of individual player development, but hints that a balance between games and practices is preferable. It’s also something extremely difficult to achieve in the CHL, due to the economics of operating a major junior franchise.

“You don’t get revenue from practices,” said Button. “So how do you change the longstanding economic model? When I hear the argument about the 68 games, I shoot it down. I watch games all across the continent and of those 68 games teams play, 24 are garbage.”

For that, Button blames the sometimes onerous travel schedules to which CHL teams are forced to adhere. Especially 3-in-3 weekends, he says, with a team playing three road games in less than three days.

“The 3-in-3, you travel six hours to get there, you’re trying to manage the risk of injuries, you’re just trying to get through that (last) game,” said Button. “Sunday afternoons, because of the weekend schedule. Some leagues have tried to reduce games, but anyone who says you’re playing 68 games, well, 24 of those games are garbage.”

Again, says Button, there’s no easy answer. And each individual player, and his parents, must decide what type of balance will work best for them.

“There is no perfect organization,” said Button. “Not everybody is perfect. You’re going to have people take advantage. NCAA schools take advantage by putting players on a ‘practice squad.’ You’re not going to travel with the team. It works both ways.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Last season, nearly 50 per cent of all players on active NHL rosters at the start of the campaign hailed from CHL franchises. The number of NHL players who had gone through NCAA programs was 33 per cent.

LEADERS OF THE PACK

In a story that appeared in The Hockey News in 2019, it was revealed that players from the London Knights had played in more NHL games since the 2005 lockout than any other CHL franchise. Among NCAA programs, the University of Wisconsin was No. 1.

BOTTOM LINE

Less than five per cent of all players competing at the elite levels of amateur hockey — CHL or NCAA — ever crack an NHL roster.

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