The pathway to college hockey has never seen so many differences of opinion and detours. Make no mistake, what I am about to say is an absolute certainty.
The United States Hockey League, North American Hockey League, and British Columbia Hockey League are producing the most NCAA Division I players.
If Division I is the absolute goal, then the remaining leagues from both the United States and Canada, should be considered nothing more than steps to one of the three mentioned leagues.
Yes, that is a hard reality pill to swallow, but it is what it is.
“These facts are critically important for every player, parent and coach to understand,” said Kevin McLaughlin, USA Hockey’s Assistant Executive Director, Hockey Development. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Focus on your own development. You have your own, unique path.”
As the path the college hockey is being navigated, players must be realistic with their expectations. If the player is going into the final year of junior eligibility, and still in one of the lesser leagues, it’s time to focus collegiate options on Division III or even club hockey programs.
There’s that reality pill again.
"I had the aspirations of playing D1 hockey, I think every high level player should. When you get down to it, you have to realize that there are only 61 D1 schools and players from all over the world trying to get those spots," Janesville Jets Associate Head Coach Lenny Childs said Tuesday. "Having the chance to play D3 Hockey, was a dream. The D3 level is something that players overlook sometimes. There are D1 players that play D3 Hockey. Its not easy, and not even a done deal that you will succeed in it. If you think you will come into D3 hockey and be a first line guy, you have to check yourself at the door. You will play older and more experienced players that played high level junior hockey."
The Division III and American Collegiate Hockey Association levels of play do not necessarily mean the end of professional hockey opportunities. No ACHA players have made the jump to the National Hockey League in the 30 years of their existence, and only a few from NCAA Division III have been able to do so either. Many others have been able to contribute in other professional leagues here and in Europe.
There’s one thing that most players with collegiate hockey experience will tell us about their time at school; It was some of their fondest memories in the game.
"I had the change to play right away as a freshman and that is something I wanted to do. I wanted to find a role right away and I wouldn’t have had that chance at a D1 program," Childs added. "The NAHL prepared me for college hockey. Its grueling, school is of importance, and you have to be ready to compete everyday."
Almost every player we come into contact with is focused on the Division I level of college hockey and is more concerned about that goal then the actual path to get there. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication, character, and work to even reach the door of such opportunities. And that is before the statistical realities come into play. Academic numbers are just as important as goals, assists, and points.
Then there are the financial realities. Oftentimes the family’s ability to pay for the school will give prospects an edge over others that require a lot of financial assistance. Coaches do not want to talk about these realities, but they are there none the less.
Like water, hockey prospects will generally land with a junior program based on their talent and opportunity. If that team is outside of the above mentioned three, players must up their game and fight to prove they are worthy of elevated opportunities.
The bottom line is simple; players have to accept their reality or do something to change it.