In a continuing look at the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, this parent of a player currently in the system speaks about the process and the dilemmas he sees. — ed.
In early May, my son accepted an offer to play for the USNTDP next season. His decision to leave a top-flight New England prep school, from both an academic and hockey perspective, was difficult. However, the USNTDP afforded a greater opportunity to develop his hockey skills and provide for a quality U.S. high school education while continuing to leave open the U.S. college opportunity.
Another significant factor was that he would be playing for the U.S. National Team and representing his country in international competitions.
Like several other signed USNTDP players, my son was a featured player in the OHL Priority Selection Guide and was drafted by a major junior team. The opportunity to pursue a major junior hockey career was offered, but he elected to honor his signed commitment to the USNTDP.
All players at this elite level strive to eventually play hockey in the NHL. At 16, making life/career decisions as to whether to opt for the major junior route or the U.S. junior/college route is difficult.
There is a general belief that major junior hockey provides the quickest path to developing into a potential NHL player. There is also an opinion shared by many in the U.S. that opting for college hockey following the USNTDP can provide the best of both worlds — high level competition with the opportunity of earning your college degree. Based on the recent NHL draft, it appears many NHL teams believe in this philosophy.
Complicating the young player’s decision is the fact that many major junior teams have improved their college packages (post major junior)especially to the top players, in order to head off the U.S. college hockey option. Reportedly, major junior teams also provide substantial “under the table” incentives for top-level players who sign.
The NCAA, on the other hand, has done little to increase the number of full scholarship offers (18 per 22-player team). Many top hockey schools such as the Ivies can only provide financial aid based on need. Furthermore, the NCAA’s inflexible policies regarding a return to amateur hockey status negate any real option for a player who initially pursues major junior. This is the case even for 16-year-olds, who have yet to attend college; it’s during college when a young man typically expresses the desire to return to amateur status.
The NCAA must consider re-examining its position and adapting to the changing hockey dynamics which would allow young men who want to attend college and play hockey some realistic option of returning from major junior. The issue should be what is best for the student athlete, not some turf battle between professional sports organizations and the NCAA governing body.
Another complicating factor is that most top players are assisted in their decision process by unpaid family advisors who are, in fact professional hockey agents. Obviously, when a player opts for major junior, the family advisor becomes an agent and receives a fee for his “professional” services. Reportedly, some agents also receive compensation from the team for “getting the deal done.” In light of the looming NHL collective bargaining expiration, most hockey experts believe there is a strong possibility for a protracted lockout. This would leave many hockey agents hanging without much income except from minor hockey and major junior contracts.
Hence, is there an incentive to push players for major junior now?
One must also realize that the hockey “advisor” earns no income while the player remains an amateur at the USNTDP or in college.
Also, many advisors put in long hours and provide free advice to players, hoping for a payday later. Since there is no written agreement for advisors, the player could switch at any time before turning professional, leaving the family advisor out in the cold when the big payday arrives.
The most disturbing trend in this selection process is that of players and their parents or legal guardians who sign commitment letters to the USNTDP and then back out of the commitment to sign with a major junior team. To think many were not acting upon advice from the advisor/agent is foolish, and to think these elite players with top advisors were not aware of the potential major junior options and financial incentives before they signed with the USNTDP would be extremely naive.
As Moe Mantha, the head of USNTDP has stated, your signature should mean something. Using the US National Program as “leverage” — while an option — is not the honest way to go about your business. The bottom line is that players should honor an initial commitment, especially one to the US National Program. If the major junior team really wants a top player, the offer will certainly be there the following season.
Any player at this elite level would be foolish not to re-evaluate and consider options at end of each season as to what is best for his development and future. This is especially true now that players can opt into the NHL draft at 18 without losing college eligibility.
Hockey is a passionate, great game which is being clouded by the significant money and apparent turf battles being waged for our youngest and brightest stars. As such, the state of the amateur and professional game is troubling.
These young men are the future of U.S. hockey. Unfortunately, it appears that to some, words such as honesty, integrity, and commitment carry little value, even with our US National Program. Talent and skills are part of the equation, but character matters. Maybe, in some way the US Program is better off understanding what a player is made up of inside before he arrives, rather than dealing with it later.