For hundreds, if not thousands, of minor hockey players throughout Canada and the United States who dream of one day playing professional hockey, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Major Junior draft is the first big step in that direction.
Each year, the three Major Junior hockey leagues that make up the CHL — the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) — draft the best second-year Bantam players from their respective catchment areas. Players in the WHL are eligible for the draft in the calendar year in which they turn 15 years old. For the OHL and QMJHL, a player must be 16.
In the WHL — where the process is sometimes called the Bantam Draft — teams can select eligible players from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Yukon, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
In the OHL’s draft — officially called the OHL Priority Selection — teams can draft players from Ontario, as well as from the U.S. states Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York, and a few other designated U.S. states east of the Mississippi River.
In the QMJHL, draftees come from Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, as well as the U.S. region of New England, which includes Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Under CHL rules, the selected players — should they sign with the team that drafts them — cannot play full-time in any of the three member leagues until they turn 16. However, in the OHL and QMJHL, there have been exemptions made available to 15-year-olds in cases of “exceptional” player status.
Of course, while some of the players drafted each year go on to successful junior careers — and sometimes even move on to the National Hockey League (NHL) or other professional circuits — many of those selected in the Major Junior draft choose instead to play within the Junior A (Tier II) or Junior B (Tier III) leagues.
It’s a very tough decision for many young players, as they must decide on their on-ice futures before they’ve finished high school. Players who choose to play Major Junior in the WHL, OHL or QMJHL are paid a small monthly stipend, classifying them as professionals in the eyes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which only allows amateur players among its hockey ranks. Therefore, any young player hoping to play college hockey in the United States will have to pass up the Major Junior leagues in favour of Junior A or Junior B leagues, which do not pay their players and funnel hundreds of talents to the college hockey ranks each year.
And while those who play Major Junior hockey render themselves ineligible for playing within the NCAA, Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) allows players to play at Canadian colleges and universities once their Major Junior careers have ended.
Both routes have their advantages and disadvantages, so for most young players eyeing a pro career, the choice is simply a personal one. On one hand, it’s often said that the style of play — not to mention the often grueling travel — of the CHL best prepares players for the NHL. On the other hand, the Junior A–NCAA route often gives players more time to develop, both on the ice and off, not to mention a free education if a scholarship is offered.
Both paths have produced a fair share of talented hockey players though the years, with current NHL stars like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Shea Weber going the Major Junior route, and others such as Ryan Kesler, Jonathan Toews and recent Stanley Cup–winning goalie Jonathan Quick having come up through the college ranks.
And for young players, don’t forget that not being selected at all in the Major Junior draft does not mean the end of your career — far from it, in fact. Some of the best players in Major Junior — or in the NHL for that matter — were passed over in their final season of Major Junior draft eligibility, only to blossom in the years that followed.
Boston Bruins’ winger Milan Lucic is a prime example. In his second year of Bantam hockey, the Vancouver native was passed over by each WHL team in the 2003 Major Junior draft, but rather than give up — which he briefly considered — he played Junior A hockey instead, before working his way up to a starring role with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants.
In Lucic’s case, as will be the case with hundreds of players who follow in his footsteps, the Major Junior draft was not a last chance to play Major Junior hockey, simply a first opportunity.