‘Tis the season...
No, it’s not Christmas -- but instead the annual recruiting rush in the Canadian university hockey ranks. As CHL and Jr A seasons are coming to an end, players that have exhausted their Jr Hockey eligibility are eagerly looking into university options for the season ahead.
Most often, playing hockey at the post-secondary level assumes to involve the NCAA ranks, where North Dakota, Boston College, and 58 other Division 1 programs exist in high profile. Not to mention the 75+ options at the Division 3 level. But what about the post-secondary hockey options in our own backyard? In Calgary alone there exists two CIS programs (Mount Royal and UofC) and one ACAC program (SAIT). Extend that further within the province of Alberta, and you include 2 more CIS programs (UofA and Lethbridge) as well as 8 other ACAC programs. If the NCAA path doesn’t work -- either the phone didn’t ring or by playing in the CHL you were deemed ineligible -- below are some things to consider as you pursue a post-secondary hockey option north of the border.
1) The level of play is extremely underrated.
Next time you are at the Saddledome or Rexall watching a WHL game, take a strong look at the 19 and 20 year old players. Most are the definitive leaders of their teams, with the exception of one or two young phenoms to be found on most rosters. Once you’ve identified these older players, next consider that very few of them will make it to the NHL -- it’s just the cold hard facts. So where do many of them go to continue playing at a high level? Yes, some go play semi-pro in North America and Europe. But many play university hockey in Canada. And for those that do, it’s often the highest level of hockey they will ever play in their life.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a 1st year CIS player (who was a leader on his Jr team the year prior, as well as a top point producer) explain how surprised they are at the level of play in the CIS. It’s fast, it’s physical, it’s a very detailed style of hockey. Consider this: most 1st year players in the CIS (and the ACAC) are 21 years of age. Many rookies in Jr hockey are 16 years of age, some 17. Who do you think is more mature, more refined, stronger, faster -- more complete as a player? CIS programs across Canada fill their rosters with the best players from the previous year in Jr hockey. Take for example the storied program at the University of Alberta, where hanging in ‘ole Clare Drake Arena are 15 CIS National Championship banners. (A CIS record amount). All of those championship rosters were filled with former WHL and Jr A team captains and league all-stars.
My advice: get to a CIS game as soon as possible. For one, the cost of a ticket is usually less than a Jr hockey game. Two, I’ll pay you back the cost of the ticket if you can confidently walk out of the arena and say that isn’t great hockey. And finally three, it will put to bed any notion Jr players have that Canadian university hockey is glorified men’s league.
2) Canadian university hockey programs can give scholarships.
Yes, it’s true. No, I’m not lying.
For whatever reason, history has embedded a notion in the heads of many that receiving a scholarship to play university hockey in Canada is not possible. Not only is it possible, but it happens frequently. It might be the most misunderstood element in the entire process when comparing itself to the NCAA. In the CIS specifically, regulations state that an individual may receive an athletic scholarship to cover (1) the full cost of their annual tuition and (2) compulsory student fees. Where this differs from scholarships awarded to athletes in the NCAA Division 1 ranks is in the area of room and board, which cannot be covered in the CIS. ** Women’s hockey in the CIS has an exception to this rule.
In addition to the athletic scholarship pools that exist within the specific CIS hockey programs, there is also a very strong pool of scholarship money afforded to players in the CHL by way of their Standard Player Agreements. At a very basic level, this Agreement states that for each season a player competes in the CHL, a year of tuition and fees will be covered at the post-secondary level. Therefore, a WHL player with a $6,000 bill to attend the University of British Columbia could have that covered by both the CIS team he is playing for, as well as the WHL team(s) he used to play for. Grand total: $12,000. I’d call that a big win for the student-athlete annually.
Finally, before leaving the topic of scholarships it should be noted that in addition to the pools of money mentioned above, there is a plethora of other financial aid opportunities available to graduating Jr hockey players. For example, there exists scholarships from the leagues themselves, alumni groups, “Friends of the Program” groups, as well as specialized provincial funding for student-athletes at the post-secondary level such as the Jimmy Condon Fund in Alberta.
Bottom line: playing hockey in the CIS can be very affordable, to the point of potentially making you money!
3) University is the best time of your life.
Go ahead, ask your parents. Ask your older siblings and relatives. I’d be amazed if they don’t agree with the statement above.
You are old(er). You are mature (somewhat). You are independent (maybe too much so). From an athletic perspective you have not yet reached your physiological peak, which science regularly debates is the age of 28 for males. And society still strongly believes in education as a necessary development factor for success in life. So take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you, especially when they combine two of life’s greatest offerings: University and Hockey!
It is difficult to debate the fact that the academic component of attending university will pay off in your development as an individual, and in the field in which you study. But from a hockey standpoint, there are hundreds of players each year graduating Junior that still need to develop their game in order to have a legitimate shot at playing in the Pro ranks. CIS can afford that development time. There are tremendous coaches and supporting resources throughout the post-secondary hockey institutions in Canada. A popular example, but to give perspective on the level of coaching and development that often exists: Mike Babcock’s storied coaching career involved stops at Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge in his early years. He won a CIS (then CIAU) Championship with Lethbridge in 1994. In addition, nearly every hockey institution in Canada employs leading professionals in the fields of sports medicine, athletic therapy, sports nutrition, psychology, and strength & conditioning. These are all services for you the student-athlete to take advantage of.
To summarize this post -- strongly consider playing university hockey in Canada. It’s ultra-competitive, ultra-affordable, and could pave the way to a Pro career long after many players think they are a write-off. And if you’re lucky enough to play for a CIS team that travels south in the early months of the season each year, don’t be surprised when you knock off an NCAA Div 1 program or two along the way. ** Keep an eye on the box scores in early October -- these “upsets” are occurring more and more each year.
Director STIX Hockey