To become an NHL pro it takes a lot of hard work—and a bit of luck
It’s every youth hockey player’s dream to play in the National Hockey League. In fact, one might even say that many a beer league hockey player envisions scoring a goal in front of 18,000 screaming fans, when in reality they’re skating in an otherwise empty rink at 10 o’clock at night.
But did you know that no more than 12% of high school hockey players will even manage to compete at the college (NCAA) level, let alone in the NHL? That’s how tough the demands are on aspiring athletes who wish to make it in the major leagues.
That’s not to say that you or your child cannot become an NHL pro and make it to the Show. With a good support system and the proper instruction on the game—and a little bit of luck along the way—it is possible to turn heads and get noticed as you achieve your dream of playing in the NHL.
We’ve put together a few pointers that may help you along the way, as you try to develop yourself into an elite athlete with NHL potential.
Size Does Matter
Even at a young age, physicality is hugely important when it comes to ice hockey. If you have matured physically to the point that you are a 16-year-old playing in an adult’s body, you could be fast-tracked into the Major Junior circuit. This circuit usually requires you to play for at least two years at a Major Junior level, to exhibit both your skills and your size to the scrutiny of the NHL talent scouts.
After this two-year period you may end up being recruited by an NCAA team, where you will have 4 years of eligibility. You could possibly be drafted by an NHL franchise; in all likelihood, it’s possible to be drafted at 18, but you will probably be sent back to the minors level to play for a further season as a contracted NHL rookie.
The Chance to Prove Yourself
There are many hockey players that are considered “late bloomers” in a physical sense. The harsh reality is that someone registering at a “pint-sized” 5-foot-7 is unlikely to catch the eye of the NHL scouts. Instead, to become an NHL pro many talented players opt to play the long game by enrolling in college and the NCAA programs.
Enrolling in a college program is a tremendous opportunity to hone your hockey skills for a further four years, while gaining an academic education as well. This is an important consideration as it provides you with something to fall back on should you decide not to follow this route, for whatever reason. NHL teams look to graduates through NCAA programs because they have demonstrated their long-term commitment to becoming an elite athlete.
The pinnacle level of the NCAA is Division 1. At this level, you are playing against fully developed athletes. If you are able to shine at the NCAA D-1 level, this is an encouraging sign to the scouts that you will be able to handle the step up to train and play at the National Hockey League level. More than half of all “impact” rookies are signed undrafted from the NCAA.
Coping With the Media Spotlight
The eyes of the sports media are very much focused on the NHL. It’s one of the major league sports, with the leading broadcast networks like NBC, ESPN and FOX still the go-to platforms for news and analysis. The latter has recently launched its own licensed sports betting portal, featuring competitive NHL betting odds across all 82 regular-season games and the postseason right, up to the Stanley Cup Finals.
With so much coverage of the NHL, as well as the NCAA D-1 level, you need to be mentally prepared for the scrutiny as much as the physical challenge. If the thrill of competition and bettering yourself motivates you, there is every chance you will thrive when you reach the upper echelons of the sport.
The NHL Contract: What To Expect
Speaking of the upper echelons, it’s important to discuss the world of first-time NHL contracts for fledgling professionals. Typically, there are three potential contracts that an NHL team will offer a rookie. The first is a “One-Way” contract, which guarantees a player’s salary for an agreed-upon period, no matter whether they play the season in the NHL or the Juniors. A One-Way contract is usually reserved for the hottest prospects, who may be ready to make an impact in the big pros.
The more likely scenario for NHL rookies is that they will be offered either a “Two-Way” or “Three-Way” contract. A Two-Way deal guarantees you a base salary if you play the season in the NHL or an alternative base salary if you end up playing in the minors. Naturally, the latter salary is greatly reduced compared to the NHL salary.
A Three-Way contract may be offered if there is the potential for you to ply your trade in either the AHL (American Hockey League) or the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) too. You will be given a tiered salary depending on whether you play at the NHL, AHL or ECHL level.
The bottom line for any aspiring NHL pro is to enjoy playing the game. If you are passionate about improving and developing as a hockey player, and you have advisors that are invested in your interests—not simply in lining their own pockets—there is every chance you could achieve your goal.