Almost on a nightly basis while watching NHL games, it seems like at some point or another the announcers talk about a certain player. Most of the time it’s to talk about how well one of the superstars playing, and rightfully so, they deserve that kind of attention. On the other end, it seems like it’s becoming a common occurrence to hear them talk about a guy like Joel Ward, Tyler Johnson or Antti Niemi. What do all of these guys have in common? If you’re going with the obvious answer, yes all of them are in the midst of a successful NHL career but aside from that, those three players among hundreds others all went undrafted to the NHL.
Of course it’s a feel good story when you hear about a player who defied all odds if that’s how you want to put it but what people might be missing is that it’s actually been more common than you think. What about names like Belfour, Oates, Cujo? I wouldn’t be lying to you if I told you that list of hall of famers all went undrafted and well, it obviously didn’t seem to matter. The same can be said for Major Junior hockey as well, whether it’s OHL, WHL, QMJHL, but I’m going to keep the focus on the OHL simply because it’s what most of you relate to when thinking of Major Junior hockey.
What I aim to talk about throughout this article is that yes getting drafted is a tremendous accomplishment but more importantly, not getting drafted does not by any means mean that it’s the end of the road. For those who may not be familiar with the Ontario Hockey League draft, kids get selected during their minor-midget year, at the age of 15. There are 15 rounds, and if you’re not selected in your first year of eligibility, you can’t attend an OHL camp that fall because you re-enter the draft the following season. If once again the player is passed up as a 16 year old, he then becomes a free agent and can get invited or picked up by any of 20 OHL teams. After being drafted by Sudbury in the 10th round back in 2010, 20 goalies had been drafted before me, including one Subdury selected in the 4th round. I can remember as an excited 15 year old being drafted, I was quickly brought back to reality or so I thought. Even though I was drafted, there was no chance I would ever dawn an OHL jersey, right? It just seemed impossible when you broke down the simple facts.
Looking back now, I can put into perspective what an undrafted player might be thinking. At the young age of 15, it’s hard not to see your hockey career all depend on a draft. Too many kids have it engraved in their heads that because they don’t get drafted, there’s no longer anything to work for. Of course it’s a dream come true to be picked and it boosts your motivation and pride as a hockey player but what I want to shed light on is that realistically, getting drafted or not is a more irrelevant than you think.
I don’t mean irrelevant as in your chances are just as good if you’re not drafted, but there are more pros is being passed over than you would think.
First of all, the average age for a player to crack an OHL team is 17, and any parent, coach or former player can defend that the development and maturity levels that a young player goes through from the age of 15 to 17 is huge. Teams select players at the age of 15 mostly based on what they see at the time, how they perform when the scouts see them, etc. but because the OHL is such a prestigious and competitive league, teams don’t rely so much on their drafts anymore, but now have more and more people out there to find the best players possible at the time being.
I ended up playing an extra year of midget AAA hockey as a 16 year old taking an even more extended route to the junior hockey world. After midget hockey, opportunities are endless as to what a player can do in terms of what’s next. There are a number of junior leagues out there ranging from junior “C” to Junior “A” that develop players and help them move on to bigger and better things. I will forever be thankful to have had the opportunity to play junior “B” in Stratford for a season and I give a tremendous amount of credit to the Cullitons organization for doing just that, helping me develop and move on to bigger and better things.
Despite the experiences I was fortunate to have, going undrafted for some can be a blessing in disguise. As mentioned, a players development is most evident between 15 and 17 , which in some cases can see teenagers see a teenager grow several inches, and grow into a more solid frame. This kind of transformation isn’t as uncommon as you think but once again, if this doesn’t happen to you, it doesn’t mean it’s over!
Physical traits of course do help, but that didn’t stop Alex Debrincat from proving a point that there is more to a hockey player than his size. Here’s a kid that is 5’7, 160lbs, has 44 goals and 86 points this season, is projected to go in the first round of the NHL draft this year and still somehow got passed over in back to back OHL drafts? That’s just one of many examples that there’s always something to prove.
I did say that it’s sometimes a blessing in disguise and you might still be wondering how so because there’s no doubt much more than just your physical traits that contribute to someones next destination. When drafted, you have two years to prove to one team and one team only that you can crack their squad. You only have one team checking in on you and following your progress, development, success, etc. Think of it, would you rather have only one team looking at you OR as many as 20 teams potentially thinking of taking a chance on you? There’s a reason why OHL teams have between 5 to 10 scouts working for them all over Ontario to cover as much ground as possible. And if those five to ten scouts don’t see you, you can bet that they know someone whether you’re in the Ontario or elsewhere who has.
The grounds of gaining exposure are at an all time high and aren’t slowing down any time soon. By telling you there’s more people than just scouts out there watching, you shouldn’t see it as added pressure but instead more incentive to prepare and perform every single day. Word of mouth is a crazy thing and what one person sees can easily be translated differently to others. So if you burn your bridges with one person, you’re actually burning them with many others. This obviously must come from within but by giving yourself every opportunity you can to keep as many options open as possible, you never know when someone will remember the good things you once did down the road and give you a call.
Is Major Junior the only successful route to take?
Of course not. It may be easy for young players to believe so, growing up in Ontario you’re really only exposed to one league of elite hockey, that being the OHL. Although that thought is understandable don’t sell yourself short, there are other routes available.
The NCAA is gaining more and more attention and you see this from the players who are graduating from a Division I school to pursue pro options. As you get older, you gain more knowledge about hockey in the States and it does become more evident that it is just as good of an option than Major Junior Hockey. Ryan Kesley and Johnny Gaudreau are prime examples of players who excelled in academics and evidently hockey who are now playing in the NHL. The fact that players come out of college at the age of 24 or 25 and are that much more developed than say a 20 year old who just graduated from the OHL, it does make a difference. Not only are they coming out of NCAA as a better hockey player but the majority of the time, they’re coming out with a degree as well which Major Junior players don’t really have the opportunity to get due to age and the way the schedule works. All of this ties into the “endless opportunities” I mentioned when talking about being undrafted. Because of restrictions and rules, it doesn’t make much sense for schools to recruit major junior players so where do they go? Junior “B” and Junior “A” leagues are prime breeding grounds for NCAA schools and it just goes to show that not getting drafted can be a blessing in disguise in the long run.
From the New Liskeard area, Mitchell McCrank could tell you first hand how not being selected in the OHL draft affected him and the following process that lead him to playing NCAA Division I hockey at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. After playing 2 years of Midget AAA, he found himself with the Stratford Cullitons (only a year before myself).
After proving himself as an elite player, not only did he gain interest from OHL clubs but from NCAA schools as well and now a decision had to be made.
“Not getting drafted obviously sucked and is no doubt something I wanted to achieve but I had the right people to help me see the other side of things that there were other possibilities out there which is basically how I started talking to Stratford and that’s when things kind of took off for me.”
McCrank says although the OHL offers were tempting, he decided to take the college route.
“Yeah I had the chance to possibly play with Barrie but they weren’t giving me any guarantees. Whereas Canisius offered me a full scholarship for four more years of high competitive hockey. Canisius wanted me early right out of high school and said id fit in on the power play and get lots of ice time. The coach Dave smith was also a big factor. He was really a nice guy and a Stratford alumni so to me, the decision was easy in terms of developing as a player as well as academically.”
McCrank now finds himself at Mohawk College where he is pursuing and extending his education, making the most of his opportunity that Canisius gave him.
To wrap things up, I can’t stress enough over the importance of turning any kind of situation into a good one. Not getting drafted can be heartbreaking and can bring up the thought that it’s over. IT’S NOT! One day does not define you as a hockey player so don’t waste time looking at the players who were chosen and think that they are better than you, look at the person in the mirror and realize that you are better than that person and take each day to prove it. It won’t be long until junior teams are calling and inquiring about you and that moment is one to be just as proud of as being drafted. Take it and run with it!
I just want to wish good luck to all the players and families in the upcoming draft, congrats to those who get selected and to those who don’t, just remember that there’s nothing better than having another reason to prove everyone wrong!
Taylor Dupuis #29