By Mitch Brandner, Staff Writer
There are several paths that U.S.-born hockey players can take on their way to the NHL.
The two most prominent paths are the NCAA and the Canadian Hockey League, which includes the Ontario Hockey League. Each path has advantages and disadvantages to these players. Craig Button, a well-known NHL insider, has been a scout for years and has a vast amount of knowledge on the subject of junior hockey.
“It’s an individual choice that each player must look at to determine what is best for him and his future,” said Button. “The OHL has more of an ‘NHL’ type schedule and format but the NCAA allows players the opportunity to mature physically with less emphasis on games.”
The OHL has an annual entry draft which allows the teams to draft the best minor hockey players each summer. In order to be eligible for the draft, the players must be 16 years old. Button said he thinks this is a factor for players choosing between the OHL and the NCAA.
“Players at younger ages who are very good players are opting for the CHL because they don’t want to wait until they are 18 to enroll at school,” said Button. “That is a by-product of players being more advanced at early ages and having a desire to play at the highest level possible to challenge themselves. “
Colorado native Austin Levi is one such player who chose the OHL over the NCAA. He has been playing for the Plymouth Whalers for almost five years and was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
“I moved to (Plymouth) when I was 14 and started playing for the Compuware minor hockey program, so the NCAA was an option,” said Levi. “I wanted to keep playing when I was 16 and I didn’t have any scholarship offers at the time so I went to the OHL. It has turned out to be a great road.”
Compuware shares an arena with Levi’s Whalers and he said that influenced his decision to play for Plymouth.
“I played in this rink for two years before I played for Plymouth so I was familiar with it and I got support from my family as a 16 year old so it was a really good situation.”
Windsor Spitfires defenceman Patrick Sieloff’s path to the OHL was slightly different than Levi’s. Sieloff played two years with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program before transferring to the OHL. Originally drafted by the Soo Greyhounds when he was 16, Sieloff stayed with the USNTDP for two more years before his rights were traded to the Windsor Spitfires. Sieloff turned down a scholarship from Miami University in Ohio.
“I sat down with my family last summer to decide what was best for me at the time and my future,” said Sieloff. “It was really hard passing up a scholarship. It came down to what was best for my style and how I play and what would be best for the future.”
According to Sieloff, being traded to Windsor influenced his decision to choose the OHL. Being from Ann Arbor, Mich., it is a lot closer to home than Miami University and Sault Ste. Marie.
“I wasn’t too high on (the OHL) when my rights were with the Greyhounds,” said Sieloff. “(Windsor) is closer to home and it’s easier for my family to adjust.”
Sieloff said that the OHL isn’t always the best path to the NHL as he was drafted by the Calgary Flames before he transferred to the Spitfires. Similar to what Button had said, it depends on the player.
“If you’re a good player, at the end of the day you’ll be in the NHL.”
Florida native Brady Vail is even farther from home in the OHL than Sieloff and Levi. He is in his third season as a Windsor Spitfire and was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens this past summer. He played one season in the United States Hockey League and both the NCAA and OHL options were available to him.
“Me and my family talked about (both options) and what it came down to was my dream is to play in the NHL,” said Vail. “I thought coming to the OHL was the best way to get there. Once I came and visited Windsor it was kind of a no-brainer with the facilities and the players that have come through here.”
Vail’s teammate and fellow countryman Ben Johnson also said that the Spitfires organization is what helped him make his decision to choose the OHL over the NCAA.
“I really liked the style of play that they were playing and I liked the rink that they had here,” said Johnson. “It is a stepping stone to the NHL.”
Johnson was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the NHL Entry Draft last summer, and he said he believes playing in the OHL has a lot to do with that.
“I think it’s a better style of play in the OHL,” said Johnson. “It’s more like a mini-NHL compared to the NCAA.”
Johnson turned down a scholarship offer from his home state’s University of Michigan in order to play for the Windsor Spitfires.
“I knew that I would have three really good coaches to help me develop my game and teach me how to play the NHL way,” said Johnson.
In order for these young men to choose the best path, Button offers some advice.
“The only thing I would say is that players and their families should familiarize themselves fully on what the OHL and the NCAA routes offer with respect to players’ goals and ambitions.”