Draft Help - Major Junior Hockey Overview

With the NHL Entry Draft coming up in less than two weeks, many National Hockey League fans across the United States and Europe will hear plenty about players coming from major junior hockey teams, but they may not understand what major junior hockey is.

The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is currently the primary NHL talent pool – the major source for new talent brought into the league by way of their yearly entry. The majority of North American-born players that have made it to the NHL have played for teams belonging to the CHL. And few European-born players have also taken that route as well. Here’s a quick overview of what the CHL is and how it operates.

The CHL is an umbrella organization that includes the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Québec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). It is an extension of what Americans would equate with baseball’s Little League system; major junior hockey being the approximate equivalent to American Legion Baseball. Typically, it includes 16- to 20-year-old boys, the bulk of whom are from Canada. Much like the NHL, each league in the CHL holds an annual draft and selects players from lower age-group leagues and lower tiered junior leagues in order to re-stock their franchises.

Hockey Canada, the governing body for ice hockey in Canada, recognizes the CHL and its leagues as amateur hockey. But the NCAA – the American college sports governing body - considers it a professional league due to the fact that players receive small stipends from their teams. Collegiate players have no impediments in making the transition the other way, however, from college to the CHL should they choose to.

Boys are forced to decide at a relatively early age whether or not they would like to play collegiate hockey. If a boy decides to play for a major junior team, then they are ruled ineligible to play for an NCAA-sanctioned team. Many players choose to take the major junior route over college because it is generally believed to be a more direct path to the NHL. However, it has become more common for the NHL to draft collegiate players in recent years. The major junior route is still largely the most preferred.

The CHL is set up very similarly to the NHL in terms of travel, schedule, and player transactions. The WHL plays a 70-game regular season schedule, while the OHL and the QMJHL play a 68-game regular season schedule. Often, players leave home to play hockey at 16 to live with host families (also called billets) and to attend schools located in the towns where they play. Teams in all three major junior leagues trade players just like the NHL, only without being hampered by salaries and salary caps. They do not trade players between leagues, however, though a player can switch leagues if he chooses – and if there’s a team willing to take him.

Travel schedules can be extensive, and can cover a great deal of area. Teams typically travel by bus between games, which is similar to how the minor hockey leagues in North America operate. Players in school are expected to keep up on their school work even while on the road.

The WHL covers the largest amount of area of all of the leagues in the CHL, literally spreading out across the western half of Canada. The WHL has 22 teams in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, as well as four teams in Washington State and one in Oregon. They have two conferences, just like the NHL, and four divisions.

The OHL covers perhaps the smallest amount of area. The league has 20 teams that cover the province of Ontario, as well as three teams in the US – two in Michigan, and one in Pennsylvania. The also have two conferences, as well as four divisions. Most of the teams are located in southern Ontario between Windsor, Niagara, and Ottawa.

The QMJHL has 18 teams that are spread out across the province of Québec, and also New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and one team in the state of Maine. It is a single conference with four divisions. Most of the teams are located along the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The winners of all three leagues play for the Memorial Cup at the end of May each season to determine the overall champion of the CHL. A host city with a major junior team is determined before the season starts, and the team from that city gets to participate, giving the tournament four teams. Occasionally, the host city team wins the championship, but that’s not typical.

The 2009 Memorial Cup Tournament was held in Rimouski, Québec. The Kelowna Rockets (WHL), the Windsor Spitfires (OHL), and the Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL) were joined by the Rimouski Océanic (QMJHL). Kelowna and Windsor met in the final, in which Windsor won the game and the Cup. The Kelowna Rockets, by the way, had one player who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, on their roster, as well as three from California and one from Colorado – all considered non-traditional hockey areas.

In total, the CHL stretches across Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic and has 60 teams. As with the NHL, teams have come, gone, and moved since the first league – the WHL – was created in the 1960s. Boys from as far away as eastern Russia have come to play in the CHL, as well as boys from the southern United States. And the NHL will be drafting the best of them for many years to come.