Ask the agent: Do you need to leave early?
Posted by Dean Holden at March 2nd, 2014
by Neil Sheehy, 20 February 2014
Question: Do Minnesota players need to leave Minnesota high school hockey early to better their chances of playing pro hockey?
Answer: Absolutely not! In most cases Minnesota high school hockey players decrease their chances of playing pro hockey by leaving home before it is time and attempting to play Major Junior.
This is a loaded question and one where people must learn something about perspective and not make quick emotional decisions. A player and his family will get many different answers depending on the person they ask and the culture the person (they ask) has been raised in which defines his perspective. A person raised in Canada understands the culture in his country better than a person from Minnesota. Conversely, a person raised in Minnesota will understand the Minnesota culture better than a person from Canada.
I was born in Canada, raised in International Falls, Minn., and lived in Canada during my professional seasons in Calgary. I learned and lived the Canadian and Minnesota cultures as a kid and it wasn’t until I lived in Western Canada that I truly understood the Canadian culture of Major Junior. My childhood friends from Fort Frances, Ont., played Major Junior and my friends in International Falls played U.S. college hockey.
A Canadian player learns from the time he puts on skates that he will leave home to play hockey if he can play at a high level. This is the culture that every young Canadian grows up with and it is accepted as part of the deal.
We Minnesotans are brought up differently. We know and are told from an early age that we can stay home until we are 18 years old and finish high school and then play juniors or go to college. If we are good enough, we can get a U.S. college scholarship and ultimately play pro hockey as many Minnesotans have before us.
This is a very important distinction. Who wouldn’t want to stay home until the age of 18? Parents and players alike prefer this time together because you will never get those years back. In Minnesota, the system is such that players can stay and still have success.
There are hockey people who push Minnesota players to move on and leave high school hockey, but I believe they are missing a very important element in the make-up of our culture; many players are not ready to leave home as players in Canada or even in other parts of the United States.
Culturally, Minnesota players are brought up to believe they will not leave home until they finish high school. Then at age 15, 16 and 17, people are telling Minnesota players to leave home. As exciting as that is for a young player, he does not truly know how he will respond until he leaves home. Most Minnesota kids are not ready emotionally to leave or even ready for the cultural style of play in Major Junior. Most players who leave Minnesota high school believe he will be the exception to the rule, only to find out that he becomes another statistic.
Further, if a player leaves for Canada as a teen, and does not understand the intimidating hockey culture that Canadian hockey players grow up playing, it can be very unsettling and add to a player’s discomfort being away from home.
There is nothing wrong with a young player staying home and having success while he matures into a young man. Most of us Minnesota kids are not ready to leave home because our cultural inner time clock tells us that we would prefer to be with family and friends. When that is taken away when kids leave home before it is time, emotionally it is very difficult for players to adjust at a young age and most fail.
If players leave for Canadian Major Junior with an education package in hand, what most players don’t realize is that the Canadian Hockey League only allows players to play until the age of 20 years old. Each team may keep a couple 21-year-olds as overage players.
In the Canadian culture, players accept that if they do not sign a pro contract at the age of 20, they are ready to move on and attend Canadian college and give up the dream of the NHL, whereas the Minnesota player’s dream is just beginning. For the Canadian player, he is thrilled to have played Major Junior hockey.
For a Minnesota player to come back to Minnesota at the age of 20 (after finding out he is not ready for the NHL) and not be eligible to play college hockey often changes a player’s mind about leaving pro hockey, hence he doesn’t get his education paid for, which makes it more difficult to go back to school and earn an education.
Most of the CHL education packages do not allow a player to play pro hockey (one year in the ECHL in some cases) and if a player signs an NHL or AHL contract, he loses his education package. The money is not guaranteed and there are stipulations on what a player must do in order to get his education paid for. Oftentimes, a player must be a full-time student and pass all of his courses with financial consequences if he doesn’t.
How many Minnesota players are ready to quit hockey at the age of 20 years old and go to University without playing hockey? My experience tells me that very few will quit hockey at age 20 or 21 and hence often never go back to school.
I am not against players choosing their own path. I am not against players playing Major Juniors in Canada if that is what they truly want to do. What I want people to be aware of, are the cultural differences that exist and help people understand why very few Minnesota players over many years have had success in Canadian Major Junior.
Regarding my path as a teen, I know that I would never have made it to the NHL if I changed cultures as a teenager and left Minnesota high school hockey for Major Juniors in Canada. I was able to develop as a player according to my own maturity and at my own pace and started to show signs of being a player when I was ready at 22 years of age. If I did not go the U.S. college hockey route, I would have been forced out of hockey before I showed signs of being a pro player.
A former NHL defenseman, Neil Sheehy is now a certified NHLPA agent. A native of International Falls, Minn., Sheehy led Harvard to the ECAC championship and the NCAA title game. He later earned an economics degree from Harvard. Sheehy also played for several U.S. National Teams. After his career, Sheehy earned a law degree from William Mitchell College.