As the first tuition-free junior hockey league in the Eastern United States, the National Collegiate Development Conference has worked tirelessly over the last three years to establish their name amongst ice hockey institutions and set themselves apart as a league who can turn junior ice hockey players into Division I seat holders. But is it all just too good to be true?
In our opinion, the players who dream of getting into Division I teams or the NHL from the NCDC have a much harder time than those coming from USA Hockey sanctioned leagues. The NCDC is a good league to help decent players play hockey for a few more years before going to college and then joining the workforce.
The truth is that unless a player is scouted early and continues to prove themselves and move up, they are more likely to bounce around a junior league until they age out at 20 and have to find other options. Let’s take a look at why this happens.
Junior league hockey is a natural next step for players who have aged out of 16U hockey but aren’t quite ready for college. In fact, the one thing that most hockey players have in common is that they played at least one year of junior league before being moved up to a Division I team, or even the big show, the NHL.
The NCDC is considered a Division II league, but they are currently unsanctioned with USA Hockey, and some Division I teams do not acknowledge their legitimacy for finding future talent. While the NCDC does offer some “benefits” to their players, including:
- Tuition-free memberships
- Access to pre-draft or main camps
- Supplied equipment
There are many red flags, hidden costs and restrictions that can actually hold a player back from reaching their goals.
For example, while tuition is free, players are expected to pay their room and board while playing and travelling with their team in addition to the membership fee to be part of the USPHL. This fee is $400, and if the NCDC decides to send you down to the Premier Division III league, you have to pay their registration fee of $250.
Players are also responsible for paying their fees for main camps yearly, the funds of which go directly towards the NCDC to cover their costs. If the player remains part of the NCDC until they age out, that’s four years of paying main camp fees with the accompanying equipment.
When a player is drafted to the NCDC, they become the leagues’ “property”. According to a copy of the NCDC player contract, the NCDC can make any and all decisions for the player, including when they will play, who they will play for and whether they are selected to be moved up. Seems pretty standard, until a player gets an offer to play for another league or decides the NCDC is not what they signed up for. That’s when things start to get tricky.
Once a player has signed on with the NCDC, they can only play exclusively with their NCDC team or an affiliate NCDC team. If they receive an offer from the NAHL or a team from USA Hockey, they must request and be granted permission from the NCDC. If the NCDC decides that the commitment would be a conflict of interest to their league, they can restrict the player from accepting the offer.
In addition to this, their contract also states that if the parent and player decide they want to ignore the restriction, they could be subject to a $5,000 fine from the NCDC. They could also be restricted from playing hockey anywhere, for the remaining length of the contract.
When looking at the example NCDC contract, if players and parents review it carefully, they will find that in all clauses of the contract, the NCDC can name a player in breach of the contract if they even suspect that a player may be considering going to another league or conducting themselves in a way that the league deems unfit. This could also subject the player and parent to the $5,000 fine for breach of contract.
Once a player has joined a team in the NCDC, the expectation is that they continuously compete for their position and prove themselves in both practices and games. But even if a player works hard and does everything they are asked, the NCDC could decide that a player is not living up to the expectations of their recruiter, and they can be sent to another team where they have to prove themselves all over again.
Players in the NCDC junior league attend pre-draft or main camps yearly in the hopes of being re-drafted for another year. Most teams will bring 30-35 players to the camps but only settle on 23 of those players at final roster. This means that all of those junior players without spots must scramble to find a place for themselves with:
- The United States Hockey League (USHL)
- North American Hockey League (NAHL)
- Eastern Hockey League (EHL) or
- North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL)
If they are not able to find a place with these four junior leagues, they will be forced to move on to opportunities outside ice hockey.
The NCDC has recently expanded its number of teams from 11 to 13, and each of those teams has approximately 23 players on their roster. If we add those players together, we see that 299 players are members of NCDC teams each season. Of those 299 players, approximately 40 of them held Division I commitments during the 2018-2019 season. The North American Hockey League held 224.
Could this be because the NCDC is still new and trying to build their footing in the ice hockey world? Possibly. But another interesting fact about players in the NCDC is that the average age of their players is 19.5 – merely six months away from ageing out of the junior league. Once a player ages out of junior league, they must land themselves on the roster of a Tier I team, or they are faced with a future without competitive hockey in it.
So why do so many talented hockey players stick around in the NCDC until they reach their age out limit? When interviewed, Many players say they have had great seasons and were on the all-star teams at the main camp and continued with NCDC to hone their skills further. But if they are already showing that much promise, why have they not been drafted yet?
The NCAA reports that only 6.4% of men’s hockey players move on to play major pro hockey after college. When you think about the hundreds of players who are out there competing in junior league for Division I positions, that transition seems almost impossible.
The world of junior ice hockey is extraordinarily competitive, and an argument could be made that if you aren’t drafted after three years of junior league, it is highly probable that your skills just aren’t good enough to move you forward.
The NCDC recruiters make promises to prospective parents and players just like any other league would, but numbers show us that some of their promises might just be too good to be true.
While the NCDC offers a home to ice hockey players not yet ready for college, this home might provide a false sense of hope that their efforts are leading them to their Division I dream. In a small percentage of cases, it does actually work out for the player. However, for most, the time playing in this league should be enjoyed as a final chance to play great competitive hockey.