Making The NHL Draft
The reason most people play youth ice hockey is to one day fulfill the dream of playing the sport professionally. Rising from a young star to the top of the game is the lifelong goal for kids playing ice hockey at the youth level. But making it from a youth ice hockey star to a player in the National Hockey League is very difficult to do.
A player playing youth ice hockey has less than a 0.11% chance to play in the National Hockey League if they continue to play through high school from a purely statistical perspective. This is based on tracking 30,000 Ontario minor hockey players born in 1975.
Based on this statistic, you may be tempted to automatically assume that your child has absolutely no shot at the NHL. After all, the math does not necessarily favour a single player making it all the way to the major leagues—not just in hockey, but across all sports. However, there are some things a player can do that can significantly increase their chances of one day playing at the NHL level.
Making it to the NHL, or any professional sports league across the globe is about as tough a task as you can accomplish. There are so many variables that go against a person making it that far. Even coming close is a rare enough feat to be proud of.
When looking at how the percentages play out for most youth hockey league players, there are a few things to look out for when determining whether or not you feel you or your child has a chance to make it to the pros.
The percentage we gave earlier was based on a study done in Ontario, Canada, in 2002. There, former trainer in the Ontario Hockey League, Jim Parcels, observed roughly 30,000 youth hockey players to see just how many would actually make it to the NHL and have a successful career.
Parcels discovered that of the 30,000 youth hockey players he observed as the test group, 48 of them actually were drafted by an NHL team (0.16%). Now, of those 48 players, only 39 signed an NHL contract with a team (0.13%), with 32 players actually ending up playing in an NHL game (0.11%).
Parcels and Campbell, in their research, really went on a full deep-dive because they continued to track players until a player hit 400 games played in their NHL career. This important benchmark is when players are actually able to claim pension payments from the NHL.
So, of the 32 players that ended up playing at least one game in the NHL, less than half played the equivalent of a full season (15 players, 0.05%). Finally, of those 15 lucky players to play an entire season, only six players could hit the coveted 400 career games played mark, which allowed them to get pension pay (0.02%) (source).
Now, there is a caveat to these numbers for those still trying to achieve the dream of playing in the NHL. For one, this study was only conducted in the Ontario part of Canada. While this is a hockey-craved area of the world, in the current NHL, 140 of the 690 total players come from Ontario.
While that is the highest percentage of players from one area, that means that the other 80% of players come from different parts of Canada, the United States, and the rest of the world.
Along with the study area’s focus, another caveat is that the players were only tracked for playing in the NHL. While the league is considered the best professional hockey league globally, there are still plenty of leagues around the world that are very respected and can provide more than enough salary for a player to live comfortably off of.
Russia, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Finland all have respectable leagues featured in the “Top 10 Worldwide Hockey Leagues” list from the Hockey Writers.
With those percentages in mind, especially after seeing that Ontario, Canada produces roughly 20% of NHL players, you might consider a move to a new location to try and improve your chances of making it to the big leagues.
Canada is the obvious choice, with 42.8% of players from the 2019-2020 season hailing from the Great White North (based on the number of players to see at least one game during that season).
But if you are not willing to move across borders or oceans, there are plenty of other areas in the world where hockey players can reign from. In the United States, 30 of the 50 states had at least one player represented in an NHL game in the 2019-2020 season. The top 10 states with the most players represented are:
- Minnesota (51)
- Michigan (38)
- New York (29)
- Massachusetts (24)
- Illinois (15)
- New Jersey (11)
- Wisconsin (10)
- Missouri (8)
- California (8)
- Ohio (8)
(Source: Quant Hockey)
If you can look at a map of the United States and mark these ten states, you can begin to notice a pattern. Minus a few from the list, most states are in the north to northeastern parts of the United States, especially those that share a border with Canada. The two states that are not in that category are California and Missouri.
Moving to and playing in states like Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, or Wisconsin can give you a better chance at making the NHL. This is because those places have put a lot more resources into the sport at the youth level than most other states.
Along with that, their weather being much colder means that they usually have more areas in which to play and more time of the year to play hockey as well.
If you want to move to an area that provides the most opportunities to get to the NHL, Minnesota is the place to go. There is no other place in the United States that puts as much into ice hockey as Minnesota, which is why it gets its own section.
You can go even further into Minnesota and look at specific cities to point to just how impactful hockey can be. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the largest metropolitan area in the state of Minnesota. Almost 55,000 youth hockey players were signed up in 2019 in the area, an increase of nearly 10% from five years prior.
But that number does not even register the number of players who play hockey outside of youth leagues. These include high school and private school teams that account for about another 6,500 players across the state.
To get an excellent comparison to just how much is put into youth hockey in Minnesota, we will look at the number of ice rinks available: In Minneapolis-St. Paul, there are an estimated 163 sheets of ice that are in use for youth hockey leagues. Looking back at some of the rising hotbed cities, Seattle has 16 ice hockey rinks available with another three soon to be available once the NHL team’s practice facility is completed.
The sheer number of players and space available in Minneapolis-St. Paul is incredible. But, going even further, you will find that the Twin Cities are also home to the Minnesota Whitecaps of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and the University of Minnesota’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams.
All of this points to the fact that Minnesota, and more specifically Minneapolis-St. Paul, is the best area to move to if you want to have the best chance to make it to the NHL.
In the last section, we looked at the top states that produce professional hockey players, including Minnesota. Still, those states are not the entire picture.
From 1990 to 2019, there has been an increase of 190% more youth ice hockey players in the US. Including, for the first time, over 80,000 female ice hockey players in youth leagues, the US had over half a million young children and young adults playing in a youth hockey league.
One particular reason for this rise comes from the success of the local NHL team in some cities. While there are only 32 teams (Seattle will start their first season in 2021) in the NHL, plenty of people across the nation hold true to their teams’ colours anywhere. When St. Louis won the Stanley Cup in 2019, the number of 8-and-under youth ice hockey players in their leagues in the area increased by 30%.
According to ESPN, there is an increase in a few NHL cities that traditionally do not produce NHL-quality talent. For instance, having not yet obtained their NHL team, Seattle has still seen over 2800 youth ice hockey players sign up for leagues across the city. That puts the city ahead of four cities with NHL teams already in existence, and the city’s ice hockey experience will only grow with an NHL team in place.
Other locations the ESPN story highlights that have increased in youth ice hockey participation are:
- Washington DC.
- Las Vegas
From looking at these cities, youth participation is on the rise. Still, if you notice the location of them, only Anaheim is in a state listed in the top 10 of producing NHL players.
Of course, moving isn’t always an option available to young hockey players, but that doesn’t mean your chances of making it to the NHL are shot. There are a few other things you can do to ensure you receive the most significant opportunities to hit the big leagues.
Once you do find the youth ice hockey league that you want to play in, getting to the NHL takes more than just pure skills to make it. As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.”
There have been plenty of studies to determine how much time it takes a person to become really good at a particular task. Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling author, looked into just how long it might take a person to become “world-class” at specific tasks. In his book, he theorized that it takes a person 10,000 hours to become a full-blown expert.
But, it is not just going through the motions of skating, shooting, and hitting that makes a player become the best at ice hockey. No, Gladwell and other psychologists have pointed out that the practice has to push the person every single time, push to limits that the person did not think was possible, and then go beyond that.
For some, like Bill Gates, getting those 10,000 hours started when he was a teenager learning about computer systems and figuring out how different ones worked. For the Beatles, it was playing night and day until they perfected albums, songs, choruses, verses, and notes to become one of the best all-time rock bands.
In youth ice hockey and other sports, it takes a player time to get to the top of the game. That is why most players who play their sport professionally have been doing so since they were children. This time in practice and preparation and game time over those many years has allowed them to get to that 10,000-hour mark and become a world-class player.
Ten thousand hours is just over a year’s worth of time. If you imagine yourself from the time you are seven years old, playing hockey at an average of five hours a week for 11 years (until you graduate high school), you would only be at 2,860 hours. That is a little over a fifth of the time theorized it takes to be the best of the best at a task.
Finding the path from youth ice hockey player to the NHL can take on different turns, depending on where you are and what fortunes you can achieve. For some, it involves moving through junior hockey leagues, to semi-professional leagues, to the pros; for others, it goes from high school, to college, to the minor leagues, to the pros.
However, there are two apparent paths that players in the United States and Canada take to make it to the NHL: Major Junior Hockey or the NCAA (college).
- Major Junior Hockey involves players between the ages of 16 and 21. In both the US and Canada, there are numerous Junior Hockey leagues.
- For the NCAA, or college-level ice hockey leagues, those players are ages 18-24, with most of the players on scholarships from their schools to play.
Both routes can take a player to the NHL Draft, where players are selected by NHL teams and have the chance to sign a professional contract with that team. Once they are signed, though, that does not mean they will automatically be playing in the NHL.
For the most part, players who are drafted by an NHL team will be sent down into their minor league hockey system. Most teams have at least one team in the American Hockey League (think AAA for the MLB) and the East Coast Hockey League (AA for the MLB). There are teams in lower divisions than the AHL and ECHL, but those are the two most common minor league teams.
From there, if you are good enough, a player has a good shot of making it to the NHL. In the 2018-19 season, roughly 87% of all NHL players came from an AHL team.
This number included even those players who skated in both the AHL and NHL that season. When looking at the ECHL, the percentage drops dramatically of players who start in that league. From the 2002-03 season, 470 players have made the NHL after they started in the ECHL. That percentage of players is roughly 4.3% of the entire NHL player count over 17 years to the present day.
Making it to the pros in any sport is a challenging task. There are so many variables that come into play to make it to the NHL from the youth hockey leagues. However, the best way to achieve the dream is to find a local hockey league that will allow players to develop their skills and become more acclimated with the game.
Another good option is to live/move to an area where ice hockey is more prevalent in the youth leagues. Areas close to the Canadian border in the United States or cities with a professional hockey team near them are excellent places to start.
Along with that, finding opportunities to find coaches and teammates that will push a player to become their best self is the best way to make it to the NHL.
And, should you defy all the odds and make it to the professional leagues, be sure to take precautions for the long-term as most players do not make it a full season.