Part of the benefit of being in a network like SBNation is that we get some opportunities that a lot of other bloggers and writers might not get. One of those is that sometimes we can get interviews with players and prospects of your team. Some of those opportunities have started to come my way lately, but as with many things you have to start small. That's why we've just started breaking into some of the Major Junior leagues to get player interviews. I realized something though when I started seeing these chances come in, and that's the fact that I know nothing about junior hockey. I know that they play hockey. That's really about it. Here in Arizona we don't get a whole lot of exposure to that area of the game. I also figured I wasn't the only one that had no idea what Junior Hockey was all about.
In an effort to educate all of us Junior deprived fans, I got an interview (with help from Derek Zona of Copper & Blue) with the Western Hockey League's (WHL) Manager of Player Development and Recruitment, Tyler Boldt, to talk anything and everything Junior Hockey. It's a pretty long interview, but I learned a ton about how juniors work and hopefully you will too. The quick highlights are that the WHL provides an astounding 21% of all the NHL's players (See complete list here) including our own Shane Doan who played for, and now owns part of, the Kamloops Blazers. Another important thing to read about is the amazing education opportunities that many don't realize these kids get. So read on for the entire interview.
Travis Hair: Here in the United States we have a pretty clear idea of how the progression for kids to get into pro sports works for baseball, basketball and football in that they play little league, go to high school, usually go to college and then get drafted from there. Can you explain how the process is different for hockey when kids go through juniors?
Tyler Boldt: Sure, for us in the Western Hockey League we're obviously the Western Provinces and then everything west of Minnesota down to Texas. The progression basically works the same in both countries where players will play in their minor hockey leagues, whether that's midgets or bantams. From there we have the WHL bantam draft, which takes place when the players are 15 years old. It works the same way as the NHL draft, obviously not the same media attention, but the same round by round procedure where all the 15 year old players that are wanted are picked team by team. You can start playing in the league when you're 16, and play right through until you're 20, so 5 years. Then if you're a blue chip prospect you get picked by an NHL team when you're 17 or 18 and sign shortly thereafter. Then start playing in the NHL or go through the minor pro leagues like the AHL.
Hair: So how does it work for a kid who's 17 or 18 that gets drafted by an NHL team that comes to camp at the beginning of the season? Typically they come to camp and don't make the team right away and we return them to their WHL team. Is there a difference between prospects that have been drafted and the other players?
Boldt: There's really very little difference, other than skill level, between the guys that get returned and the other guys on the team. For players that get drafted into the NHL, nothing changes in terms of their status in our league. For instance if a guy got drafted when he was 17 the team would have his rights for two years while he tries to make the team and get a pro contract. If they don't sign him in those two years then the team would just continue to scout him while he comes back and continues to play. What we usually see is that once they play their 19 year old season, either they'll sign their entry level deal and go to the NHL, or more likely AHL, or if they don't sign then they'll just come back as a free agent and play their 20 year old season.
Hair: But once they do sign their entry level deal they can no longer play in junior?
Boldt: Nope, nope. They're still eligible to play for us. For example, Josh Gorges, who went to San Jose's camp as a free agent when he was 18 and they signed him right out of camp, but he still came back and played for Kelowna for a couple more years after. You can play in the WHL under an NHL contract.
Hair: What about how life works for the kids in your league? A lot of them are 16, 17 years old, still high school age. How does education work for those guys?
Boldt: Yeah, they're still in high school full time. There's an expectation that they graduate on time, with good marks. Each team in our league has an individual education adviser that works in the school. The guys attend regular classes, they don't have their own classes or anything like that. They do have an individual team adviser though that helps them make sure they're choosing the right classes. The big thing with parents too is making sure that these classes will transfer back to the players' home high school. So the education adviser is working closely with each player to make sure they've got the right courses and the time table works. On the actual marks side of things we actually have, a co-worker of mine who's the Director of Education Services, Jim Donlevy. He works with each individual adviser and we watch transcripts of each kid and we make sure everyone is online to graduate on time. So we expect them to graduate at the end of their grade 12 year, if not before, and their expected to at least retain the grades they come into the league with and if they begin slipping they'll get a little pat on the back to make sure they keep working on it.
Hair: The WHL is obviously the Western Hockey League is Western Canada, but what are the other leagues up in Canada?
Boldt: There's the WHL and then you've got the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) which is Ontario and then a few teams in the States. Two in Michigan and one in Erie Pennsylvania. And then there's the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) which is in Quebec and the Maritime provinces as well as one team in Maine. The three leagues make up the Canadian Hockey League (CHL)
Hair: How many teams then is that in the CHL?
Boldt: There are 60 total teams, but we don't all play each other in league play. The WHL plays the team in its own league and then the individual league champions meet each year at the Memorial Cup, which is the CHL Championship.
Hair: So It's a fairly large number of kids then that are playing Major Junior hockey?
Boldt: Absolutely, stretching across coast-to-coast. Each of the leagues operate independently, with their own constitutions and their own guidelines, but there is a general set of rules set by the CHL that we all follow.
Hair: To tie that back into the education questions, when you've got that many kids, obviously they aren't all going to make it to the NHL. How do the leagues help them if they want to go to college, or transition into a life after hockey?
Boldt: One thing we think makes the WHL unique is that it's the number one league to get kids ready for professional hockey. But besides that is our post-secondary scholarship program. How that works is that for each year that you play in the league you get one year books and tuition to a post secondary institution. So for a kid, or a player like myself, I played in the league from when I was 16 until I was 20 years old, the full 5 years. I didn't really have any professional teams that were really super interested in me other than some tryouts, so instead I went to school. I went for 4 and a half years, and I could have gone for 5. Fully paid for books included. That's how we set our guys up, because like you said, the competition is so intense. I think there have been studies on the actual percentage of kids that actually make it. So what this does is it's more or less a plan B. If you don't make it to pros, then you get your school paid for. It amazing, our teams spend millions and our league spends more than a million every year just for the scholarship program.
Hair: I've got some other questions sent in by readers that I'll try and put in some logical order here. First, were do the players live when they come to play for your teams?
Boldt: Each kid would be billeted with a family in the town where they'll be playing. Each team has a billet coordinator that works around town finding families involved. For young players like rookies and high schoolers, they'll be paired with a roommate, another player on the team, and they'll live with a family. All the players go to the same high school so they're all in the same area. The families get paid by the club to make sure that the players are getting fed and all that kind of stuff.
Hair: Some of the other bloggers on the network have talked to college programs about why going that route was a better choice in their opinion. So I'll kind of turn that question around, what are the benefits of going through juniors rather than maybe to college right away?
Boldt: I won't comment directly on the college programs, but I'll outline a few major points about us. In our league we play a 72 game schedule from September to March and then playoffs after that. So we believe that sets up our guys that are looking to play professionally to be ready for a longer schedule. And with a frequent practices on your days off and play 3 days a week. We think that really suits players that are looking to play professionally. As well, the coaching in our league. In our league we have 22 teams, 9 of which have head coaches with extensive NHL experience. We think that sets us apart from most leagues. We just actually did a press release that stated 21% of the NHL came directly from the WHL. So if you think of the grand scheme of things that's 1 in 5 of the NHL players come from our league. So we think the coaching in the league as well as the developmental atmosphere best suits the guys to play in the NHL. And then as well when you combine that with the scholarship program we talked about they still get that college education if it's something they want to do. Those are just the big reasons, I could talk at you for hours about what makes our league so good. Those are the major points though, top end facilities, coaching the schedule and the scholarships are what really set us apart.
Hair: How do teams go about finding the players that they want to pick for their teams? With all the Midget and Bantam teams in Western Canada and the United States that has to be a huge undertaking. With how many kids are drafted that has to be a lot to go to all these rinks scouting trying to find the kids you want to pick.
Boldt: I'll tell you what, our teams have very extensive scouting teams that go to Manitoba, British Columbia and the provinces as well as down into the United States. They do exactly what you say. They go to a ton of rinks. It's amazing just how much hockey those guys watch. We're coming up to the Bantam Draft here at the end of April. Coming up to that date, each of the four Western Provinces will hold a camp for draft eligible players. Obviously our scouts will be sent to each of those camps. Then April 9th to 11th we're holding a United States camp in Anaheim and so that gets a lot of top end U.S born players and that gives all our staff a good weekend to see the players. Aside from that though all it is a ton of hard work by our staffs working all over Western North America. Our scouts get a lot of little tournaments and things to go to, but a lot of the work is just going to individual games from Arizona, Dallas, Denver and then to Minnesota, Washington and the Provinces. It's just an amazing amount of work put in by our scouts and our staffs.
Hair: All of your players receive stipends. How much do the players get? Is it just enough to kick around town? Or is it a substantial amount?
Boldt: [laughing] It's about enough to go to the movies once a week. The amount changes year by year. A 16 year old player gets $160 a month. So they get 80 dollar checks every 2 weeks less taxes. And then it goes up so that by the time you're 19 you get $240 a month. Basically we call it an allowance because it's really just enough money so that the players aren't bugging their parents for money too much. So they're not really making any money.
Hair: Well with them not really making much money, how do you handle player injuries? It's hockey and they're trying to learn the NHL game, injuries happen. How to teams handle the healthcare of the guys?
Boldt: Everything is fully covered through Hockey Canada (the US has a similar program through USA Hockey) everybody is fully insured for absolutely everything. That includes dental and as well as any other injuries that they get. Obviously we also have a full time training staff for every team that takes care of things. Each team also has the team dentist and team doctor that they have in town to help any time there's an injury. Cost wise it doesn't cost our players a dime for any of the injuries. Whether it's a broken bone or a torn ligament or a lost tooth, nobody pays a dime for anything. Then they're worked on by the staff specifically set up for the team so when the guys need an x-ray or an MRI they can get them right away. Same for the kids coming from U.S. markets, they don't pay a dime for their medical care.
Hair: Another reader question here. When rule changes happen in the NHL, like adding the trapezoid to limit goalie movement, do the Junior leagues also alter their rules to better prepare the players?
Boldt: Absolutely. We follow just about every NHL rule change that comes through. We're under that obstruction memorandum right now, which calls an awful lot of hooking penalties now. Our rink dimensions are the same as the NHL, with the exception of a couple of our rinks. We do though have a no-touch icing which is one difference, but we do have the delay of game penalty when a guy shoots the puck over the glass from his own end. We follow the icing restrictions where you can't change when your team has iced the puck. So we do follow the NHL rules as close as we can. Like you said, for the exact reason of preparing our players for the NHL. We also follow the same overtime format and the same playoff format.
Hair: So when we talked about the Memorial Cup earlier, that's not the only playoff? Each league has its own playoffs and champion from those?
Boldt: Oh yeah. When we talk about the Memorial Cup, a lot of sports people say it's one of the hardest trophies to win because not only do you have to play four rounds in your own league, but then another week and a half long tournament with the other league champions to get the Memorial Cup.
Hair: So it's the three league champions as well as the host city's team is that right?
Boldt: Yep. This year it's Brandon, Manitoba hosting it. They're a WHL franchise and they're hosting it for the first time in a real long time. So they'll host and then each league will have a representative.
Hair: Okay, one last question, though it might be a long one. How exactly do trades and transfers work in your league?
Boldt: All trades will be within the same league, unless there's some sort of extenuating circumstances. But generally we just stay within our league. You can trade a player for a player or a player for draft picks. It works pretty similar to any of your other professional leagues. When we're dealing with school-age kids though, teams are as respectful as possible. There are some times where school age guys are traded, but again teams try to be respectful of players that are in school and the younger players you don't want to move around too much. The clubs though do have the freedom to, for the most part, to make any transactions they need to.
Hair: So the sense that I'm getting then is that while the teams in the league are a business and want to make money, the bigger issue is that they want to make sure that they're taking responsibility for the kids get getting them ready to play professionally. Is that pretty accurate?
Boldt: Absolutely. There is outside competition between teams for players. Both between leagues and internal competition in the league between the teams to get the players they want. So wants to be known as a team that prepares players and treats them respectfully , doing things right for both the players and the team. If a team doesn't think a player is a good fit, they do what they can to make that player happy. In the end the track record of players that used to play for your team are the best recruiting tools. That's, like with college recruiting, why you see the teams that are perpetually better than other teams because of their track record. So in our league teams do their best to treat players well because when it comes down to recruiting you want to have those stories. You want to limit bad press, which fortunately our teams don't really get any of that. So a lot of it comes down to recruiting and wanting to set themselves up for that.
I'd like to thank Tyler for taking the time to talk to me and teach me a bit about the WHL. If you have more questions drop a comment or an email and if we have enough we'll run another Q&A with your questions.