Plucking hockey’s young talent

By Taylor McKee

On Feb. 7, 2003, Jared Aulin was tackled by his linemates after scoring his second goal of the game against the Carolina Hurricanes on a power-play. Over 18,000 present at the sold-out Staples Centre where the Kings beat the Hurricanes 8-2 and saw Jared Aulin score his first two NHL goals. Rewind to June 24, 2000. Aulin is drafted to the Colorado Avalanche and attends a training camp that reads like a team created in a video game with names like Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque, Chris Drury and Adam Foote. Rewind again to the 1997-98 campaign of the Kamloops Blazers. Aulin plays his first game in the WHL on his way to becoming a highly touted prospect and playing in the 2002 World Junior Championships with teammates Mike Cammalleri, Rick Nash, Jay Bouwmeester, Scottie Upshall and Dan Hamhuis.

All in all, this seems like the prototypical story of elite Canadian hockey talent. Early on in their careers, as early as 12-years-old, the truly top-tier players are streamlined onto teams with a very clear goal of professional play. However, when one compares this story to high-end players in other North American sports, a striking difference emerges: a university education. Joe Montana has a degree in business from Notre Dame. Larry Bird has a bachelor of science degree from Indiana State. Walter Payton has a degree in communication from Jackson State. Conversely, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Jarome Iginla, honorary degrees notwithstanding, have never set foot in a university classroom.

Using star players, however, is not really a useful example, as one could argue they have no need for university– post-secondary education is not for everyone, not to mention that their salaries don’t necessitate any sort of financial need for higher learning, which renders this comparison hyperbolic. The vast majority of those who choose hockey as their profession are not Gretzky, Lemieux or Aulin. Hockey Canada, in an attempt to raise the draft age from 18 to 19, recently released statistics about Canadian draftees. The study showed that just 25 per cent of Canadian players drafted six years ago to the NHL have played more than 50 games. This means that there are, and have always been, a large number of drafted, elite-level hockey players not playing in the NHL. This is not earth-shattering news– every sport boasts similar ratios. What is significant is that unlike other sports, Canadian hockey players seem uniquely disadvantaged compared to professional athletes in other sports when it comes time to stop playing.

If you scan the program at your next CFL game, you’ll notice every player, with the exception of perhaps two, has a university or college attached to their name. These players are in a league where almost every competitor makes less money than the league minimum of the NFL and the average playing career is 3.2 years. However, the institutions listed after the name of each player represent a contingency plan– fallback for life after sport.

Elite Canadian hockey talent almost always moves through the CHL, which funnels players away from a university education starting at age 15. When he was still playing professionally with Orebro HK in Sweden, Aulin explained his story: “I was extremely focused on making it to the NHL as early as possible . . . I had been approached by several NCAA schools but I was more focused on playing junior and being drafted at 18 rather than later because college players are drafted when they are older. [It’s] a choice I would have made differently if I had the chance.” Aulin’s decision to play in the CHL with Kamloops gave him exposure and subsequently contributed to him being drafted and selected for the WJC team in 2002. Leagues like the WHL have scholarship programs that offer education for players on completion of their junior careers, but for those who decide to continue to play professionally, education is an afterthought.

For many, playing in the CIS is a good way to continue playing high-level hockey and earn an education as well. Wade Davis played for the University of Calgary Dinos hockey team from 2004-08 and earned a degree in geography in 2008. Davis also played in the CHL prior to playing for the Dinos and was a member of the Calgary Hitmen from 1998-2003.

“The CHL offers more games, high level coaching and the atmosphere that is very much the same as pro hockey,” Davis also commented on the level of play in CIS hockey. “The overall level is higher than the WHL, but there are more skilled players in the WHL.”

As an option for NHL talent, the CIS is likely not near the top of the radar. Older and more mature players typically make up a CIS roster with many having played in the CHL from age 16-20.

Aulin’s journey to the CIS took him through the American Hockey League. When he was released from the Springfield Falcons in 2006, it effectively stalled his professional aspirations.

“I told myself I was done with competitive hockey, [it] just wasn’t fun for me anymore. I started playing for fun on my friend’s beer league team and was having a blast until Quinn Risdon [an opponent] decided he wanted to end my career and possibly my life. He two-hand slashed me with his hockey stick across my carotid artery, causing me to have a seizure on the ice. After this incident I decided I was never going to play hockey again . . . my health was far more important to me than to continue risking it.”

Aulin decided to return to his hometown Calgary, becoming the first player since 1985 to play in the CIS after playing in the NHL when he joined the Dinos for the 2007-08 season. Aulin was able to receive an education using the skills he had honed from a young age.

“Playing for the Dinos was an opportunity for me to get into school and seek an education. Hockey was the only way I could do this. The best part of it all is that I fell in love with the game again.”

Aulin earned himself a tryout contract with the Edmonton Oilers for the 2010-11 season and has been able to secure a contract with a pro-Swedish team for the past two seasons.

Many players drafted to the NHL do not make it as far as Aulin did and the only certainty about professional sports is that players can’t play into their 50s. Professional football and basketball players, with very few exceptions, use collegiate sports as a means to play professionally. The largest proving ground for draft-eligible players is the NCAA. Hockey’s NCAA option is still very popular for some players who are concerned about getting an education before turning professional– many Canadian players take this route to make it to the pros.

Davis noted that the NCAA is a great option for young players.

“Yes, we did have a look at that route [NCAA hockey],” he said. “I had known of a few guys who did that near my hometown. I think it is a great option to play hockey professionally.”

The fact is that the drive to be drafted sooner through exposure to better competition drives talent into the CHL with hopes of playing professionally as soon as possible.

As far as careers after hockey, many seek employment in the private sector but some struggle to find careers. Davis, who works as a hockey school instructor with Torjager Hockey Ltd., said “some stay in the game like I am doing with my company . . . I think a lot of players get into sales or work in the oil and gas industry, around Calgary at least.”

Though still playing, Aulin expressed uncertainty about his life after hockey. “To this day I still don’t know what I would want to pursue outside of my hockey career. Maybe a career in broadcasting for anything hockey-related.” Aulin’s experience at the U of C has left him far more prepared than he would have been had he continued into the East Coast Hockey League or stayed in the AHL.

The majority of elite talent goes without a university education, leaving them perilously unprepared for life after their sport. What makes Canadian hockey players so unique is that there is no national tradition in Canada of linking collegiate education with professional sports. If he were to have children, Aulin eloquently said the NCAA would be the best option. “If my child wanted to play hockey I would be more than supportive and do the best that I can in providing them guidance and advice to achieve their goals and dreams. I would push them towards the NCAA because you never know if you will attain a serious injury or just never be given an opportunity, so having an education to fall back on is extremely important.”

Aulin touches on the absolute crux of the whole matter: opportunity. Aulin’s concern for a life after hockey represents the perspective of a player who has been through the wringer of professional hockey and has earned every accolade and minute of ice time he has ever received. His career so far has been a collection of hard work, dizzying highs, dogged rehabilitation and ultimately, renaissance. Hockey, like all sports, takes the young and ages them quickly both physically and mentally with full lives still to be lived on both sides of their playing careers. Every player eventually understands what Aulin seems to have already come to terms with– playing hockey and the youth that is required to do so is temporary.

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