MacKinnon cites differences between Major Junior, NCAA hockey
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The argument might never end: NCAA or major junior, the two most prominent paths to the NHL.
The college game isn’t for everyone, and it certainly isn’t for Nathan MacKinnon and his son, if he has one in the future.
MacKinnon, the Avalanche’s explosive 21-year-old center, said Colorado’s recent college-like schedule is a reminder why he supports the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) Major Junior system over the NCAA.
“My kid’s going to junior – 100 percent,” MacKinnon said.
The Avs had five days between games Oct. 22 at Florida and Oct. 28 against Winnipeg, then played at Arizona on Oct. 29 for a consecutive-night stretch. That’s a typical college schedule — a week of practices and two games on the weekends.
“We’re here to play games,” said MacKinnon. “I like getting into a rhythm; I feel like I play better when I play more. In Phoenix (a 3-2 win) — and I think the whole team could speak on it — we felt a lot better in our second game than our first after five days off.”
Beginning Nov. 1 against Nashville, the Avs will have played at least three games per week through Jan. 6. The busiest stretch was Nov. 11-23, when they will have had a game every other night.
Like MacKinnon, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar didn’t enjoy the recent “college” schedule.
“I wouldn’t think that many players like it; they want to play games,” Bednar said. “That’s the most fun thing to do in this profession is compete. That’s what we like as coaches. That’s what we like as players. They may think the coaches like practices – and we certainly like to get some practice time in – but everyone in the room is excited to get competing on game night. That’s what it’s all about.”
MacKinnon, who played in the CHL and won the Memorial Cup with the Halifax Mooseheads in 2013, said he develops his skills more from a game than from a practice. Major junior typically offers a 68-game regular season, while most college teams play half that amount before the postseason.
“That’s the reason I didn’t want to go (NCAA) – you play 30-some games,” MacKinnon said. “Junior is double that, plus playoffs, plus Memorial Cup (if applicable), plus World Juniors (if applicable). That’s like 100 games. Way different.”
The University of Denver played 41 games (seven postseason) en route to the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals last spring. National champion North Dakota played 44 games.
NCAA hockey offers an education in a college environment and significantly more off-ice training than Major Junior. College players also have more time to develop, with an age span of 17 to 25, whereas the CHL is 16 to 20. The NCAA doesn’t allow CHL transfers, so a Major Junior player could see his professional hockey dream end at age 20.
But as MacKinnon noted, the CHL offers its players future university scholarships, however limited.
“I don’t like the attitude ‘what if it doesn’t work out?’ – I don’t like that mentality,” MacKinnon said. “My best buddy in Halifax was a fourth-liner and has an unreal school package. He’s making money. He’s going to school in Halifax, in business (school) and playing hockey on the side.”
MacKinnon was drafted by the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League (USHL), the top Junior A feeder league to college hockey, and he was attending an Omaha camp in 2011 when he was selected No. 1 overall in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) draft by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. MacKinnon wanted to play for hometown Halifax and used the Omaha/college hockey route as leverage for his trade to the Mooseheads on July 13, 2011.
So in looking at his situation, Major Junior hockey was beneficial to MacKinnon. And his story gives others insight about what’s best for them.
Photo/Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images
— Mike Chambers