Education program for junior hockey gets high/low marks

Calgary Flames prospect J.D. Watt at the Pengrowth Saddledome. (QMI Agency/AL CHAREST)

Calgary Flames prospect J.D. Watt at the Pengrowth Saddledome. (QMI Agency/AL CHAREST)

SCOTT FISHER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:18 PM ET

The Western Hockey League scholarship program helps more than 300 players a year further their education.

J.D. Watt is not one of them.

Watt played for the Vancouver Giants, Red Deer Rebels and Regina Pats during a four-year WHL career (2004-08). He was drafted in the fourth round by the Calgary Flames in 2005 and, after his junior career was over, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound winger moved on to the AHL with the Quad City Flames, Abbotsford Heat, San Antonio Rampage and Manchester Monarchs.

He also suited up for the Las Vegas Wranglers, Utah Grizzlies and Ontario Reign in the ECHL.

Because of those years spent chasing a childhood dream, he was on his own when it comes to his education.

"When I signed my contract with the Calgary Flames right after junior, that makes all the education (funding) you get from the league null and void, I guess," Watt said.

The WHL gives a player one year after leaving the league to decide on his future path: Pro hockey or schooling. The other two leagues that make up the CHL -- the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- have slight variations when it comes to education packages.

Watt said that one-year restriction needs to be eased.

"I don't think it's fair because when guys are 19 and 20 years old, the decision of whether to go to school or chase a dream like playing in the NHL ... it's a really tough decision to make," Watt said. "They made the choice to play in the Western Hockey League to chase that dream in the beginning.

"One of the ways the WHL gets you there is by having an education program and giving you a year's tuition and books at any Canadian university or college.

"That's great, but when it comes time to decide whether to sign a contract or go to school, I don't think it's fair that by signing that (pro) contract, you lose all that schooling. Because who knows what the right decision was at the point? It's tough to say no to chasing a dream."

The 25-year-old is now studying energy asset management, the business side of oil and gas, at Calgary's Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and playing for the SAIT Trojans.

As a mid-round NHL draft pick, Watt undoubtedly made the right decision -- at the time -- for him.

But he said the WHL should look at extending the deadline so players can defer their decision on whether to go to school for at least a couple more seasons.

"(As a teenager), you don't realize how important it is to get an education," Watt said. "Everybody loves the game of hockey and wants to play in the NHL. So it's hard for a 19-year-old to say 'I've got to do the right thing here and go to school.'

"A lot of people end up going to the (ECHL) and they give away a lot of money in terms of getting an education."

It's a point the CHLPA has been harping about since stumbling on to the scene a few months ago.

But WHL director of education services Jim Donlevy, in his 21st season with the league, said the scholarship program needs no tinkering.

"I think it's the best scholarship program in North America, bar none" Donlevy said. "I can say quite unequivocally it is the best."

The WHL shelled out $1.8 million to fund education last season. There are 320 former players, with a few stragglers still coming in, taking advantage of the program this year at 75 institutions across North America.

Brock Nixon spent 4 1/2 seasons with the Kamloops Blazers before finishing his junior career with the Calgary Hitmen. He was recently named captain of the University of Calgary Dinos and is completing a degree in education.

"For the path I've taken, it has worked out extremely well for me," Nixon said. "I've never had a problem with them not paying the tuition bills or the books bills. For the (number) of players they have on scholarship, it's done in a fairly timely fashion. With all the guys who came straight to university out of junior, there have been no problems."

Nixon said he has no issue with players being forced to decide what to do within a year. Some players, he said, give pro hockey a shot for half a season and then make the choice.

"There are lots of guys who go try pro and if it doesn't work, then they come back at Christmas," he said. "That's a great way to do it because it gives guys a chance to try it out.

"If you're going to sign a pro contract, then you're pursuing hockey to hopefully make a living. The scholarship also allows people to make a living by getting a degree and then a well-paying job."

Some players are now turning pro after collecting their scholarship money.

Donlevy points to former Spokane Chiefs captain Chris Bruton (yes, the unfortunate fellow who had the Memorial Cup break apart in his hands) as an example of players who have their cake and eat it, too.

"What's happening now is that players are going to school, playing CIS hockey, honing their skills and maturing physically and getting stronger, and then they go the American Hockey League."

Bruton finished his degree in three years at Acadia University and then went on to play with the AHL's Peoria Rivermen last season.

"The beauty of that is he's ready to play at that level against men who are 29 and 30 years old," Donlevy said. "And you've got those credentials in your hip pocket."

scott.fisher@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNScottFisher


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