Educating the WHL

CHRIS NICHOLS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

When fans look at any junior hockey league, the focus is clearly on what the players bring to the table in terms of talent, heart and dedication. What often goes overlooked though is that the vast majority of these players will not make the NHL.

For them, education will be their gateway to taking the next step in their lives.

Jim Donlevy is the Director of Education Services for the WHL and his sole purpose is to make sure the education of players in his league does not get overlooked. For him, keeping the focus on hitting the books is every bit as important as the hits delivered on the ice.

Donlevy told McKeensHockey.com that he sees sport as a microcosm of society and that in general, there have been strides made in the area of educating student athletes.

"The world has changed dramatically and the role of 'knowledge acquisition' is different than it was some decades ago," he noted. "Over my tenure in the WHL, I've seen a positive change in priorities by the coaches, administrators and owners in this area."

The WHL pays more than lip service to the goal of educating its players. In fact, each and every team in the league has an Education Advisor assigned to it. The EA's are generally comprised of retired teachers, counselors, or administrators who deal with everything that comes up on a daily basis regarding the educational needs of the players.

The league also offers what's called the WHL Scholarship

"In essence," Donlevy explained, "all players in the WHL receive a full year of tuition, compulsory fees, and books for each season played in the league. The exact amount is based on the cost to attend a publicly funded university in the player's home province or state."

That's pretty impressive by any standard. No matter what the talent level of the player, each and every year played in the WHL is one more year of education to improve his chances of success later in life. The best part is that the cost is indexed to reflect the costs of the year the player is attending that later education. The scholarship is also portable, meaning a player who played for an Alberta WHL team does not have to attend post-secondary school in Alberta.

Each team is responsible for paying its own share of the scholarship costs, which it does by various fundraising methods. The WHL itself monitors the education fund and guarantees it as well, although no club has ever defaulted on its obligations to this point.

That's not all either. In addition to offering players exit letters when they leave the league -- detailing exactly what benefits have been accrued in their WHL careers -- the EA's are constantly working with the players on their education options. This way the player is aware of what is available and can make a game plan ahead of time.

A list of WHL grads and their academic profiles are made available to many Canadian post-secondary institutions, which they can use as a recruiting tool.

You might ask yourself why the league goes through all of this effort. Does it really make any difference to them? Absolutely.

Aside from being a responsible member of the community by making sure education doesn't get swept under the rug by players with dreams of playing in the NHL, the WHL is actually helping its own product by being what Donlevy describes as a leader in this field.

He says the evidence is overwhelming that there is a strong correlation between academic performance and on-ice performance. Active minds produce active bodies, proving what mom said growing up was right.

So was the birth of the WHL Scholarship a result of NCAA programs luring Canadian hockey players south of the border with promises of scholarships on top of the hockey?

"A clear objective of the WHL is to keep the best hockey players in the Canadian development system, said Donlevy. "The WHL Scholarship and our attention to the academic progress of the players have resulted in significant successes."

He gives credit to former WHL president Ed Chynoweth for being the catalyst behind the WHL Scholarship, as well as a group of what he termed "forward-thinking executives". Donlevy notes that the evolution of the program has happened over the last 15 years and has grown from varying values arranged by individual clubs to now being part of the WHL Standard Player Agreement.

Over 2,000 scholarships have been accessed by players to date.

Much of Donlevy's life has been spent working with student athletes, dating back to his time with the University of Alberta football program. He says working with WHL athletes has been his most rewarding experience.

"Certainly, it's fun to see our graduates move up into major hockey leagues," he reflected. "But to witness the growth, development, and maturation of individuals -- their evolution -- through the WHL is the highlight. So many go on to develop lifetime careers in universities, colleges, and trade schools and realize fulfillment that may not have been available to them coming right out of high school."

Chris can be reached at chris_nichols@canoemail.com


Videos

Photos