Hockey Academies Friend or Foe?

The first in a three part series.

In the first of a three part series, we look at how the game of hockey at the youth level has changed in Canada in recent years. With the advent of the ‘Hockey Academy’ over the past couple of decades, youth hockey players now pretty much have to play in an Academy to get drafted into Major Junior. But should that be the goal for young, aspiring hockey players? A metamorphosis is coming and youth hockey as we know it will evolve and players will have more options for their consideration (which is a good thing).

The Invention of the Hockey Academy

Hockey Schools have existed from decades, but it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that “Hockey Academies” started to become a “thing”.  In the United States there were Academies for various sports, in Western Canada there was Okanagan Hockey School out of Penticton, BC. In 1999, Brent Devost founded Edge School (academy) out of southern Alberta. Edge School offered training in dance, golf, hockey, soccer, figure skating, basketball.

In 2009, The Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL) was launched to establish a league designed for elite level student athletes. With a mission statement of “To be National Leaders in Education-based hockey”, the CSSHL was designed specifically for “elite” level athletes focusing on skill improvement and high level competition. Their hidden, or maybe not so hidden agenda was exposure for their athletes and exposure for their programs (Hockey Academies).

We all know how hockey has become a business.  The NHL is all about revenue (it’s why, in part, you haven’t seen any new teams in Canadian markets). The business of hockey has trickled down to youth hockey with what is now known at the Academy level. While many of the programs help develop the skills of their students, other spin-off Super-Leagues have emerged with a “Pay-to-Play” model in hopes of attaining a piece of that hockey revenue at the youth levels. You may have heard reports or stories about the hockey dad who became frustrated with Hockey Canada and started a “Super-League” for his son to play in, develop his skills and get exposure in order to chase the dream of making the National Hockey League.

Youth hockey players skating
Youth hockey players

In Western Canada, the WHL (Western Hockey League) conduct their annual Bantam draft every year in May to secure thirteen and fourteen year old hockey players for their teams. This is one year sooner than the two other leagues in the CHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. For up and coming players with dreams on making the NHL, the Bantam draft is a big deal. Academies are now prepping and promoting their kids to become drafted in the Bantam Draft. After all what is a better selling point than selling the kool-aid that your program or Hockey Academy gets kids drafted?

What is the WHL Bantam Draft?

The WHL Bantam draft is where teams from the Western Hockey League of the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) acquire “the rights” to Bantam (13/14 year old players) to play for the team. As the league puts it:

“The bantam draft allows for the orderly transfer of players to WHL Protected Player Lists (PPL) from the bantam ranks (13-14 year-olds).”

For many, but not all, competitive hockey players it is their (or their parents) main goal to attempt to get drafted into the “Dub”. The draft is typically held in early to mid-May and allows Western Hockey League teams to select players from western regions including: the four Western Provinces and the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Players from non-North American countries can be added via the CHL Import Draft which is held in June.

History of Hockey Academies

While mainstream hockey academies are a result of the past 25 or so years, there are programs that have existed prior to the turn of the century.

  • Since the early 1900’s St. Michael’s College in Toronto has been grooming players in many sports including hockey players from the GTR including Tim Horton, Dave Keon, and Tyler Seguin.
  • Since the 1920’s, out of Wilcox, Saskatchewan, the Notre Dame Program has put a number of players into the NHL including Wendel Clark, Rod Brind’Amour and Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (2024-25 pricing is $43K).

There are nearly 40 licensed academies across the country and another 100 or so that are unlicensed. In 2020, 25% (ten) of the accredited Hockey Schools were based in British Columbia. According to Hockey Canada, there are about 5,000 schools across the country that include from all-day academies to local high schools — offer hockey as part of their curriculum.

Hockey Academies are here to stay, but is that a good thing?

Hockey Academies: Friend of Foe?

Wayne Gretzky is arguably the greatest hockey player of all-time. He was a multi-sport athlete also playing baseball and lacrosse. Word is, is that he was a better baseball player than a hockey player. As a result, it comes as no surprise when the game’s greatest player was quoted as saying:

“I was absolutely ecstatic to see the end of the hockey season,” Gretzky told the National Post in 2000. “One of the worst things to happen to the game, in my opinion, has been year-round hockey and, in particular, summer hockey. All it does for kids, as far as I can tell, is keep them out of sports they should be doing in the warmer weather.”

Read: An illness, possibly untreatable: Hockey in Canada has become terrifyingly expensive and dangerously elitist – National Post

The invent of Hockey Academies has both directly and indirectly created the increase in year-round hockey for young Canadian hockey players.

This example hits home. For the past couple of seasons, we have been approached by three academies in the region asking our son to come and play with them. By design, we have kept our son out of hockey academies and programs that he should potentially be playing at. The reason? He is a multi-sport athlete. He is a highly skilled hockey player, making all of the teams he chooses to try out for, but he hasn’t always decided to play on those teams. He is currently 14 years old and eligible for the WHL Bantam Draft, but honestly that means nothing to our family.

We have had coaches tell us that (at that age of 11/12) our son had to make a choice. He couldn’t play competitive hockey and baseball… I remember the conversation as plain as if it was yesterday.  I was shocked at this commentary. That season our son, played competitive hockey, competitive baseball, indoor football and took a keen interest in mountain biking. Previously he participated in a kid’s triathlon, played soccer and at one time was playing five sports at once (all at competitive levels). He was a top performer on his teams. We made a choice and it was a good one, more importantly it was the right choice.

However, many families fall prey to the thought that you have to play at an Academy in order to get to that next level.  As the National Post stated:

“Hockey Canada, while supporting programs to get more six-year-olds drawn into the feeder system with one hand, is tacitly endorsing the elitist model with the other.

And parents with stars in their eyes can see clearly that the preferred path to “the next level” for their kids had best include a strict single-sport focus, more ice time, pro-style training at an absurdly young age — and yes, those $35,000 to $50,000-plus per year academies that will promise all that and a modicum of education, too, just in case Junior turns out to be among the 99.9 per cent of all hockey playing Canadian kids who never make it to the big money.”

Note to hockey parents, it’s time to stop drinking the kool-aid from these Academies. In an article we published last year, we shared some data on Getting to the NHL: History of the NHL Draft. As of 2023, the number of players to have ever played in the National Hockey League was approximately 7,826 people. That’s it. Of course, the hockey academies, or recruiters or hockey scouts will not tell you that. The reality is your chances of making the NHL are remotely slim, even more slim is that you earn a sustainable career out of it.

Hockey Canada is at a crossroads currently. There is a dark cloud around various events at many levels that are only now starting to come to light. (We’ll touch more on that in part two of our series).

Pay to Play is a real thing. It comes in many forms:

  • Hockey Academies
  • Self-Proclaimed “Elite” Hockey Programs
  • Private Programs
  • Payola at Provincial levels
  • Payola throughout Junior Levels

Case in point, last year, an investigation was conducted to probe allegations that several hockey parents paid for their sons to be selected in the 2022 OHL draft. If you think this is a one time issue, think again as this has been going on for years.

Yet another example… At a recent BC Hockey Regional Camp, I witnessed a parent talking to an Academy representative prior to the weekend’s games. I know the parent and his player, who if you watch play would recognize is not a strong player and has room from great improvement, but he loves the game. Overhearing the discussion about potentially committing to their program for next season (which comes at a cost of $36-$40K per year), the player was magically moved through to the next stage for selection to Team BC. An interesting take.

Depending on the Hockey Academy, there are multiple teams within the program. There is typically a Prep team and a Varsity team. There may even be additional teams at the same age group (let’s call them Team Blue, Team Black). With more teams comes more revenue. The academies need to fill their roster numbers. They do their homework and the know the kids they want. Some have been scouted, some have had tournament or league play exposure and some already have representation (i.e. an agent). The Academies need bodies to fill their rosters, and make no mistake about it, not all of the players have the skill to be on those rosters. The result is another form of pay-to-play. Perceived “top players” may get a discount to come to the academy, whereas lower skilled/average players will pay the full amount (or more) just to be there, thereby offsetting the discounted fees for the “top players” on the team.  There are tryout fees, season fees, and program fees. With a price tag that can rival the price of a year or two of post-secondary education or of a new Tesla, the cost of a Hockey Academy prohibits many families from playing in “the program” regardless of skill or passion. However, while cost is one issue with Academies, there is another more serious impact of the Hockey Academy.

If you’re in, you’re in, if you’re not, you’re not. Whether directly or indirectly, Hockey Academies and provincial programs (for example, BC Hockey’s Team BC) encourage a sense of elitism and entitlement.

Go on any social media feed and you will see the academies promoting player signings or a graduate of their program making the NHL. It’s promotion of their program, of their business. A marketing tactic that acts as proof that their program works. If you are not ap art of our Academy/Program you won’t get looked at… you are either in or you are out.

Whether intentional or not, it is this sense of entitlement and idea of elitism is what is wrong with hockey in Canada today.

Elitism is quickly becoming passe.

In part two of our series, we look at the issues with elitism in hockey.

Additional Reads / Resources: