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February 8, 2007
By John Tranchina

The major junior leagues in Canada offer young hockey players an invaluable learning experience on and off the ice, and for many, a clear path to NHL.
As the primary feeder to the NHL, the major junior hockey leagues in Canada help prepare players for professional life in a variety of ways. Overall, about half of all current NHL players apprenticed in the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella group that consists of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).

Of the 28 players who have suited up in an NHL contest this year for the Dallas Stars, 13 started in those leagues as a teenager. Much like college football or college basketball in the United States, the major junior leagues enjoy a wide and passionate following in Canada (some northern U.S. cities also have franchises). They also mimic the pro-style schedule, with 70-plus games and lots of traveling, virtually all of it by bus.

It's an exciting time for teenagers playing elite-level junior hockey, with the spotlight of the hockey world shining brightly on them, but it can also be a difficult one. All the kids dream of playing in the NHL, but the reality is, only a small portion will ever achieve that goal. That doesn't stop them from enduring a challenging lifestyle to get there.

Most kids who play in juniors leave home for the first time at 16 or younger, and have to adjust to a new city. Sometimes, a player might even experience a new country, as some Americans and Europeans play in Canada, while numerous Canadians play on the few U.S.-based clubs. They have to adapt to living with billets, a local family that hosts a junior player, in a sense absorbing him into their family. They also attend a new high school, and of course, still have to compete and contribute on the ice.

"Junior hockey forces you to grow up faster than a normal kid," said Steve Ott, a three-year veteran of the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires. "You're out of your house at 15 or 16 years old, living with people you really don't know and having to take care of yourself."

"It's always tough leaving home at 16," said Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor, who played three-plus with the WHL Kamloops Blazers. "The team finds a billet family for you, that cooks for you, helps do your clothes, everything like your family would do. That's very comforting and keeps you from getting homesick."

Focusing on hockey helps ease the transition, because players can direct their energies onto the ice, and there is an established structure to their schedule.

"The good thing about going to a junior hockey environment is they're in a disciplined situation with people looking over them all the time, watching their activities," noted Stars associate coach Rick Wilson, who also coached several years for Prince Albert in the WHL. "They have time restraints. For example, they have a curfew on weekend nights, where a normal 17-year-old kid might not, because they're playing. Their schedule is heavily watched, so their free time probably isn't as free.

"In the junior hockey world, there are parameters set up around you that are usually fairly tight, and because of the fact that you want to be a hockey player, you adhere to those and buy in, because hockey is that important to you."

On top of the normal adjustments of moving away from home at 16, some players also have to deal with a bit of culture shock. Stars captain Brenden Morrow was confronted with a totally new atmosphere when he left Carlyle, Saskatchewan, to play for the WHL Portland (Oregon) Winter Hawks.

"I moved from a town of a thousand people to a city of a million and a half," Morrow said. "It was a big adjustment. I lived with a great billet family in Portland, they made me feel right at home and comfortable, and I really enjoyed my time there."

Coming from such a small, close-knit community, Morrow had a tougher time than most blending in to his new surroundings.

"I think the homesickness part was the toughest part on me," he admitted. "I remember one night, I called my mom and said I wanted to go home, and then one of my buddies called me and said he wouldn't be my friend if I came crying back home. It is a tough adjustment for a youngster, 16 years old, going from a real small town to a big city like that. The school I grew up in, there were 20 people in my class, and to go a school where there were thousands of people, it was tough to adjust to that."

Few players had a tougher task than the one facing winger Matthew Barnaby when he began his junior career in the QMJHL with Beauport. As a 16-year-old who spoke only English, Barnaby was suddenly immersed in a French-only culture.

"I was the only person that I met in that city who spoke English in three years," said Barnaby, who never had the benefit of an interpreter. "I was on my own and I moved in with a French family and kind of threw myself into it, and learned under the gun. It was a different experience, but it was great, because I became bilingual and learned to speak French and still have it to this day."

Barnaby grew up in Ottawa, but his family moved across the Ottawa River to Hull, Quebec, one year prior to his becoming eligible for junior hockey, so he fell into the QMJHL's jurisdiction.

"It was tough for the first little while," he said. "I think you pick up things quick when you're thrown into the fire. That's the best way to learn. It was definitely a very humbling experience, but it was a great experience at the same time."

Most players are still in high school their first couple of years of junior (where players can be as old as 20), so keeping up with their homework and getting to school on time are significant issues for a kid who's just switched to a new school.

"It's tough," Ott acknowledged. "Some nights you get home at four or five in the morning and the coach will say, Boys, we're not going to skate tonight, but if you don't go to school, you're not going to play.' In that sense, you still have to get your education. There's only a small percentage of guys that actually make it from the Ontario Juniors to the NHL, so you have to have something to fall back on, and if you don't have schooling, you have nothing. It's really important to go to school, but it's tough to balance everything. Hockey's a full-time job, basically, and then going to school, as well.

"I wasn't really a school guy, anyway," laughed rookie goaltender Mike Smith, who played in the OHL with Kingston and Sudbury. "I tried to balance the two out, probably 90/10 hockey/school, but I did end up graduating, which is what I was going for."

Center Mike Ribeiro was a highly-rated player who led the QMJHL in assists with 85 and piled up 125 points his draft year of 1997-98 with Rouyn-Noranda. His success and knowing he would be a high pick prompted him to risk putting off school for a while.

"I didn't really manage that too well, to tell you the truth," Ribeiro said of balancing school with hockey. "School wasn't really my best option. I did go to school, but it wasn't my favorite. I was really focusing on my draft year. I kind of left school for a bit my draft year, hoping that things would work out and then go back."

Ribeiro's gamble paid off, as Montreal selected him in the second round, and another season of junior later, he began his NHL career with the Canadiens.

Defenseman Jon Klemm, like Morrow, was a Canadian who moved to the States, skating for Seattle and Spokane in the WHL, and he discovered subtle differences to overcome between each country's schools.

"Going to school was a little different," Klemm noted. "In math, I was used to the metric system in Canada, so I had to learn the American system, which was almost like starting from scratch. Obviously, I had American History, which was obviously new for me, but the biggest thing was math. It took some time learning about inches and feet and whatnot."

With all the long bus rides, keeping up with school was even more difficult.

"It was difficult in the Western league, especially the teams that I played for, because they were really strict about making sure you got to school," Klemm said. "You got home at 6 or 7 in the morning, and we'd have to go right to school. You definitely woke up some mornings really tired."

"Where I played, the closest team was like five hours away, so we had to travel a lot," Ribeiro said. "It makes school really hard. It was tough to go to school and travel at the same time. But I guess, if you want to be a hockey player, you'll get used to it."

Because of the difficulty of keeping up with school while traveling so much, many times playing on weekdays, most teams have added programs to assist players with their studies.

"The game's changed so much and evolved over the years since I played," said Stu Barnes, who played in New Westminster and Tri-City of the WHL from 1987-90, and is now a part-owner of the Tri-City Americans. "Now, there's usually an assistant coach who's in charge of all the schooling for the kids. They have a liaison with all the high schools, they usually have tutors available for the kids whenever they need them, space and time available for them to come in and do their homework whenever they need it."

Of course, the other aspect of the long bus rides is the challenge of sitting in cramped quarters for many hours at a time, then having to get off the bus and play.

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