College hockey is seemingly always at war with major juniors, and it's not exactly a fair fight.
When it comes to choosing a development path, which prospects hope will bring them toward the NHL, teenaged players in North America largely have two options:
1. They can go to major junior and play 50-plus games per season at least ...
2. They can go to college and play somewhere between 34 and 45 or so.
The other aspects of life are different: In the CHL, there's studying to some extent, but probably not as much, and it's certainly a more “professional” hockey lifestyle. In the NCAA, you have to juggle class and practice and travel for games, and it's not always easy.
But the reason it's not a fair fight is that the NCAA's amateurism rules state that players who have participated in the CHL cannot play college hockey — an extremely complicated and contentious issue that's unlikely to ever be resolved — where the CHL has no such restrictions. And so a kid can choose college, and if he doesn't like it, not have to regret the decision because he'll probably be able to find a junior team to pick him up.
But if he chooses the CHL and doesn't like it, well, that's it for options.
There's a little too much rhetoric about the quality of the leagues in question on both sides (I'm certainly guilty of this). The NCAA will point out that it provides most kids a free education, gets them games against players as old as 24 or 25 every weekend, and lets them work with coaches and trainers for the vast majority of the week to improve their skills and fitness. The CHL says it will help players get acclimated to the pro lifestyle, get them into more game situations, perhaps get them scouted a little more heavily, and put them against the most elite amateur talent any league on the planet has to offer.
The fact of the matter is, though, that what's right for each individual kid is going to be very different. A kid like Sidney Crosby or John Tavares or Connor McDavid has been told he's the best player alive of his specific age since he was probably eight or nine years old, and their numbers reflect that. The CHL bends over backwards to have these kids in the league as soon as possible for a lot of reasons, and for one of them to have the chance to play against a boatload of NHL draft picks at 15 or 16 — which they largely can't do if they take the college route, simply because there aren't a ton of draftees hanging around the BCHL or USHL — is highly valuable. Also, if you're Canadian, the brass at Hockey Canada have made it pretty clear that they'll give consideration for U-18 and U-20 tournaments to CHL players almost exclusively.
Which brings us to the case of Sonny Milano, who was made a first-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in June.
He was slated to go to Boston College in the fall, which would have made him one of three first-round picks on the team (Florida's Michael Matheson, a junior defenseman, and Minnesota's Alex Tuch, who was Milano's linemate with the US Development team this past season; incoming freshman defenseman, the youngest player in Boston College history, and apparent “generational talent” Noah Hanifin will be a very high draft pick for this coming spring). This after having initially decommitted from Notre Dame back in November.
But then, after rumblings basically all summer that he wasn't going to go to college after all, and would instead head to the OHL to play for the Plymouth Whalers, all the premonitions came true.
As you might imagine, there was a lot of finger-pointing involved. Lots of people blamed Milano himself, as though reading the mind of an 18-year-old kid was something any coach could have done. Lots of people blamed the OHL, where teams seem to delight in poaching high-profile college players for a lot of reasons. Lots of people blamed the Columbus Blue Jackets, which may or may not have pressured Milano to do something that was perhaps better for his development.
Everyone who blamed everyone, though, was getting their story from somewhere, and it probably wasn't hard to see the agenda.
For instance, Columbus came out hard against those who said they helped influence the decision, claiming that, for one thing, Jarmo Kekalainen played college hockey and wouldn't do anything to hurt Boston College. For another, they've let players develop Boston College before, with the most notable recent example being Cam Atkinson, who left after three seasons because he was ready. For a third, they said they repeatedly told Milano the decision was his alone.
What this ignores, though, is that if Milano wanted a contract, Columbus couldn't sign him and let him go to college.
Again, the amateurism rules. You sign a pro deal, you can't play in the NCAA. So if they told him that — which he and his “advisor” (see also: currently unpaid agent) would have known full well — they didn't technically do anything to sway him. So people, essentially, are upset that they didn't tell Milano to stay in school for a year or two then come sign.
As for blaming the OHL, well, the Whalers might just be lucky bystanders in all of this. They held Milano's rights and hey whaddaya know, he all of a sudden didn't go to college, and they have a first-round pick jump into the boat. One would imagine they probably had some kind of contact with Milano's camp, but it doesn't seem like the kid needed to be whacked with an oar to change his path.
So then you come to the idea of blaming Milano. People will argue that the OHL doesn't make him any more likely to “make it” in the NHL than a couple seasons at Boston College, and they're right. Milano is a player of exceptional quality who would be an NHLer whether he bused it around Ontario for a year, played for Jerry York, or lived on Venus. Talent will win out, and Milano has plenty of it to spare. It doesn't really hurt college hockey for him to not play there. Not overall, anyway. Probably hurts BC considerably for this coming season.
The general rule of thumb in the “CHL or NCAA?” choice is pretty simple: If you don't feel like studying and feel like you'll be NHL-ready before you're 21, then the CHL is probably right for you. If you want a little longer to develop and a chance for a free education, then choose the NCAA.
For Milano to make this decision, all it really boils down to is how soon he gets paid. He wanted to get some money ASAP, and it seems Columbus will oblige him. You can't be mad about him wanting a hefty signing bonus. It is known that 18-year-olds don't make the best decisions, but for Milano, the question was whether he'd get the money now, or later. He chose now. And he was always going to write his own ticket anyway.
It's not a matter of BC “losing” and Plymouth “winning” in this or any other case. Milano doesn't make a Jack Eichel-type say, “Well, no NCAA for me, thanks!” Every kid is different, and wants different things.
And this is going to happen again and again and again to college hockey. And if you don't like it, you have to take it up with the NCAA's rules on playing for junior teams being a permanent barrier to eligibility. Blaming anyone or anything else is the wisdom of fools.
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- Sonny Milano