For Hockey’s Young Stars, the NHL Draft is Just the Start

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Held the night after the NBA Draft, hockey players had to wait 24 hours longer than the basketball guys to hear their names called at the NHL Draft. But they may have to wait a lot longer than that to have their name called during their first professional game.

While basketball draft picks typically jump straight to the NBA, hockey players often have to toil in juniors, or the minors, or even head back to college for a year for extra seasoning before they can play in the league. That's because hockey has a feeder system set to nurture young talent.

The trend isn't limited to middle and late-round hockey picks, either. It applies to Grade-A talents selected as high as No. 2 overall. Over the last 25 years, only 12 second overall picks dressed immediately for their NHL clubs. NBA picks don't really have anywhere else to go but to the pros.

Hockey players can also go back to their teams in Europe for added physical and mental development necessary to compete against older, wiser players in the NHL. Basketball doesn't have a minor league outside of the limited 18-team NBA Development League, and once college players declare for the draft, they become ineligible to return to school.

Basketball players who come out of college as upperclassmen also enter the league a year or two older and are more physically mature than their hockey counterparts, who are selected as 18-year-old kids. You can also make an argument that college basketball is essentially minor league hoops, same as NCAA football represents the NFL's only true feeder league.

Players drafted by NHL clubs retain their amateur status and are allowed to return to play in the NCAA, but it may take years for their skates to touch NHL ice.

"Being drafted is a dream come true for anyone, but then a lot of the reality comes in," Tyler Motte, a sophomore forward for the University of Michigan and a 2013 Blackhawks draft pick told the Chicago Tribune. "It's only a step in the process. I had to narrow my vision to just having a good freshman year."

Baseball players also must wait years before getting the call to play in the majors. Baseball operates by far the most extensive minor league system with players typically having to navigate three tiers of minor league ball before advancing to "The Show."

Players are eligible for the NHL Draft at 18, but on average don't get to play for their teams until they turn 20. According to, this trend has held steady throughout history. Depending on their position, baseball players might not make it to the majors until after their 24th birthday, though MLB is trending toward younger players. The average age of an NBA rookie is about 20, while first-year players in the NFL average about 24.

But basketball may change its rules as early as 2016 and allow players who declare for the draft to return to college after they gauge their draft prospects. The NCAA proposed letting players back as a way to retain some of its better players for another season or two after attending the NBA Combine.

"This is a positive development for student-athletes exploring their professional dreams," said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men's basketball, told ESPN. "This would give prospects and their families more appropriate time and unbiased info from the NBA to make important decisions. And it would probably lead some to go back to school."