Tyler Johnson (no, not the TB Lightning forward) should be getting ready for his second season of NCAA Division I hockey at the University of Maine.

But for 10 minutes and 26 seconds when he was 16 years old.

Instead, the 6-foot-3 goaltender is toiling as an Ontario Hockey League backup, the result of running afoul of NCAA eligibility rules in pursuit of his hockey dream.

NCAA eligibility should be a straightforward proposition for student-athletes — make the grades and the test scores, you play. But, for young hockey players looking at options including junior hockey, the route to college pucks is littered with potential missteps that could sideline a college career.

Cautionary Tale

Johnson was playing in the Tier I amateur High Performance Hockey League in 2014 when he was taken by Plymouth in the seventh round of the Ontario Hockey League’s draft. Like its Canadian Major Junior peers, the OHL is considered a pro league by the NCAA — but being drafted isn’t enough to impact eligibility.

Only when Johnson answered Plymouth’s call for an emergency start — the club was down two goalies at the time — did he become a pro in the NCAA’s eyes. The facts that he was still more than a month shy of turning 17, faced 11 shots, allowed three goals and then returned to amateur play — where he would remain through the 2015-16 season — did nothing to sway the NCAA when Johnson and Maine petitioned the organization to reinstate his eligibility.

Johnson played in 2017-18 for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds after returning to that league with London in ’16-17.

CHL vs. NCAA

Those events didn’t derail Johnson’s chances of getting his education paid. The CHL has a scholarship program that essentially pays a year of school for every year you play in the league. There are restrictions on where you can go and what is typically covered (tuition, books, etc.), but it is a perk that might sway some players on the CHL/NCAA fence.

Remember, though, that you could get cut after two CHL seasons, be left without college eligibility and only two years of school covered. Of course, the NCAA route — where partial scholarships are common — doesn’t always cover the complete bill, either.

Still, if the NCAA is even a possible option, young hockey players must know how to protect their eligibility.

The Basics of Eligibility

Essentially, most college sports programs are governed by the NCAA, an association whose reach extends to more than 1,200 colleges, universities and organizations across Divisions I, II and III. Its most basic requirements cover academics and amateurism:

Academics: In Division I or II, student-athletes must meet minimum criteria based on high school grades in core courses, and scores on the SAT or ACT. Weighted on a sliding scale, those scores are used to determine initial eligibility.

Prospective student-athletes must:

  • Take 16 “core courses,” including 10 before the seventh semester of high school, and achieve a minimum GPA in those courses.
  • Take either the SAT or ACT. Many athletes take it more than once, and can combine subscores from multiple test dates to achieve a qualifying score.
  • Submit transcripts and test scores to the NCAA Eligibility Center.

Amateurism: Though there are exceptions, the basic rule is that student-athletes can’t have played for money prior to enrollment. The NCAA (at eligibilitycenter.org) offers plenty of guidance on this issue; but, in the main:

  • Do not accept payment or gifts based on your athletic ability.
  • Do not sign a contract with a professional team or agent.
  • Do not allow your amateur team to cover any expenses beyond those deemed as actual and necessary.
  • Cover your own expenses when attending camps with pro teams (there’s a 48-hour exception to this rule, but if Day 3 rolls around, you’d better be paying your way home).

Knowledge Is Power

Ultimately, if you want an education through hockey, first educate yourself. Not knowing the requirements is a sure way to fall short of them. Not knowing your options is a great way to choose the wrong one. The key for junior hockey players is to protect all your options until the best path is obvious.

Guest Author bio: AJ Lee is Marketing Coordinator for Pro Stock Hockey, an online resource for pro stock hockey gear. He was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and has been a huge Blackhawks fan his entire life. AJ picked up his first hockey stick at age 3, and hasn’t put it down yet.

If you’d like more information or personal assistance regarding how the NCAA rules specifically affect your student-athlete’s situation, schedule a confidential consult online, call Informed Athlete at 913-766-1235 or send an email to rick@informedathlete.com