The Decision To Turn Professional
by George Bazos/
It seems that every off-season (and sometimes even during the season), more and more college hockey players are deciding to sign professional contracts and leave school early.
I have been representing professional hockey players for over 17 years, the majority of whom have come from the collegiate ranks. I have represented players that have stayed in college for four years, as well as some who have chosen to turn professional before their collegiate eligibility has expired. Every player's situation is unique, and a number of factors must be considered when determining the best time for a particular player to become a professional.
The current NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement includes an "Entry Level System" which acts to limit the compensation received by players on their first professional contract. The result of this is that it makes it much more difficult for a player to "get rich" from his first contract.
An overview of the Entry Level System is as follows:
The length of a player's first NHL contract is determined by his age at the time of signing. If a player is 21 years old or younger at the time of signing, he is obligated to sign a three-year contract. If a player is age 22 or 23 at the time of signing, he is obligated to sign a two-year contract. If a player is 24 years old at the time of signing, he must sign a one-year contract. Finally, if a player is age 25 or above when he signs his first NHL contract, there are no restrictions at all as he would not be bound by the Entry Level System.
There are restrictions on the annual compensation that a player can receive on his Entry Level contract. First of all, all such contracts must be "two-way" contracts. This means that a player will have one salary that will be paid to him while he is performing at the NHL level, and a separate (much lower) salary while he is playing at the minor league level. For 2008, the maximum NHL compensation is $875,000 (this is a combination of a player's signing bonus along with his NHL salary) per year, and the maximum minor league compensation is $65,000 per year. It is important to note that a player’s maximum signing bonus can only be 10 percent of the $875,000 maximum annual compensation, which equates to a maximum signing bonus of $87,500 per year of the contract.
What do all of the above contractual technicalities mean? It means that a player better make sure that he is completely ready to turn pro before leaving college early. Long gone are the days of the $1,000,000 signing bonuses that some college players used to receive. A player must be ready both physically and mentally to compete at the professional level so that he can get to a second NHL contract and beyond.
In my opinion, the biggest mistake that a player can make is to leave college before he is ready. In fact, one of the many benefits of playing in college is that it gives a player a full four years to develop, as opposed to Major Juniors in which a player only has two years to prepare himself for the professional ranks.
As glamorous as professional hockey may seem to a college player, after turning pro most players quickly realize that hockey at the professional level is a very serious business. Instead of playing games on weekends with their teammates and enjoying the college lifestyle, the player is competing with and against grown men, many of who have a wife and family to support. If the player is not producing on the ice, the team that signed him will find somebody else that will, not caring that the player gave up his college eligibility. We have all seen too many players leave school early, only to not be offered a second contract. At that point, they have lost the ability to play in college, and more importantly, they have lost the ability to go to college for free as they have given up their scholarships.
I know it sounds trite, but there really is no substitute for a college education. No matter how good a player is, there is no guarantee that he will have a long NHL career. Even if the player is one of the fortunate to make it in the NHL, there more than likely will be some point in his life that he wished he had his college degree. Sometimes agents are portrayed as the bad guys among college hockey fans, but this is the advice I tell my clients, as do many agents.
I realize that college may not be the best route for everyone, and there may be certain circumstances that lead a player to leave college early. However, one thing is for certain, it is extremely important for a player to be fully informed when making the life changing decision on when to turn professional.
Mr. Bazos has been negotiating contracts and representing professional athletes since 1990. His agency, Sports Professional Management represents former college players now in the NHL such as Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle, Craig Conroy, Mike York and Jason Krog. Find out more at spmsports.com. To have something addressed in a future column, send George a question.