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Decisions come at early age in Canadian hockey system

There's a lot of confusion among Americans about our northerly neighbors. Yes, Can-adians may sound a bit funny to American ears and say "eh" too much for our tastes, but one thing most Americans are sure of is that Canadians love hockey.

With a dizzying array of leagues and massive participation at all levels, Canada's most popular sport has a following that astonishes most American observers. But if you ask a Canadian to explain their hockey system, you are more likely to get a garbled response than any sort of straightforward answer.

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Even men's hockey head coach Don Cahoon, an Amer-ican, preferred to let assistant coach Len Quesnelle, a Cana-dian, answer questions about the system.

Youth leagues

"You start out playing for a town or community team and go through a whole system of youth leagues," Quesnelle said. "The natural progression at age 16-17 is to a junior team and then on to college."

It sounds simple enough. But the structure of the leagues in different provinces varies drastically.

"All the provinces have different junior league setups," Quesnelle said. "For example Ontario just increased their number of teams by 50-60 percent in the last 10 years and that's watered down the talent pool a lot. B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan have remained smaller and kept their product high. Quebec has a strong midget league and a lot less go to college hockey then other provinces."

Junior leagues are for players under age 20. They have two separate levels, major juniors and tier two juniors. Major junior players are paid small salaries, while tier two players are not.

Around age 16, players will be drafted by the local junior leagues. The top players then have to make a tough choice whether to try out for major juniors and forfeit their NCAA eligibility or play in tier two and retain a chance to play college hockey in the United States.

'Easy decision'

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"It was an easy decision for me," junior defenseman Jackson Hegland said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I've wanted to go play hockey in the U.S. My dad played at Cornell and that was a major influence for me."

"It's a young age to make a decision," senior goalie Erasmo Saltarelli said. "You've got to choose to go try out, but (if you) spend a weekend, (you) lose a year."

Just a one-weekend tryout for major juniors in which players earn about $40 costs a player a full year of college eligibility. Two Tigers have suffered under this rule. Sophomore forward Benoit Morin did not play all last year and freshman Kirk Lamb is sitting out this year.

Playing in major juniors permanently forfeits all eligibility.

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"They put stars in kids eyes at the draft, especially in Quebec," Salta-relli said. "They make all kinds of promises and put incredible pressure (on the players), especially the French kids. They make big empty promises, they say 'why would you want to leave? Stay up here and try to make it to the NHL.' "

Fast track

Going into major juniors has traditionally been the quickest route to the NHL. For example, Philadel-phia Flyer Eric Lindros spent one year in major juniors before being drafted by the NHL.

Closer to campus, after a stellar freshman year, Dominique Auger '00 left the Tigers this year to return to play in the Quebec major juniors.

"The goal of major juniors is to break into the pro leagues," Hegland said. "If you don't make it there's not as much choice. A few go play for Canadian universities, where there's no eligibility rules like the NCAA."

Roots

Most of the Canadian players on the men's hockey team players came to Princeton from junior tier two leagues, although senior forward Robbie Sinclair came straight out of midget triple A (one step below juniors).

Playing in the junior tier two leagues gives players a chance to mature and develop for a few years after high school. This causes members of the hockey team to be older than most college students. Saltarelli, for example, turns 24 tomorrow.

Still confused? Ask a Canadian. See if he can explain it.

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