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By: Gary Lawless, Winnipeg Free Press

It’s long been accepted in these parts that the fastest way to the NHL was through the Western Hockey League, but for an education the U.S. college route was best.

The WHL, however, says times change and so have they.

“We’ve come a long way in the last 15 years, I would say. Especially with our scholarship program. The game has changed and you need skill guys and smart guys. Life after hockey is more important to our league than it ever was and the WHL scholarship program gives our guys that safety net if pro hockey doesn’t work out,” said Tyler Boldt, WHL manager of player recruitment, following an information session for prospective players and their parents at Canad Inns Polo Park on Monday night.

Boldt says the WHL is still the strongest development league out there but has more to offer than just great coaching and a pro-type schedule.

“The conversation always used to be, ‘Do you want to be a hockey player or do you want to get an education and a job,'” said Boldt. “We provide our guys with both sides of that as we give them the best way to become a pro hockey player and, if you realize that you may not be able to achieve that goal, we have our full scholarship program to fall back on.”

The WHL has been a leading supplier of NHL talent for over 40 years and since 1993 more WHL players have been selected in the NHL Draft than any league.

In last year’s draft, 33 WHL players were selected with five going in the first round. More than 20 per cent of the NHL’s current players are WHL grads.

“We attract 90 to 95 per cent of all the players we want to play in our league,” said Boldt. “Every year there are few high-profile players that choose to go the U.S. college route but for everyone that leaves there is another excellent player in Western Canada more than happy to take his place.”

Faced with competition from U.S. college programs, the WHL has improved its education policy and this year more than 300 WHL graduates have utilized their WHL scholarship at more than 70 different post-secondary institutions.

Last season, 110 active WHL players registered in post-secondary courses, all paid for by their WHL team.

The scholarship program guarantees each player a full year scholarship for every year played in the WHL which includes tuition, compulsory fees and textbooks.

Players that choose a Canada West University program will receive additional financial assistance which the league says is equivalent to a full ride U.S. college scholarship.

“Most of players are former WHL players and are on the scholarship program combining league and school funds,” said University of Manitoba Bisons coach Mike Sirant. “They get tuition, books and compulsory fees from the WHL and then from us they get the equivalent in cash of tuition and fees. For the kids living at home in Winnipeg it’s a very good position and for kids living away from home it comes very close to covering all their costs.”

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless