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The Economic Prospects of a Hockey Player

I grew up in Winnipeg, surrounded by a lot of very good hockey players. When we were 12 or 13 years old, it was a foregone conclusion that some of them would get drafted and end up in the NHL. After all, there were a few solid local players in the pros: Mike Keane, Mike Ridley, Grant Ledyard and James Patrick.

But we should have noticed that of those four players, only Patrick was drafted. For the others, the road to the NHL was anything but direct: Ledyard played Tier II Junior, then spent almost three years in the minors; Keane played out his junior eligibility then spent a year in the minors; and Ridley, after losing a season after having his leg broken by Patrick in midget hockey, played Canadian college hockey.

Looking at players born 1973-1982 in Winnipeg, just 14 reached the NHL, with the longest career belonging to Tyler Arnason. Overall, just 7.3 players per year reached some significant level of professional hockey, which includes the NHL, AHL/IHL, minor pro leagues such as the ECHL, CHL or UHL, or top-division European leagues. If we assume an average wage of $10000 per game in the NHL, $1000 in the AHL, $500 in Europe and $200 in North American minor pro leagues, we get the following average salaries by age:

Age Average Salary
20 10005
21 16000
22 26047
23 49365
24 46748
25 45529
26 38259
27 35723
28 26437
29 24748

The average is of course skewed by players who manage to stay on an NHL roster throughout the entire year. The median salary at ages 23-25 is closer to $20000, since the majority of players play in minor pro leagues. I've introduced a survivor bias here too - barely 5% of AAA Bantam (age 15) players will make the jump to being regular players in Junior or the NCAA and get the opportunity to play professional hockey. Overall, fewer than 1% of top 15-year-olds will ever make the NHL minimum salary of $450000 in a season, and perhaps 3% will make the AHL average of $50000.