Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Revisiting Frost

Today's ROI newsletter, written by Paul Shaheen and available by request, revisists more of the expanding web of allegations that surround not just the David Frost, but those who have a close allegiance to him. In this case, the story surrounds the Pembroke Lumber Kings, a storied franchise in the Central Ontario Junior Hockey League. As ROI writes:

Two weeks ago, a piece prepared and broadcast by The Fifth Estate, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's equivalent to 60 Minutes, linked the Lumbers Kings to not only a lack of control over its players...In The Fifth Estate piece, a former Lumber Kings billet family claimed the club was far too lenient with its players, and accused the Kings of allowing rampant drinking, partying, and wild initiation rights. It went on to suggest Frost's relationship with the club--he'd served as an occasional team advisor--had something to do with this alleged lack of institutional control.

Those allegations mirror many of the allegations for the 1997 Quinte Hawks, outlined in my earlier blog entry.

As I noted in my blog entry, the franchise is owned in part by, Sheldon Keefe, one of the "Brampton gang". The ties do not end there, however. The co-owners of the Quinte Hawks who brought Frost aboard were Marty Abrams, a former NHL pick, who now coaches the Wellington Dukes of the OPJHL, and his brother Kevin, who now coaches the Pembroke team. Marty Abrams also has his own legal issues as he was charged by the Candian authorities for misappropriating not-for-profit charitable funds for his own private use at his summer cottage. (It should be noted Marty Abrams has denied the allegations.)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The New CBA

Today's Minnesota Daily has a story about the new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the impact it has on college underclassmen signing early. Unfortunately, the story is a bit off target, in that while it identifies the correct factors that influence the decision, it incorrectly analyzes their impact.

For example, the article's premise is:

Essentially, the agreement extends the amount of time teams have drafted players’ exclusive rights

While this is technically true in a limited number of cases, the CBA in fact shortens the amount of time for virtually all college players. The change that the article mentions is of small significance: designed to close the "Van Ryn loophole" by which players in college could leave college, play an "overage" season in the CHL, and then become free agents. The article correctly points out that teams drafting college players will keep exclusive rights “until the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft,” thus precluding college players leaving early for the major junior route. However, the closing of the loophole is a positive development for the college game, even though it applied in only a handful of cases (Van Ryn, Mike Comrie, Anthony Aquino).

The broader impact of the CBA's language is that it shortens the period of exclusivity for college players. The prior CBA provided for exclusive rights for a year following the "conclusion of his playing of hockey in college." In its place, the new CBA provides exclusivity only "through August 15 following the graduation of his college class." Because the period of exclusivity extends principally during "non-playing" summer months following the senior year, a college senior finishing his college career will not miss any playing time before he becomes a free agent. Without "losing" anything by sitting out a year (as he would have had to under the prior CBA), he can gain unlimited leverage. The shortening of this exclusivity is the dynamic changing the relationship between the college game and the NHL.

All of which suggests that Minnesota Wild Assistant GM Tom Lynn's quote that:

“(The NHL and NHL Players’ Association) took care to make sure (the change to the agreement) didn’t hurt the college game by giving the teams four years after drafting a guy to sign him,” Lynn said. “The teams wouldn’t have to rush a guy out of college just in order to have his rights.

“(Before) they’d only have one year after he left school. So, if a player, after his freshman year, was thinking, ‘Huh, I’ll leave school for a year, then I’ll be free’. Now, the team gets him for four years, so the player will either stay in school or sign with his team.”

is correct for one or two kids who had left school (but not for the NHL) but is utterly incorrect for the vast majority of college players.

Additionally, the article correctly notes the rookie salary cap and signing bonus as an additional factor. However, this too works in favor of encouraging players to leave college before their senior year. If the maximum amount that a player can achieve is the rookie cap, and that amount is offered by an NHL team prior to the senior season, there is no incentive to "increase" leverage by potentially becoming a free agent during the summer after graduating. Again, Lynn's quote that “there’s less incentive to come out of college right now” seems to miss the point.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Today's Grand Forks Herald has a nice article on the NCAA vs. Major Junior choice facing top hockey prospects, such as North Dakota's Jonathan Toews, and how this year's NHL draft reveals that many top Americans and some Candian players have chosen the NCAA route.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Chucko Leaves Minnesota

Minnesota's Kris Chucko has signed a pro contract, leaving after his sophomore year. Interestingly, Don Lucia took the opportunity to express his displeasure with the NHL's Calgary Flames in an interview with the Star Tribune.

Lucia is happy for Chucko, whom he called "a quality kid with a strong work ethic and a lot of character." He used less-glowing terms regarding the Calgary organization.

"They're an organization that is not big on college hockey," Lucia said. "They put Kris in a difficult situation by contacting him during the season and trying to get him to leave. That's not very professional on their part. I've never had that happen before."

Calgary's anti-NCAA views are not a surprise to anyone who knows the Sutter clan and their old-time hockey mentality. All six brothers worked their way through the Canadian major junior system, and Brent Sutter is a coach with the WHL's Red Deer team. To various degrees, many NHL teams still view the NCAA with skepticism, in part because they maintain less control over the players and the system. The NHL maintains a development agreement with the CHL, and provides development money for each player chosen in the draft from a major junior team (totalling more than $5.4 million in 2004). No such NHL monies go to college or junior A teams. Moreover, a player in the junior ranks has little control over his career, as items such as for what team he'll play, or when he can turn pro, are governed by major junior drafts and age restrictions. While the NHL likes the NCAA route for later-round picks (because they can develop for 4 or so years, rather than having to be offered a contract by age 20), many NHL teams still feel the CHL route is best for their top picks. Thus, many organizations pressure their players toward the major junior route, with Chucko (and Kobasew before him) being the latest example.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sorting Through David Frost's Junior A Roots

Today's Ottawa Citizen has an incredible story about David Frost's rise with the now-infamous Quinte Hawks the old Metro Toronto (Ontario) Junior A League. By now most people know the NHL story of Mike Danton, formerly Mike Jefferson, and his conviction for attempting to have his "agent", Frost, killed.

Although others have written about it, the Ottawa Citizen story explores to how the "Brampton five" gang moved into junior hockey with Frost, and the eerie parallels of that relationship to that of Sheldon Kennedy and the other unnamed NHL players who were abused by Graham James out in Saskatchewan in the mid-80s. Although the story mentions some of the Frost players, it does not contain the full epilogue for the players. For example, Sheldon Keefe and Shawn Cation thereafter moved with Frost to the Caledon Candians in the final season for the Metro Junior league. Both Cation and Keefe then backed out of scholarships to Northern Michigan and moved on to the St.Mike's OHL team. By mid-year St.Mike's concern about the group resulted in a trade for Cation, Keefe and Barnes to the Barrie Colts. After a brief NHL career, Keefe left pro hockey in 2004, and now owns part of the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Central Junior A team.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

College or Pro Hockey - The Battle Continues

Back in 1980, the NCAA decided that players participating in major junior hockey (the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior League, or the Western Hockey League) no longer were amateurs, regardless of whether or not they were being paid for their participation. Since the erection of this steadfast wall demarking "amateurs" and "professionals", there has been a continual tug of war between NCAA programs and the junior leagues as to which side of the wall talented players would choose. During verious periods, the NCAA has had great success in taking top Canadian prospects from the CHL route, and at other times, the CHL has adjusted its rules so as to make its product more appealing, thereby retaining many of its talented players. (As an aside, I always get a good laugh about the various leagues citing statistics -- e.g. the number of NHL draft picks or NHL players from the league -- to support its claims that it does a better job in "developing" players. To players making a choice based on those numbers, here's a hint: if a league gets 80% of the talented 16 year olds, but produces only 60% of the NHLers, while another league gets 20% of the 16 year olds, but produces 30% of the NHLers, is the league with 60% of the NHLers doing a better job developing talent?)

The Battleground
Much of the battle between major junior teams and the NCAA pivots around timing, particularly the archaic NCAA rules that restrict how and when NCAA coaches can make contact with prospective athletes. The NCAA model originates with the pre-supposition that most of the prospective college athletes are American, and that they have few options but the NCAA game. Therefore, the waiting periods which restrict NCAA contact is beneficial in shielding kids from overanxious NCAA recruiters who otherwise might bombard High School Sophomore and Juniors.

However, in hockey, the vacuum created by this limitation on contact between NCAA hockey programs and potential hockey players when they are 16 and 17 allows the Major Junior programs a virtual monopoly in which to sell their programs. Thus, one of the primary advantages that the major junior leagues can exploit is the well-intentioned, but likely ultimately harmful, restrictions on having colleges sell their option to kids during this influential time. As discussed below, the OHL in particular has moved its rules in order to exploit that weakness.

The Draft and Affiliation Process
Back in 1999, the OHL began its reaction to the outflow of talented players to the NCAA. The reaction was in the form of lowering its draft age from 17 to 16, a move that the OHL scouts lamented because it made a risky evaluation process even more of a crapshoot. But the OHL went this route so as to place the 16 year old players under their control for a full year before the NCAA would allow teams to initiate in-person recruitment. Should these 16 year olds attend the OHL camp for 48 hours without paying their own expenses, their NCAA eligibility would be shot. Even if the players keep their eligibility by not signing right away, the OHL clubs maintain an affiliation with the players, and so can develop a relationship and sell the major junior route during this year without any interference by NCAA programs.

The Latest Salvo: The New Canadian Development Model
The most recent foray into the area is the Canadian Development Model created by the Canadian Hockey, driven principally by CHL presidents such as the OHL's David Branch. A pdf copy of those rules can be found here.

While sounding like a model to assist young hockey players and protect them from the pressures to play at levels above their abilities, that rationale falls away once the details of the new system are exposed. In fact, the model constitutes Hockey Canada's attempt to induce young players to choose the CHL route, by creating an unequal system in which 16 year olds chosing the major junior route are allowed to compete at higher levels, while forcing all 16 year olds to play midget hockey if they have not signed with a major junior club.

The new system works as follows: the Model phases out the ability of 16 year olds to play at the junior A, B or C level, unless they are sponsored by major junior clubs. In the past, junior A teams were able to play 16 year old players, so that players such as Andrew Cogliano, Brendan Smith or Cody Goloubef, having just been drafted by the OHL but not wanting to go that route, would be able to play at a semi-advanced Junior A level in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League. Under the new Model, the number of 16 year olds allowed to play Junior A will be phased down, from last year's unlimited number, to the current 2 per team. However, by 2007-08, only 16 year olds reassigned by an OHL club will be able to play Junior A hockey. For talented players such as Cogliano, Smith and Goloubef, that means the choice becomes even more stark: Do you follow the pressure imposed by pro scouts to play at the "NHL development" league, or play a year of midget hockey? In the past this deferring playing at the "top level" took a lot of will power for players like Cogliano who have NHL ambitions. This makes the the choice even more difficult.

Why the double standard? The Model suggests that they want to allow 16 year old players to develop at lower levels where they can get more playing time and learn to dominate more. If this rationale is accepted, it is not explained in the Model why 16 year olds are allowed to move on to major junior where they get less playing time than in junior A. If it is deemed more harmful for the a Cogliano-type to play Junior A instead of midget hockey, is it less harmful when the Coglianos of the world signs with a major junior team? To me, it seems quite apparent that the Model is a heavy-handed way to create a tremendous dis-incentive for talented prospects to pass on the OHL route. All this takes place against the backdrop of NCAA prospects already being told that they are jeopardizing their development and pro prospects by playing two years of Junior A (including their NHL draft year), rather than playing in the OHL game. [As an aside, there doesn't seem to be evidence to support that fear that players such as Cogliano are punished in the draft for playing at a lower level during their draft year - something I'll blog on later.] Nevertheless, the new system now compels Ontario kids to face a prospect of playing below their level as a 16 year old in midget hockey, and as a 17 year old in Junior A.

The Model's Limiting Alternatives.
One obvious question: If Canada is limiting the options for non-professional players, how about moving to the US to play at a higher level? In the last few years the United States Hockey League has became a Tier I league, which is the hockey quivalent to the Canadian Major Junior ranking. However, players participating in the league maintain their amateur status. So, it would seem that the USHL would provide an amateur avenue by which 16 year olds could play at a very high level while maintaining their amateur status. As we saw, last season the USHL began to reach out to these displaced Canadians, starting a "Canadian Futures Draft" and also inviting a number of 16 year olds down for tryout camps. Well, the CHL took notice, and the Model, in conjunction with the USA Hockey officials, will put a stop to such migration to another Country or Candian Province. The stated motive is couched in protective terms, so that 16 year olds are not forced to move far from home at that age simply for hockey purposes. Once again, however, the Model creates a double standard between those playing major junior, and those choosing to maintain their options. 16 year olds playing major junior can move thousands of miles away from home (for example, Eric Gryba from Saskatchewan would have been permitted to move nearly 2,000 miles to Portland to play for the WinterHawks, but he was not permitted to play in the BCHL, and faced a challenge for leaving to play for Green Bay.)

USA hockey's rules honor the Model's rules, which is why Cody Goloubef, Brendan Smith and Tyler Oleksuk were prohibited from playing in the USHL this year, and why Sam Gagner was able to play only after moving his family to Minnesota.
That consideration is valid, but ultimately must be weighed against the reasons for players fleeing and seeking refuge in the USA. If the only reason is to play in the USHL rather than the Ontario Junior A leagues, that reason may not support the move. However, if the difference is being coerced into a professional league (with no junior alternative), perhaps the USA Hockey officials will need to modify their export rules. It is interesting that the Model is pleased to enforce such export restrictions, expressly prohibiting such moves:

Players Sixteen (16) years of age and younger(Hockey Canada to USA Hockey)
Players wishing to obtain a transfer to USA Hockey from Hockey Canada, and who are NOT moving with their parent(s), are not permitted to do so under the new Regulation K.6 (b). Should the player wish to challenge this regulation, the player is required to file an appeal with the Hockey Canada National Appeals Committee as per the procedure set forth in By-Law TWELVE. In this instance, the decision of the National Appeals Committee is final and binding.

The Hockey Canada rules, however, maintains no such reciprocal prohibitions. By Rule F.51, it will be up to the Major Junior teams to decide how many Americans they will allow into their leagues. Thus, while the outflow of talent is restricted, there presently is no restriction on the inflow of American talent. Would USA hockey consider imposing a reciprocity requirement, that if 16 year old US players can play in Canada, that Canada would have to release 16 year old Canadians who want to play in USA's premier "junior" league?

For example, would the NCAA allow coaches to contact 15 and 16 year olds once solely for the purpose of providing generic information about the NCAA option, and to at least indicate an interest in the player? Currently, that process takes place through the convoluted mechanism of an NCAA coach contacting the player's coach and letting him know they have interest, and that the coach should let the player know the school would be receptive to a call, and then waiting and hoping. That process leaves a lot to chance, and if it takes place too late, the player will already have deeper connections with the major junior teams that have drafted the player.

In the end, it will be interesting to see how this new system evolves, and whether it has the effect desired by Hockey Canada of driving younger players into the Canadian junior leagues. If so, then the ball goes back into the USA hockey court, to see what steps they will take to counter this challenge.

89s making the move

Just a couple of quick commitments to report on, some of which I have been unable to post on my page.

Thunder Bay midget center Travis Oleksuk, first mentioned here in October based on his having rejected the OHL route, has decided to follow his dad's route through Duluth, Minnesota. This coming year you can expect to see Travis suited up for Thunder Bay native Dave Siciliano, the coach of the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL.

Another 89 already playing for Sioux City, although originally from a warmer climate than Thunder Bay, is Frank Grzezcszak. The Florida native is a small, mobile defenseman, who this week chose to play at Nebraska-Omaha in 07.

Sioux City went with a young squad this year, but the dues-paying will bear fruit next year if all of the eligible returnees come back. Both Sam Gagner and Dustin Gazley will be playing their second years, and team leading scorer Philip DeSimone is scheduled to return (although there is some thought that Dan Winnik's defection may alter his scheduled 07 arrival in Durham.) Also probable for a break-out year is Anthony Maiani, an 89 whose older brother already skates for Ohio State.