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.