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.


ethan said...

Most interesting current battleground between the two systems may be over NDTP scoring star Patrick Kane. Pat has just broken Phil Kessel's single season point record with the U18 team of 98. He has 101 points, including 50 goals with two games remaining to tie or break Kessel's single season goal scoring mark of 52. Pat is not academically eligible for the NCAA as yet, and may face the same quandry as Peter Mueller did last season. Play a year (or possibly just half a year) in the USHL and accept an NCAA offer for the following season, or play in the OHL with the hope of imroving his draft status.

The Word said...

Thanks, Scott... very insightful...

One of my friends here who knows the coaches at our University e-mailed one of them at the coaches conference in Florida about some other stuff, but asked about the conference. He said surprisingly the big talk isn't about saving the CHA or what to do with those teams, but rather the big discussion is about having the NCAA lower the age limit that coaches can initiate contact with potential recruits so they can be more competitive with major juniors.

JrHockeyGuy said...

LONDON, ONTARIO: London Knights General Manager Mark Hunter today announced that the team has signed 16 year old Center Sam Gagner to an OHL Contract. Gagner, 16 was selected by the London Knights in the 4th Round ( 67th Overall ) at the 2005 Ontario Hockey League Draft. Gagner was drafted from the Toronto Marlboros Minor Midget AAA Team where he led the 2004-2005 Toronto Marlboros to the 2005 OHL Cup Championship. He spent the 2005-2006 season with the Sioux City Muskateers of the USHL where he recorded 11 goals and 35 assists in 56 games for the Muskateers. He was named to the 2005-2006 USHL All-Rookie Team.

C 5.11 198 lbs August 10, 1989 Minneappolis, MN
ACQUIRED: 4th Round Selection, 67th Overall, London Knights, 2005 OHL Draft
NHL STATUS: Eligible in 2007

Year Team GP G A PTS PIM
04-05 Toronto Marlboros 89 63 110 173 56
05-06 Sioux City USHL 56 11 35 46 60
05-06 Team Ontario Under 17 5 6 7 13 0

Member of 2005 OHL Cup Champion Toronto Marlboros
Named MVP of the 2005 OHL Cup Tournament
London Knights 4th Round Selection ( 67th Overall ) at the 2005 OHL Draft
Named USHL Player of the Week for the week ending October 31, 2005
Member of 2006 Ontario Under 17 Team
Named to the Western Conference All-Star Team for 2006 USHL All-Star Game
Named to the USHL All-Rookie Team for 2005-2006
For more information please contact

Jim McKellar
Assistant General Manager
519-681-0800 ext. 6441

Bull # 1 said...

Couldn't this entire war be ended quickly by the NCAA allowing Major Junior Players to play in the NCAA. It seems it would benefit both sides.

dpot said...

You have some good comments, but your talk on the Canadian Development Model (CDM) is so far off-base, it's actually funny.
First, in case you didn't know, and I'm guessing you didn't, there's division in Hockey Canada's world between major-junior ranks and tier-two camps. And both sides have much they don't like about the CDM -- though it is primarly tier-two driven, as Hockey Canada's (now former) president, Bob Nicholson (now with NHL's Vancouver Canucks), hails from a tier-two background. With these indisputable facts, your thesis about the CDM being CHL,or major-junior, driven is just plain wrong.
In a nutshell concerning 16-year-olds, and their inability to transfer and play in other provinces, look at the national success of the B.C. and Alberta tier two leagues (BCHL, AJHL), which has done well in the past in selecting out-of-province talent, versus Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
And have you ever been to a major-junior game? How much ice time do 16s get in comparison to 19s and 20s?
Hockey Canada's reasoning is exactly what you stated: To develop confidence through playing time amongst 16s instead of rotting on the bench in either major junior or tier two. The CDM is also quite protective, and stupidly so, in its attitude concerning U.S. players crossing the border, and major-junior teams aren't happy about this, as it could create an unlevel playing field with its U.S. teams. Besides, why shouldn't tier-two teams be allowed access as well?
And as far as the USHL being an equivalent league to major junior, give your head a shake. USHL teams might be able to compete with a BCHL or AJHL team, but that league is nowhere close to major junior.
I'm also guessing you believe the hype that tier-two leagues also don't pay their players under the table.
You know a lot about hockey, esp. NCAA, but you've a lot to learn when it comes to other leagues.

TJC said...

dpot right on the money.

there's a LOT of misconceptions by Americans regarding all these topics.... the greatest of which is the ignorance of the major junior education package (and americans seem to think that Canadian Universities wont make them as educated as an american college). Its so easy to lay out. Any americans who do not know what im talking about, go to ... If you play major junior youre guaranteed to either go forward in hockey, OR get a university scholarship.

I cringe when i see a Canadian kid go to the USA to play, and also when US kids are afraid to play at the highest level of their ability due to ignorance of the facts. The only benefit, hockey development wise, for college is for players taking more time to grow.

Oh, and since Cogliano is the hot topic here - anyone ever seen him in an interview, or spoken to him at length? Sure he attanded Michigan and was a Wolverine. Still dumber than a rock... without getting into names, that seems to be the norm for many Wolverine players... if you go to University to play sports and study kinesiology, College was obviously the wrong route for you. Guys like Adam Oates, Joe Juneau, or a youngster who actually has a goal to learn (for example) engineering, maybe a good option. Those guys have some serious degrees. But just to go to class and go through the motions? pointless.

As the writer stated - USHL compares to Major Junior? And Santa Claus comes to my house with golden easter eggs on my birthday too. Get the cobwebs out of your head. As NCAA hockey graduate, from Brick, NJ, Jim Dowd said on the NHL network this year: "I know becuase i played it. NCAA hockey is not REAL hockey, its an abriged version of the real game". I often echo the comment by saying "full cage hockey is not real hockey".

US kids should be allowed to come up here as 16 OR 17 year olds... whos holding back a kid's development in this scenario?

Unknown said...

well that is a very difficult question to answer and I think that after reading a post at hostpph site, I think I will choose college hockey