In recent weeks, the flurry of former college-committed players taking their talents to the CHL has caused a bit of an uproar on both sides of the argument. NCAA fans are upset they’re losing their top recruits. Many, but certainly not all, CHL backers are telling NCAA fans to quit their moaning.
Both have valid arguments, but both are, in most cases, passionately biased. I’ve stated many times before I am a pro-college guy, but I’m not, nor have I ever been, an anti-Major Junior guy. I’ll explain to anyone who wants to know the value of choosing either path as each has strengths and weaknesses, as I see them.
That said, an interesting argument has crept up in this whole process. Why doesn’t college hockey try to get an exemption from the NCAA to allow former CHL players to retain college eligibility?
First off, I don’t know if that’s at all possible for sure, considering that NCAA is constantly monitoring and evaluating what is and isn’t a professional athlete.
The reason CHL players currently lose eligibility isn’t totally based on the stipend each player receives, but the fact that plenty of CHL players have already signed professional contracts with NHL clubs, making them professionals by the NCAA’s definition. While the CHL may not be considered a professional league per se, it includes professional hockey players, thus making it a professional league in the eyes of the NCAA.
That’s not really what I want to comment on though. Getting into all that legal stuff isn’t what you want to read anyway. However, I can tell you why, even if the NCAA could grant an exemption for the CHL, it shouldn’t.
The reason is simply quality of play. However there’s a less-simple reason why allowing CHL players to retain eligibility would hurt the quality of play in college hockey.
First off, the reason this plan would not benefit the NCAA is because it makes the NCAA feel more like a safety net than a viable first option for pro development.
Allow me to explain: This may sound terrible, but the fact that a player loses his amateur status, and thus college eligibility in the CHL, is a scary enough proposition for some players to choose the college route. The finality of going to the CHL is a real concern for some players and their parents.
When a player goes to the NCAA, he still has multiple options. If he wants, he can sign a pro contract and head to the AHL. Or, if things aren’t going so great in school, he can go ahead and play Major Junior, or he can transfer, playing his sit-out year in the USHL. If that same player goes straight to the CHL, he has one option. CHL til the end and hope for the best.
Right now, a player’s safety net in the CHL is CIS, Canada’s version of our NCAA. For most American kids CIS is not an optimal fall-back plan. As good as the Canadian schools are, most American kids that choose to get an education would prefer to attend an American university. So, if a kid wants to play hockey and go to school, he has no choice but to attend a CIS institution (which isn’t the end of the world by any means, folks).
That player could also choose to try and play professional hockey, but odds are, since the player was not good enough to earn an NHL contract offer out of Junior and potentially a spot in the AHL, that player’s best-case scenario is the ECHL with an off-shot at the AHL. The Coast is a fine professional hockey league, but one that isn’t going to pay a whole bunch; and remember, it’s the best-case scenario. However, once that player plays 18 months of pro hockey, so long to that education package he signed to play in the CHL. But let’s be honest, how many of these kids are actually accessing their education packages anyway?
So, let’s assume the NCAA allows CHL players to retain eligibility so long as they haven’t signed an NHL contract. In my opinion, that would increase the risk of losing elite players to major junior earlier.
Here’s why: This is not a knock on the USHL, as I love the league… but: given the choice of playing in the USHL vs. the OHL or WHL or QMJHL particularly in the year prior to one’s draft, most kids would pick a CHL team. They’d do that knowing full well that if their draft aspirations aren’t met, they can continue to slug it out in the CHL until they’re 20 and then go to whichever NCAA school has a scholarship to offer.
So not only would this theoretical exemption hurt the NCAA, but it would put a hit on the USHL as well. The USHL is growing and it’s players have deservedly been getting more and more respect and exposure. The gap continues to slowly close between the USHL and its CHL counterparts, but if a kid knows he can play in the CHL and keep his options open if things don’t pan out, he’s probably going to Canada. To most of those kids, Sarnia isn’t that much different than Dubuque.
In my opinion, the biggest recruitment tool for the CHL is the amount of games each team plays over the course of the season. There’s no arguing it’s a more pro-style. The CHL claims to be the fastest route to the NHL, which in some cases is true, but there are plenty of kids who spent a year or two in college and went right to the NHL. While it’s a terrific slogan, the statistics aren’t as lopsided as it suggests. Side note: All players have the option of choosing to play college hockey, but the culture in Canada is CHL then NHL. Most of those kids never think about choosing college. When you take those kids out of the equation, looking solely at kids who choose between the two options, the stats would not overwhelmingly favor the “fastest route” argument, based on my experience. This is something I hope to look at much more in depth at a later time with a bunch of examples for both sides.
College hockey, while unable to boast a pro-like schedule, has more time to offer for physical growth, with more time available for weightroom, more practice time available to help develop and hone skills and, of course, the lifestyle of a college athlete.
Those main recruiting tools would not change in this theoretical scenario. Those are still going to be the big reasons a player chooses one over the other.
While it sounds terrible, it’s true: College hockey needs the CHL to remain a “you’re in it til the end” league to prevent a major exodus to the CHL. In this theoretical scenario, the NCAA would get fewer of the top-end players. Some players have and will continue to feel that the risk of sullying his eligibility and thus limiting his options by choosing the CHL is too great to go that route.
Losing that somewhat morbid recruitment tool probably would hurt college hockey.
So it is a very slippery slope. I don’t think the college hockey coaches have any interest in testing it out, either. No way does Red Berenson want the University of Michigan to be a safety net for a kid who thought his goals would be better reached in Windsor.
We talk about how these players are just kids and that the choices they have to make at 15-18 are major, potential life-altering decisions. It’s almost unfair really. That said, everyone wants the best players. The competition is real and it is fierce. Most of the best players like being wanted, but they like the idea of getting to the NHL much more.
The only thing that can be done at the present is a player educating himself fully on the options he has in front of him and make the decision he feels best helps him get to the NHL. It’s on the CHL and NCAA to plead their case in the best possible way, which I believe both are doing already. Most players should be cautious in their decision. I feel the players that are in a rush to make it to the big leagues are often the ones who make the poor decisions.
If a player is good enough to get to the NHL, he’s going to get there. Sometimes its best for the player to take his time and allow himself to fully develop mentally and physically before taking that next step. That player can potentially do that with either path. It just depends on what the individual player does with his time in either place.
The players who are patient, well-educated and weigh their options fully are often the ones that make the best decisions for them personally. Sometimes they choose the CHL, sometimes they choose college, but in the end they can say they made the best decision possible with the information they had available to them.
Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong, if you feel that way. In the end, the likelihood of the NCAA ever opening its doors to CHL players is incredibly slim. That said, I felt it was important to explain the reason it could be a potentially disastrous decision for college hockey. So let the debate begin, if you so choose.