The Argument Against CHL Players Retaining NCAA Eligibility

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.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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14 Responses to The Argument Against CHL Players Retaining NCAA Eligibility

  1. HelloBTW – Im up to about 100 visitors per day.Anyway, what do you think about strike?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have been pro college for a long time, but I am starting to think the system is flawed. Their main competition in the CHL basicaly has no rules and the teams can offer the kids whatever they want. NCAA teams are fighting with one arm tied behind their back.

    May be you can answer this Chris, players can play against former CHL players in Midget and the USHL and still go onto college, why? Players can also play in World juniors and other summer events like the Ivan Hlinka against pros and with pros on their team and they can still play in college. Now they can even attend NHL summer camps and not hurt their eligibility.

    Another irony in this is that for years many players have been paid under the table in Canadian Tier II leagues, many times more than players in the OHL. Having played DI college I think almost every player I played with was getting something from their Tier II team, never one investigation.

    Another issue is if you look at the new USA Hockey ADM major junior fits directly into the upward pyramid, where as college is clearly out of place in this development model. USA Hockey allows former pros to play any level of Junior or midget, why not the NCAA?

    The simple answer is turn the USHL into a major junior league where kids could go pro at some point or move onto college, just like the CHL and CIS. If its to exspensive for some teams then they can fold or move to the NAHL. I am sure we could find some more viable markets to take their place.

    If Jeff Blashill can move to the Red Wings after one year why not the players? I have never felt this way before but I am starting to think our system is flawed. The NCAA will never allow any of this but it would probably work better if hockey was treated differently.

    • Chris Peters says:

      To answer your questions… None of the players that play in the USHL or Midget that are former CHLers signed an NHL contract. Besides the instances are so few. I’m not familiar with any, actually. Also, the NCAA has exemptions for international tournaments in all sports. Hockey is no different.

      Secondly, I think your assumption that the ADM pyramid leads to the CHL is flawed. Like the NCAA, the CHL is not under the USA Hockey umbrella. The top of the ADM pyramid is the NTDP and USHL, the highest level of amateur hockey a player can reach under the USA Hockey umbrella.

      Turning the USHL into a major junior league isn’t even in the realm of possibility. It is a league that prides itself on being the top Junior league in which American players are able to retain college ability.

      Thanks for your comments and questions!

  3. Russ Bitely says:

    Valid points and good arguments! The only thing you didn’t mention was about what it’s all really about…money! Every kid’s dream is to play in the NHL and their are certain financial benefits from the CHL and differences as well with compensation in regards to the CBA with major juniors and college. Bottom line is it’s hard for these kids to resist what they feel or were advised is a sure avenue to the NHL and with more money at the end of the road.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Your right about the money! Especially when many of the bigger schools that these players are walking away from are walking away from each other right now over money. Why Did Michigan and North Dakota leave their conferences in the last few months, money!

    I think this divide in college hockey is only going to make it worse on the midwest. With only 12 midwest teams in “power” conferences going forward many kids who are not recruited by one of those 12 as 15 year olds will be running to the OHL/WHL faster than before

  5. Pingback: College hockey coming to Versus? CHL / NCAA Debate | Red, White & Blue Line

  6. Greg says:

    “NCAA fans are upset they are losing their top recruits” CHL fans could say the same
    “First off, the reason this plan would not benefit the NCAA……” Why are the benefits of the NCAA put ahead of the players and the sport?
    “….the fact that a player loses his amateur status, and thus his college eligibility in the CHL, is a scary enough proposition for some players to choose the college route.” so a self serving dinosaur rule by the NCAA scares players into chosing the NCAA……….how does this benefit the player? the sport?
    “When a player goes to the NCAA he still has multiple options.” he has many options from the CHL as well (except 1….because the NCAA blocks him)….BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL, SIJHL, NOJHL, OJHL, CCHL, LHJQ, MHL, USHL to name several.
    “If he wants , he can sign a pro contract and head to the AHL.” this applies to the minority,
    “Or if things aren’t going so great in school , he can go ahead and play Major Junior or he can transfer, playing his sitout year in the USHL” correct…..so if a player in the NCAA decides he wants to leave and go to the CHL he can but the reverse is not allowed….nice
    “If that same player goes straight to the CHL , he has one option, CHL til the end and hope for the best” again….he could change to the NCAA but they block it. Again the options are many – BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL, SIJHL, NOJHL, OJHL, CCHL, LHJQ, MHL, USHL to name several.

    I won’t bother disecting the education topic but……the CHL does provide schooling in the United States.
    What happens to the players that the NCAA dimisses on a whim….”budget cuts” etc? Stefishen is just one example?

    You do make some good points and I agree the odds of the NCAA opening their doors to CHL players is incredibly slim.
    I am thankful that the CHL has an open door policy and places the player and the sport ahead of itself.

  7. Paul says:

    After the Blackhawks won The Cup last year I thought the NHL youth movement was going to have a negative effect on College hockey. But I thought it would be limited to the lowest age group–the guys who are pre-draft age. This has been borne out, I think. Note for instance that the really talented group of LA Selects have, for the most part, committed to the WHL. These players were supposed to take college hockey by storm and cement California as a new talent pool for the college game (for evidence of the excitement about players like Comrie , Williams, De Leo, see previous WCHBlog posts (although there are others still uncommitted: Becker, Moore )).

    What I did NOT see coming was an exodus of drafted and current college players. These guys have taken a route to the NHL that has thus far been hugely successful for them. They do not have to feel the heat of the youth movement, but instead could argue that their route is the best route–and simply stick with it. BUT THEY ARE NOT DOING THAT. So what explains this? Is it that they want immediate contact with their NHL coaches? Do they want the longer schedule provided by the CHL? Or do they feel unwelcome or vulnerable in their present circumstances? My point is, they have every reason to feel attached to the system they are in, but they nevertheless are abandoning that system.

    The WCHBlogger has always trotted out the tired sour grapes argument that players who choose the CHL are either academically unprepared or they have been duped. He invariably questions the character of individuals that days or weeks before he swooned over. Well, it is time to end that ridiculous charade and take a look in the mirror. Bottom line: Even proven guys, committed to college and successful, do not trust their development to that system.

    Maybe I am going overboard here. If so, tell me what is going on.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Dear Chris,
    You made valid points both for and against the CHL players retaining their NCAA eligibility once their CHL career is over. There’re a lot of valid arguments also from everybody. In my honest opinion however, over-aged CHL players should not be allowed to continue their playing careers in NCAA colleges at the same time getting free rides under hockey scholarships. They now suddenly decide to take NCAA route to obtain their college education, with full scholarships, after all after finding out that no NHL club wants them. If that’s what they truly wanted a few years prior to begin with ? why did they not choose one over the other ? I understand that that’s a very difficult choice for anyone to make. We sure all can argue for days or even months on this issue without ever reaching consensus on possible solution. I don’t think NCAA or any sport organization should allow themselves to act like safety nets for those kids whose earlier decisions turn sour after a few short years. Fairness can only go so far in my view.

  9. I am a college hockey guy. Love the speed, skill and maturity of the average college player vs the average CHLer. Having said that, there are certainly players who are not college athletic material. It is not easy to play highly competitive hockey and maintain academic eligibility. Some players, no matter how gifted on the ice, can, nor want to go that route.

    Having said that, the player I worry about is the 15-17 year old who, for whatever reason, has chosen the CHL, and then wishes he had chosen college hockey. It would seem that there is a need for some “wiggle room” for these younger players who change their mind before they turn 18. Maybe they would lose a year of college eligibility for every year in the CHL as a minor, so maybe they would have 2-3 years left if they choose to switch before turning 18.

    I am fine with the current run of US players (Miller, Gibson, etc) who at one time committed to college and now are going CHL, disappointed, but it is their choice, and they have made that choice, each I’m sure for their own reasons.

  10. PeterG says:

    The whole crux of your blog is that you need to deny CHL players college eligibility to protect college hockey and the USHL. This is short sighted.

    The risk is greater to the CHL than to college hockey. Allow CHL players to retain NCAA eligibility, and what you will have is a few 18 and 19 year olds on each CHL team deciding after 2 seasons of junior that they’d rather play against older, stronger players in order to increase their chance of developing. In that scenario the CHL takes the quality hit, and not the NCAA. The CHL defacto moves down to the level of the USHL.

    At some point US hockey must show the maturity to realize the above. They are already safe from let’s call it the “Canada scare”.

    Furthermore, let’s assume the NCAA puts together a way for a CHL player to maintain amateur status ala not signing a contract nor attending an NHL camp. What then ends up happening is that the USHL can negotiate with the CHL to perhaps become the 4th league that participates in the CHL show. Rename the league to something North American, it doesn’t matter. And with rules like “american kids being draft eligible to only USHL division” and likewise for Canadians, I think the USHL league based on total numbers in the American talent pool would be the top league on average of all 4 leagues. Or at least on par with the OHL and WHL, but certainly better than the QMJHL.

  11. Best move for NCAA is to take off the wire face shields, since so many players start at 20 years old in NCAA, after playing Junior A hockey, having USED visors; putting a wire face mask on must suck. And wearing a mouth WITH a wire face shield, wtf? That’s just odd for an adult. Big Ten college hockey conference, no visors… that’s great TV! That in and of its self will bring players to NCAA more now, sounds crazy, but I think it’s true.

  12. Randy says:

    Why are there no current NCAA limitations to how many non-US players a College Hockey program can have. As an example UND currently has 11 Canadians on the roster, a handfull of Minnesotans a couple others, and 1 ND native.

    Minnesota has been recruiting instate and US born hockey players since the Mariucci days almost exclusively, dedicated to the growth of the Sport in the US, meanwhile programs like UND while benifiting from the Gopher recruiting philosphy goes the Canadian route giving that program a huge advantage.

    Many/most Minnesotans will tell you thats precisely whats wrong with College hockey, and the vast majority would agree that there should be limitations sanctioned by the NCAA.

    • AM says:

      That is so typical American mentality. Support the Americna players because they don’t have a chance against Canadian players…lol…so true but it is funny how American subscribe to protectionism rather than free enterprise. This is what is wrong about the whole NCAA system. As Greg says do what is best for the system not the players. Chris Peters why haven’t you responded to Greg?

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