NCAA vs. CHL: Strengthening NLIs, Opening College Hockey to CHLers

The recent article in the Grand Forks Herald, in which Brad Schlossman interviews North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol has stirred up a bit of NCAA vs. CHL conversation. It usually doesn’t take much to get tempers flaring in this hotly contested debate, and there has been a wide array of responses, both positive and negative.

The key points of Schlossman’s piece include the revelation that College Hockey, Inc., is pursuing legislation through the National Hockey League that once a player signs a National Letter of Intent with a college, he is off limits to major junior for one year of college hockey. Letters are typically signed in November or February of the year preceding college. This would prevent situations like players bailing on their commitment in June or July, which happened a lot over the summer (John Gibson, Connor Murphy, J.T. Miller among the notable decommits).

The late decommits are a real issue as they really tend to hamper college programs. It is not easy to replace a first-round draft pick, or any recruit for that matter, two months prior to classes beginning. There are more instances where recruits have bailed for various reasons, like coaching changes, or changing his mind about what school he wants to go to. However, the ones that frustrate the NCAA is when a player has made a written commitment to a school and that commitment is ignored by an outside entity, that has no such rules to abide by.

The CHL is merely operating within its own set of rules, as there is no obligation to abide by the NCAA’s commitments. You can’t fault them for that, but if College Hockey, Inc., is to succeed in its aim to strengthen the NLIs, it at least gives the NCAA schools a little more power to keep the players that have said they want to play college hockey.

Making the NLI a binding document is going to be tough, especially when it’s basically going to probably have to amount to a gentleman’s agreement between the NHL and both the NCAA and CHL. Where it gets a bit more interesting is using the transfer agreement between USA Hockey and Hockey Canada.

Before a player of a certain nationality can play in a foreign country, he has to be released by his home country’s hockey federation, per IIHF regulations. This is where college hockey may be able to find appropriate leverage to make binding NLIs a reality.

Without the transfer agreements, who knows what kind of consequences would be able to be put in place if there was some violation. Who would sanction it? You can’t depend on the NHL to. Again, at that point, it’s simply a gentleman’s agreement.

Another factor: it’s hard to imagine the NHL would prevent its own teams from signing players early, as was the case with Connor Murphy and J.T. Miller, thus ending their college eligibility. However, players that sign NHL contracts the same summer in which they are drafted is rare. So while the NHL might be able to protect college hockey from the CHL in some regard, there’s no guarantee the league would be able to protect the NCAA from NHL teams.

Neate Sager also brings up a very salient point regarding the strengthening of NLIs.

…would knowing the letter of intent — which many believe is of contestable legal validity, although it has never been challenged in court — effectively binds a player to attending school cause some to get cold feet about committing and elect to keep their options open? Quite possibly.

Having spent enough time around players that have to have this inner debate about what to do with their hockey careers, it’s not something I’d wonder about. I’d expect it.

The elite players would wait longer to make a choice. Even if that’s the case, I think most college coaches would rather have a guy keep his options open for as long as possible, rather than backing out of a commitment he made months prior and leave the team holding the bag.

It might delay the building of recruiting classes to some degree, but the number of players who wait to make a decision are often among the better players in a class. Those are guys you don’t mind waiting around for.

The kids that always wanted to go to college, will still commit on schedule. The ones that aren’t sure should be given all the time and space they need for a decision.

The one area where this could backfire is if players wait to commit until after they are drafted. That’s when it becomes almost too late for schools to add a player to the mix. So that’s a valid concern.

Players can’t sign NLIs until they are seniors in high school anyway. So there’s still the possibility of kids making verbal commitments at age 15 or 16 and backing out later. College coaches would rather not have any kids break their commitments, but it’s those late ones that are particularly difficult to swallow. Eliminating those would be a step in the right direction as far as college hockey is concerned.

Hakstol also talked about the benefit of potentially opening up the college ranks to former CHL players if this proposed legislation falls through.

While it makes sense on many levels, many arguments still remain for why it’s a bad idea.

First off, allowing CHL players to retain college eligibility could have a gigantic impact on the USHL. More top-end players would go to the CHL fully knowing that they’ll have a fall-back plan. So they can go up and get added exposure, get in front of more scouts on a nightly basis. The top end in the USHL could be significantly diminished in such a scenario.

While this move would help the NCAA’s depth, it would most likely eliminate many of the top-end players from ever making it to the NCAA. By the time a player’s Junior career is over at age 20, most would go to the NHL or AHL. Only the guys that would have otherwise played lower-level minor-league hockey would end up in college. The quality of play gets dragged down in the college ranks. While the NCAA would remain a developmental option, it also becomes a safety net for CHL players similar to what the Canaidan Interuniversity Sport is right now. That’s an ugly scenario for American college hockey, which has produced NHL talent as long as it’s been in existence.

Granted, there will still be players that prefer college hockey, and the NCAA was never going to lose those guys anyway. It’s losing those players that are on the bubble that would really hurt. The allure of playing in the CHL, with the chance to go to American college hockey if it doesn’t pan out, is attractive. A player might feel he can get the best of both worlds that way. Which, if it’s allowed, then more power to him.

Another interesting column came out in the wake of Schlossman’s Herald piece, this one from Patrick King of Rogers Sportsnet. The column is titled “Misguided Anger from NCAA.” I know and respect Patrick a heck of a lot, but in my opinion, the column misses the point of what this debate is actually about.

A large portion of King’s column is geared towards the fact that the NCAA is limiting itself by not allowing CHL players. Particularly, King takes Hakstol to task for the UND coach’s comments in Schlossman’s piece about how the NCAA is at an unfair disadvantage in this battle. The only thing I didn’t understand, is that in that article Hakstol is quoted from, he admits that there needs to be reform. Hakstol even said he is in support of opening up college hockey the CHL players, which King never mentions, focusing solely on Hakstol’s analogy that the NCAA is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. So I felt it was a bit of a misrepresentation of what Hakstol was talking about.

King later goes on to chastise the NCAA programs for recruiting kids in Grade 9 without ever mentioning the fact that the WHL annually holds its “Bantam Draft,” the primary method the league selects its players, in which 14-year-old hockey players become property of a WHL member club. For most kids selected in the Bantam Draft, they’re still two years away from even being eligible to play Junior hockey.

Just for an example… Luke Moffatt was drafted as a 14-year-old bantam second overall by Kelowna. Moffatt would end up verbally committing to Michigan when he was 16 and sticking with that commitment.

While I absolutely agree that the early recruiting needs to be curtailed, we’re seeing fewer commitments being made by 14-year-old kids. Many players are getting the idea that it is better to keep their options open and make a more conscientious decision at a more mature age.

It’s unfair to knock college hockey for a poor practice, when a CHL-sponsored league engages in an equal “offense.”

King also paints the CHL as a bit more innocent, claiming the league is blissfully unaware it is in a battle with college hockey. If it were so blissfully unaware, would Windsor Spitfires GM Warren Rychel routinely crow in the media about his recruitment of college committed players and making every effort to get that player into the OHL? Would Kelowna’s Bruce Hamilton be publicly blasting the USHL and college hockey in his pursuit of Zemgus Girgensons?

This is not one-sided. I might not go as far as Hakstol who said, “We are going into a back-alley brawl. They are bringing guns. We’re coming with no weapon and one hand tied behind our back.” There is still some truth to his comment, and yes, that one hand is tied behind their backs by their own rules, partially.

Where I agree with King is that the NCAA needs to take a long look at itself and its policies, which unfortunately are not specifically tailored to hockey. There is certainly need for reform. As all of us can agree, the NCAA is far from perfect in all sports. The only issue is, the NCAA has to make rules that fit across all sports, they don’t make special rules for one.

As I mentioned, I respect Patrick and really enjoy his work. This column, for me, was a bit off point and perhaps unfair.

My hope is that one day there is a compromise between the NCAA and CHL. It’s gotten to a point where it feels detrimental to the game to have such a feud. It’s a battle that is masked in “doing what’s best for the players,” when all it really is, is a pair of rival businesses looking out for their own best interests (which you can’t really fault them for).

To be honest though, it’s getting old. Perhaps it gets worse before it gets better, but count me among those that hopes each finds a way to get this thing figured out once and for all.

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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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19 Responses to NCAA vs. CHL: Strengthening NLIs, Opening College Hockey to CHLers

  1. I’m not a fan of opening the NCAA ranks to all CHL players, but allowing CHLers to maintain their eligibility through their age-based senior year of high school is an option that may be worth exploring. This, of course, would prevent the situation of having the quality of NCAA play dragged down by low-end 20-something CHLers, while still allowing 16-18 year-olds the opportunity to experience CHL play without immediately forsaking the NCAA option.

  2. Chris Peters says:

    That’s an interesting idea, and perhaps one worth exploring. While it wouldn’t hurt the NCAA, it would probably significantly impact the USHL, though. It could also have an impact on the American Development Model pyramid as well. So there’d be a significant trickle-down that would give USA Hockey pause in alterations to the current system. Interesting idea, though.

  3. I don’t get it, what’s the ramification if a player bails after he signs a NLI? If the kid is under 18 I suspect its not a binding contract. Besides, most letters of intent aren’t binding anyways.

  4. Chris Peters says:

    That’s the big question.

    If it’s a gentleman’s agreement, it’s simply the NHL saying, “We want the CHL to honor National Letters of Intent as binding documents.” There wouldn’t be a ramification per se. Just as right now, NCAA teams have a gentlemen’s agreement that once a kid makes a verbal, he’s off limits. It’s more of an honor system thing, and therefore highly unlikely to ever get implemented. At least not for a long time.

    Where there could be real ramifications, and the only way I see this ever working, is if a player signs a letter of intent (and ONLY if the player signs the NLI), but tries to back out, USA Hockey would not permit a transfer to Canada, per the IIHF player transfer regulations. So the player would have to either play a year of college, sit out, or if still age-eligible, play in an American Junior league. That’s the only way I see this working, but it would likely have to happen with the blessing of the NHL.

    It’s something I plan to examine much more in depth in the near future.

    • Razor says:

      If the NHL wants to help hockey grow in the USA they will help with college hockey. In the NBA and NFL we could follow the top players through college then to the pros. In the NHL most of the top players go to Canada and then we only see them again of they make the NHL….I think its hurting USA hockey growth and a chance to add more followes and fans.

  5. Martin Breen says:

    USA Hockey is at a tipping point. I know USA Hockey doesn’t think so but American hockey has been irrevocably changed by money (and yes, greed) to the point where I don’t recognzie it. Yes, a very few select kids are making it through to the NHL but that should not be the standard. The standard should be postively affecting as many players as possible, i.e., in having as many players go to college as possible. And, this is not happening.

    Any rule change that impairs American players from going to college is a step in the wrong direction. There is no way on earth, USA Hockey should allow CHL juniors to play in American colleges. College is not about getting the best players on earth and the product. Rather, its about preparing these young men for a life after hockey. Honestly, the CHL does not prepare their kids for anything but hockey.

    The NLI argument is a red herring. Do we really care if 3 or 4 kids a year go the CHL instead of going to an American college? No, because some other player (hopefully an American player) will get that spot.

    Instead of focusing on this stupid CHL issue, College Hockey Inc should be rebuilding Division 2 and creating more schools with hockey programs so we don’t lose thousands of kids to Canada who defer their lives while they pursue the dream of professional hockey. I never say never but in most cases, it is a pipe dream and these kids would be way better served by going to college while playing hockey.

    • The problem with that, Martin, is the USA Hockey is not who controls whether CHL players can play college hockey. That would be the NCAA. The same applies to re-establishing D-II hockey. That is an NCAA issue solely, not USA Hockey.

      Also, away from NCAA hockey is ACHA hockey, which is college club hockey. They have 3 Divisions, and D-I ACHA hockey is quite good, in fact Lindenwood and Penn State are both in the process of moving directly from ACHA to NCAA D-I in the near future. There are currently 57 ACHA D-I club hockey programs in US colleges.

  6. The transfer agreement with USA Hockey is key, as you suggest Chris. But, secondarily to that would be raising the NHL draft from 18 year olds to 19 year olds with the first round exception, as has been explored, if only preliminarily.

    If that were in place, very few college commits would have the added pressure of an NHL contract to sign and the added incentive of $$$ which then leads to the CHL as their only playing option if not actually NHL ready.

    Of the 18 year olds committed to college in the past decade, I can think of only Erik Johnson and Jonathan Toews who would still have been first rounders at 18 when compared with their 19 year old draft class.

    • Chris Peters says:

      I still think raising the draft age would lead to more players going to the CHL, not less. The majority of Freshman college hockey players that get a chance to actually showcase themselves is small in number. Being an 18-year-old playing against 23-year-olds is not easy. Hard to show teams what you can do. I think it would be a mistake to raise the draft age, if college hockey wants to keep players.

      • You have valid points, but I would respectfully disagree. Much as I have seen academic Graduate programs select college graduates for their top programs, and know that those admissions people can tell the difference between a 3.0 GPA at Harvard or Stanford vs a 4.0 at Boise St. or Wyoming (no offense to Boise St. and Wyoming).

        I have to believe NHL scouts will know the difference between 10-15-25 in a top end college conference against bigger,stronger, older players and 25-30-55 in the CHL vs U20s.

      • Chris Peters says:

        I know scouts can tell the difference, but I’m not talking about scouts. I’m talking about the mentality of the players. They think, especially in a draft year, they have to be showcased. They’ll go wherever they feel they can best showcase their talents in order to earn the highest selection possible. There will be quite a few that don’t feel college would provide that stage for them.

  7. Chuck says:

    I think the NCAA should open the doors to any (actual college aged) player at any time they decide to leave the CHL. I also believe they should not allow a 4 year CHL 4th liner to play after their CHL career has ended. Example a kid plays 2 years for the Barrie Colts then decides I’m going to go play for Michigan that should be ok, or the kid that plays 14 games in the O decides he wants to head southbound they should accept him with open arms.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Too many people are focusing on a very small percentage of top end players. The majority of the high end players are choosing the CHL because it is more adept to training for a career in professional hockey. NHL teams spend the majority of their resources allocated to amateur scouting in the CHL as high as 85 to 90 percent of it; the rest of their time is split amongst Europe, NCAA, and Canadian JR A, US junior leagues. If NCAA actually cared about the kids and their education they would not be so worried about who comes to their program but rather who graduates from them with a degree. When a player chooses to go NCAA you are choosing to go to university to play hockey. When a player chooses to go to CHL they are choosing to go to the University of Hockey with the opportunity to get a free post secondary education of a player’s choice. It frustrates me to see schools lose focus of the institution it is supposed to be by providing a better opportunity for kids with the merit of a scholarship. I am not even sure why it is an issue. Opening up the NCAA to graduating players from CHL would be a great thing for them. People who say it will bring the level of play down are not well informed. The majority of over age players in the CHL are of high calibre, I would argue it would raise the level of play. The handcuffs the NCAA is wearing were put on by their own hands. All though some schools are more willing to take them off and break rules by contacting kids before they legally are allowed under their own rules. This brings up another point if some NCAA schools who abide by the rules are losing out to the ones that break them what does this say about how the ethics and integrity of their own practices. I think they need to clean up what has become a free for all in their own ranks. The playing field is not level in the NCAA why do we only hear about the high end hockey schools what about the many who are still doing it for the right reasons. Oh wait, they only graduate people not hockey players so why would anyone care. What it comes down to is opportunity, where is the best opportunity for my son and what type of direction he wants to take his life in. That is if you are lucky enough to be the one that gets to make a choice.

  9. Al says:

    Interesting to see all the work the likes of Paul Kelly and Dave Hakstol are doing to work things out. Then you see that USAH sends a shot across the bow by telling Hockey Canada to have the CHL adopt USAH’s ideals in regards to fighting. Rightly or wrongly, things like that just make things a whole lot harder. I could see the CHL turning up the heat on the recruiting war making things even more difficult for junior and college hockey.

  10. Soo Yahoo says:

    I remember in the 70s when Ontario Hockey League players could finish their junior eligibility and play college hockey. Old-time CCHA fans will remember Paul Pooley and Bill Terry, They certainly did not drag down the calibre of hockey. The NCAA made a choice that $75-a-week junior players were to be deemed professionals and therefore ineligible. Say what you want about how corrupt this institution is and how laughable a verbal commitment is, but in the 1980s college teams started the recruiting battles to pursue the best Canadian talent. The CHL has adapted, the NCAA has not. Paul Kelly will adamantly insist that lengthening the schedule to play 50 to 60 games does not lead to better player development, but the defectors are demonstrating otherwise. The transfer agreement idea, of not releasing a player from his letter of intent, would give the NCAA the leverage it needs for teams to build their programs and attract recruits who are committed to the college route. As someone living in a small CHL market, I would favour this. Allowing teams like Windsor, Plymouth, London, Kitchener and Saginaw to consistently fatten their line-ups each year with NCAA boat-jumpers does nothing to help junior hockey’s competitive balance.

    • If I remember correctly, in the ’70’s, a CHL player who left to play NCAA hockey had to give up a year for every year he played in the CHL. One game in one year, meant he had 3 years of college eligibility left, etc.

      As to the 50-60 games, remember these players in college are also students. There is no way to play that kind of schedule and still truly be a student-athlete. The player, in the end, has to choose the path best suited for him.

      The real discussion is what happens when a player chooses a path and still is pressured to switch to another option and then bails on the original choice, leaving the original team short handed and feeling betrayed. Is there something both sides can agree on to protect the interests of both the teams involved and the players, that is fair to all involved. Lots of issues, many potential solutions, yet, at this point, no consensus.

      Certainly, the sticking point is the NCAA. Their rules affect athletes in all sports, yet the reality is the NCAA is driven by $$$$, and those $$$$ are derived almost exclusively by football and men’s basketball. Very little is derived from hockey, or any other sport, to be honest, so there is very little incentive to change rules if it doesn’t affect football or men’s basketball.

      As Chris has stated, keeping NCAA rules status quo, the best option is for USA Hockey to not allow transfers, per IIHF rules, to the CHL if a NLI is not upheld by a CHL team. But, even that is only valid for US players, and would have no impact on Canadian citizens who sign an NCAA college NLI and then switch to the CHL.

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