CHLPA’s Desired Changes Would Impact College Hockey

It still doesn’t technically have any teeth yet, but the proposed Canadian Hockey League Players Association has created a bit of a rift in the junior hockey world. There are plenty of people for and against it, but as players begin to learn more about it, it seems like more and more are warming to the idea. Despite continual missteps in publicity, the proposed PA is gaining traction, at least in the court of public opinion.

A week in and they already changed the logo.

While the Canadian Hockey League will remain the target of the CHLPA’s gripes, college hockey won’t be spared by the changes the CHLPA seeks to bring. In fact, the PA wants the NCAA more involved in the discussion, or so it would seem.

According to the CHLPA’s Twitter feed, the organization — of which there is still so little known about the structure, including who all is working for the group — held informal talks with NCAA compliance officers on Aug. 24. The details of those talks were never released, but one of the CHLPA’s stated aims is to find a way to keep CHL players eligible for the NCAA, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Regardless of change, if any is ever brought by the CHLPA, whatever happens in the CHL is going to impact both college and Junior A hockey in some way. Coming up after the jump, an examination of what the CHLPA is up against and what NCAA fans should be paying attention to.

When the CHLPA was first announced, one of the clear goals stated by the organization was to strengthen the education package CHL teams are offering their players, particularly lengthening the time limit for a player to access said package.

Sarnia Sting forward Craig Hottot told the Sarnia Observer that lengthening the amount of time — currently 12 to 18 months — a player can have before his education package disappears would be beneficial to him.

“For me, that’d be great,” Hottot said. “ I’d be able to get a chance to see the rest of the world … and come back and do some schooling, but if I go to school [right after Junior (USofH edit)], I may not have that opportunity.”

This should interest the NCAA for a number of reasons, most notably dealing with recruitment. One of the biggest advantages touted by college hockey programs is the opportunity for players to get all of or much of their schooling paid for through athletic scholarships. This allows the players to play a high level of hockey, but receive a high level of education at the same time. Not only that, but the scholarship won’t expire until that player graduates or signs a professional contract, barring any misconduct leading to the player’s dismissal from the team (Clarification: NCAA scholarships are year-to-year renewable, but I cannot recall instances in which a scholarship was terminated without just cause (violation of conduct, academics, etc.) in college hockey. It has happened in other sports, but coaches in hockey by and large have stuck to their commitments to the players).

The CHL and NCAA have been competing over many top-tier players — players that would more than likely receive the highest scholarship package available from either side. A strengthened education package, with less limitations from CHL teams would narrow the gap significantly in that recruiting tool for NCAA schools, which really is a positive if it benefits the players. In particular, it may cause parents to be more receptive to the idea of their son playing in the CHL.

In turn, that would impact the way NCAA schools recruit their players.

College hockey teams would have to recruit based on how they can develop the player in question and get him to reach his hockey goals, as the education debate would become less significant with a strengthened CHL education package.

However, as recently as Sunday, the CHLPA mentioned a desire to not just strengthen the education package, but to find a way to keep CHL players eligible to play in the NCAA. It’s a lofty goal. So lofty, it’s probably completely unattainable.

As has been established many times before, the NCAA considers the CHL a professional league. That designation of professionalism has nothing to do with the minuscule weekly stipend CHL players receive. Rather, it is the fact that players under NHL contract can return to and compete in the CHL. As a league that allows professional players as outlined in the NCAA rules, the CHL is a professional league.

There has been some chatter among college coaches somewhat recently about looking into finding a way to allow CHL players to be recruited. It may not be a widespread desire, but North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol has broached the subject, most recently in February of this year.

The CHL won’t be barring players under NHL contract from competing in the league anytime soon, so don’t expect it to lose its professional designation from the NCAA.

It might seem unfair to shut the door to a kid, but the NCAA rules dictate currently that the CHL is a professional league. If it were to make an exception for hockey, it is likely that the NCAA would have to make sweeping changes to its rules on professionalism, creating a potentially slippery slope. It is certainly worth exploring, but not knowing how other sports are impacted by professional leagues, I’m not sure how it would work out in the end.

If the NCAA were ever to unexpectedly change course on its views on professionalism, there would likely be a considerably large impact on Junior A leagues like the USHL, BCHL, NAHL and so on, as more players would likely go to the CHL leagues knowing they have the NCAA and not simply schools within Canada’s CIS to fall back on if they don’t get signed out of Junior. So there are about a zillion factors to consider for this ever to actually become feasible, while also attempting to limit the impact on the current structure, which has been developing players just fine for the NHL.

Lastly, the CHLPA would like to see an increase in the player stipends — currently reported as $50 or $150 for over-agers weekly. The $50 figure hasn’t changed in 30 years, despite higher revenues, inflation and a substantially higher cost of living. If this were to change, it likely wouldn’t be by a lot, but again, it might ease trepidation from the player and his family about going the CHL route. However, significantly increased stipends could impact a player’s NCAA eligibility, so the PA isn’t going to be able to have this one both ways.

Many of these goals of the CHLPA would have to interest the American player, which is currently making up the majority of college hockey. Like Canadian prospects have a culture which dictates many going the CHL route to the NHL, American sports culture, not just hockey, dictates college is the path to the pros. With more regularity, American prospects are bucking the trend. A strengthened education package, bigger stipend and/or the possibility of returning to an NCAA school post-CHL would be extremely difficult for college hockey to still pull in the majority of the top American 17-, 18- and 19-year-old players.

The CHLPA’s goals to create more equality for CHL players also piques the interest of those campaigning for NCAA athletes to receive compensation for what they produce for their schools. While football and basketball are making gobs of money for their schools, in many cases, hockey is not. I covered my thoughts in a lengthy debate in the comments section on the last CHLPA post. Compensating college athletes over and above their scholarship is certainly worth exploring more, but it is my opinion that college hockey players are currently receiving just trade for their services in the form of large scholarships.

What makes the CHLPA even more interesting is the changes they seek to bring to the CHL would almost assuredly lead to more top American players giving the league an honest try, thus strengthening the league in the long term. With an already high percentage of the elite prospects under 20 playing in the league, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add more. The CHLPA essentially would forcibly take away some of the recruiting hurdles that plague the CHL.

While the CHLPA has a lot of good ideas, it continues to shoot itself in the foot with shoddy execution, as Neate Sager of Buzzing the Net points out. With each mistake, credibility takes another hit, making its long-term viability questionable. Against those odds, and possibly thanks to a slow news period, the CHLPA has been getting its message across in the media and is creating public scrutiny along the way. The question still remains, will this thing ever get off the ground and get certified? It’s still too early to tell, but early indications are still pointing to no.

As this saga twists and turns, there may come a time where the CHL is under pressure to make changes that would benefit the players more, even if its not at the hands of the CHLPA. Whenever, if ever those changes come, college hockey fans better be ready for even more contentiousness between the CHL and NCAA.

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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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