CHLPA’s Aim for NCAA Eligibility is Noble, Improbable

The Canadian Hockey League Players Association has gotten more attention in recent days as the fledgling organization sent a letter to Ontario Hockey League and Hockey Canada officials threatening legal action for what the CHLPA claims is disregard for working standards.

By potentially involving litigation, this is the most significant maneuver to date in the CHLPA’s young existence. Now it’s not just posturing and PR battles through the media. It is unclear just how far this is going to go and whether or not anything will actually come of it if this gets to court.

In this recent flurry of attention, Georges Laraque, the CHLPA’s executive director and Derek Clarke, chief spokesperson for the organization have repeatedly made comments in regards to finding a way to make CHL players eligible to receive NCAA scholarships and compete in college hockey in the U.S.

While it is not an outlandish goal, it still appears that the CHLPA doesn’t seem to understand what makes CHL players professional and which organization is the one that actually makes that professional designation.

First, the CHLPA’s request to have a 60-day waiting period to be certified as a labor union with the Alberta Labour Board was denied. The board found the players to be amateurs as part of the Canadian amateur hockey system, not professionals, according to a letter obtained by Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show (EN). That’s where things get interesting for the CHLPA’s claim.

Here’s what Clarke told Flaming in an extensive conversation and story on the Coming Down the Pipe blog:

“They were told when they signed [CHL agreements] that they [the players] were professionals and now they are amateurs?” said Clarke, “‘Well if I’m an amateur hockey player how come I’m not eligible for the NCAA?’. That really got them. That struck a nerve with the majority of them.”

According to Clarke:

“[The players] sign a contract that tells them that they [the owners] are running a professional league. They’re being paid a stipend, or a salary, to play there. The CHL deems itself to be a professional league,” Clarke laid out, “What they’re told in a meeting compared to what they are actually signed to, I’m not privy to that. But in the next stage the CHL lawyers are calling it an amateur league and are calling it an amateurhockey association. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t suck and blow, it’s just not happening. You’re either amateur or you’re professional.”

“If you’re amateur then open up the amateur status, if you’re professional then let’s start paying them as professionals or providing the avenue to get the education, it’s one or the other.”

While it’s an interesting argument being made by Clarke, it displays a lack of understanding as to why the CHL players can’t play in the NCAA.

Here’s what the NCAA’s Eligibility Center’s guide to incoming student-athletes has to say about amateurism:

For those college-bound student-athletes who either compete in the sports of men’s ice hockey and skiing or initially enrolled full time at a college or university prior to August 1, 2010 (i.e., transfer studentathletes to Division I), a team is considered professional if it declares itself to be professional or provides any player more than actual and necessary expenses for participation on the team. Therefore, team sport college-bound student-athletes who compete in the sports of men’s ice hockey or skiing or who initially enrolled full time at a college or university prior to August 1, 2010, may have their eligibility negatively impacted by competing on teams with teammates who are compensated above actual and necessary expenses.

Clarke suggests that the CHL is promoting itself as a professional entity, which would, in fact, make it professional in the eyes of the NCAA. However in none of its literature that I’ve ever seen has the CHL claimed itself to be professional. Calling itself “Major Junior” does not constitute a designation of professional, at least not from what I can interpret in the NCAA rules.

The CHLPA has also in the past claimed that the stipend players receive is “contamination money,” when in fact it is not. The NCAA allows its incoming athletes to be compensated for actual and necessary expenses. Fifty dollars weekly would be very difficult to construe as anything other than necessary. It can be used for food, laundry, gas, incidentals, etc. That’s all fine with the NCAA.

However, there are players that receive more than actual and necessary expenses in the CHL. Those players are the ones under NHL contract, who have received signing bonuses from their NHL club. Though the CHL team does not pay that expense, from what I’ve been told, the NCAA views it as the NHL team paying that player to play major junior.

Here’s what the official rule from the NCAA says:

12.2.3.2.2 Professional Player as Team Member. An individual may participate with a professional on a team, provided the professional is not being paid by a professional team or league to play as a member of that team (e.g., summer basketball leagues with teams composed of both professional and amateur athletes).

As the above says, having a teammate that receives more than actual and necessary expenses would negatively impact a player’s eligibility.

The CHL is not about to tell players under NHL contract that they cannot play in the league.

Not only that, but the NCAA is also aware of the allegations that there are payments under the table made by CHL teams, which complicates matters further (Insert college football booster joke here).

There’s also this…

12.2.3.2.4 Major Junior Ice Hockey. Ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada, classified by the Canadian Hockey Association as major junior teams, are considered professional teams under NCAA legislation.

If the CHLPA wants CHL players to be eligible for NCAA play, they might be barking up the wrong tree by trying to accomplish this through the CHL. The NCAA is the organization that designates CHL as professional, not the CHL or Hockey Canada.

For the record, it is not just the CHL that has amateurism issues, as there have been several instances where players from Europe have been ruled ineligible for competing with professionals. Most recently, Boston University defenseman Ahti Oksanen was suspended for two games after the NCAA discovered that he had played two games with a player under professional contract while skating for the Espoo junior team in Finland.

What likely happened in that scenario, one of Oksanen’s teammates started the year in Junior, got called up to the SM-liiga team, then back down for two games, and the back up to the pros. That’s enough. That’s just how touchy the NCAA rules can be.

You may not agree with the NCAA’s strict amateurism rules, but it doesn’t change them.

There is a provision in the NCAA rules that allows CHL players to regain eligibility, however that player automatically loses one of his four years of eligibility and has to go through a re-certification process through the NCAA a year in advance.

Laraque told Fan 590 in Toronto that he had a letter from the NCAA that there is a way for CHL players to become eligible.

I find that hard to believe considering the NCAA doesn’t often listen to its own coaches and athletic directors about making changes to their amateurism rules. Now they’d start listening to an entity that has questionable credentials? I don’t think so.

It is highly plausible that the CHLPA contacted folks at the NCAA, but after talking to several college hockey insiders, none was aware of any meeting and thought it to be unlikely the NCAA would work with the organization.

I do believe there could one day be a provision through the NCAA that makes an exception for major junior players to retain eligibility. There are some college coaches who have gone on record as favoring it, most notably North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol.

The issue with changing NCAA rules, and the reason the organization is so slow to make such changes, is that they can’t make exceptions for every sport. The rules have to be somewhat all-encompassing. These rules on professionalism have implications in other sports like basketball, soccer and volleyball, particularly when it comes to European players. Once the NCAA starts making changes, it might become a slippery slope to a path the NCAA has been trying very hard to avoid.

The CHLPA appears to be gaining some sort of traction, but its public statements continue to display a lack of understanding of how things work. That leads me to believe any effort made by this organization to make CHL players eligible for NCAA hockey would be fruitless. It could happen someday, but if it does, it will be on the NCAA’s terms and no one else’s.

EN: Paragraph was edited for clarity and proper citing.

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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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5 Responses to CHLPA’s Aim for NCAA Eligibility is Noble, Improbable

  1. Ryan Satkowiak says:

    Ralfs Frieberg at Bowling Green has a similar issue as Oksanen. The Latvian world junior team played a professional schedule a couple years ago when preparing for the tournament, so the NCAA ruled him ineligible one game for each “pro” game he played. Ended up being something like 29 or 30 games. My question then becomes, why aren’t college hockey guys who play in the WJC not declared ineligible? They’re playing with guys who have already signed a contract (or in some cases played some NHL games). Are there by-laws for international tournaments like that? Because if not, it seems weird that the NCAA would ignore its rules in favor of common sense there, but not in other areas.

    • Chris Peters says:

      There is an exception made for participation on national teams, but that is confined to international tournaments. Athletes are allowed to compete in world championship and Olympic events with and against pros. Thought the Frieberg situation was a spot where there should have been leniency, but NCAA can be so touchy, as we are regularly reminded.

  2. Vic says:

    Question for clarification: If the CHLPA is successful in deeming players “employees” wouldn’t that also effectively kill the potential of any NCAA eligibility? They seem to think they can achieve that, plus NCAA eligibility.

  3. Jess Rubenstein (@TheProspectpark) says:

    Great job Chris

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