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.