By now, especially if you read this blog, you’ve probably heard about the Kitchener Rangers v. The Michigan Daily lawsuit that appears to be on the brink of being heard in court. So you might be wondering why or how it matters in the big picture.
One of the key matters at hand is the ongoing recruiting battle that pits teams in the Canadian Hockey League against schools in American college hockey. It has become an increasingly ugly affair between two of the most prominent developmental routes to the National Hockey League.
One considers itself the “fastest route” to the NHL, while the other feels it provides players with more well-rounded development from both a hockey and personal standpoint. While there are benefits and downsides to both routes, neither can definitively call itself “The Best Way to the NHL.”
In the world of player development, there are so many factors at play that make up how a player reaches his full potential. While each developmental path can provide the tools to a player to make it to hockey’s pinnacle, it’s essentially on the player to either make it or not.
There isn’t a coach in the world that is good enough to put every player he comes across into the NHL. It’s just not possible. If a player has the tools and the upside, he either finds a way to the pros or he doesn’t. In many cases, the player would or would’t have made it no matter which route he chose.
However, the recruiting battle has almost nothing to do with player development and everything to do with wins and money.
Perhaps unfortunately for the NHL, the primary goal of teams within American college hockey and the CHL is to win hockey games, not to develop players. To say otherwise is merely lip service.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with playing to win, because this is sports after all. Results are the point. Wins typically lead to more fan interest, which of course leads to more money in ticket revenue and merchandise sales.
The only result the NHL cares about, however, is the developmental leagues’ ability to produce players to staff the top league’s 30 teams. The stars of tomorrow are coming through each North American route with regularity, in addition to the growing number of European players getting churned out of clubs in their respective countries. As long as that flow of players to the league continues, the NHL has nothing to worry about, which is likely why they have never intervened in this recruiting battle officially.
However, the lawsuit filed by the Kitchener Rangers has put the battle into a prolonged negative light, calling attention to the alleged practice of CHL teams paying players under the table, the trail of broken commitments to colleges and the ongoing hurling of accusations and insults through the media from both sides.
So in order to catch you up on the ugliness and to try and paint a broad picture of why this matters, I decided to put together a little beginner’s guide, providing the basics and how we got to this point where the courts are even getting involved now.
First one has to understand the key differences each route offers from a developmental standpoint. It’s these differences that make the choices for players especially difficult when trying to figure out which route would best prepare them for the next level.
The Canadian Hockey League, which is comprised of the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, offers players a prolonged schedule that more mimics the grind of the NHL. The CHL has traditionally produced a high volume of NHL players.
Players receive minimal weekly stipends on top of an education package in which the team will pay a certain percentage of a player’s college tuition for each year of service with the team. There is also very little the player has to pay for, due to the fact that each player is billeted with a local family, who provide a roof, a bed and food, mainly.
Players who play for a team within the CHL loses his eligibility to play in the NCAA, not because of the stipends, but because many players within the league have signed contracts with NHL clubs, making them professionals. NCAA athletes are to adhere to amateurism rules, which include preventing participation in leagues that include professional players.
College hockey comes with shorter seasons, maxing out at about 40-42 games a year. The shorter season which includes games primarily played on weekend nights and afternoons allows for more time in the weight room and on-ice practice, which are important tools for development. NCAA hockey has typically produced a high volume of NHL players.
Players that play NCAA hockey are held to academic standards which must be met in order to continue playing. Failing to remain academically eligible could result in the loss of at least half the season.
College hockey proponents also tout “the college experience” as an added benefit for personal development, i.e. leaving on one’s own in a dorm or apartment, college nightlife, pursuit of academics, etc.
What has caused the debate to gain heat is the fact that many colleges have received verbal and written commitments from players only to lose them to the CHL with little time to find a replacement.
When a player signs a National Letter of Intent to attend school, he is committing to play only there and at that point cannot commit to another college unless granted release from his NLI or waiting a certain period after breaking the NLI. The NLI, however, does not impact a player’s ability to go to a CHL team. The CHL has no reason to honor the NLI and therefore continuously recruits players despite giving a written and verbal commitment to a school.
Additionally, NCAA recruiting rules vastly limit the amount of contact a school can have with a player, even after that player has given a verbal commitment. CHL teams are not bound by any rules in terms of their ability to contact players and therefore can have more time to lure players to their team.
That was a big reason College Hockey, Inc. was founded in 2010. CHI has become the marketing and educational arm of college hockey, helping bring the message of the benefits of playing college hockey to many players on both sides of the border, while not being held to the same contact rules of the NCAA as an independent entity.
Since College Hockey, Inc., started, formerly under the leadership of former NHLPA exec Paul Kelly, it seems the battle between the two entities has only intensified as Bruce Ciskie wrote for SB Nation.
Kelly famously hurled accusations of six-figure payments to unnamed players from unnamed teams on multiple occasions. His accusations were often met with stiff refutes from David Branch, CHL president and commissioner of the OHL. Both Kelly and Branch had multiple meetings, which were probably a formal airing of grievances for both sides, but nothing really ever came of it, at least not anything noticeable.
Now Kelly is gone, after a quite controversial forced resignation. Yet the battle goes on.
The accusations of under-the-table payments of large amounts of money by CHL teams to recruits pre-dated Kelly, but have intensified in recent years.
Even Branch admitted that there was likely some impropriety on the part of certain CHL teams, but apparently has never seen enough proof to investigate. The OHL did hire an enforcement officer to serve as a watch dog ensuring teams are doing things within the rules. To date, despite wide-spread rumors and accusations even from GMs within the league, it is unknown if retired officer Ken Miller, the man charged with keeping an eye out for violations, has ever investigated anything.
That leads us to the lawsuit with Kitchener. A published accusation by an anonymous source was apparently the tipping point for the Rangers to say, “enough’s enough” on accusations. While there is a good chance that the Rangers never offered Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Jacob Trouba a financial package in excess of $200,000 to break his commitment to the University of Michigan, the suit has brought to light the bigger picture. There are many who are convinced such remuneration packages have been offered and accepted by many players in the past, which may be subject for review should the defense attempt to bring it up as consequential evidence.
In addition to accusations regarding the illegal compensation of players, the issue of draft tampering has been another hot topic, particularly within each of the CHL’s three leagues.
Most alleged cases of draft tampering allude to players informing teams that they are committed to the NCAA route, causing some clubs to pass on said player in the early stages of the draft. Then, almost like clock work, one of the more successful teams in the league snaps that player up either late in the first round or in the earlier mid-rounds. In many instances, the player signs with the team that selected him, raising more than a few eyebrows along the way.
This unfortunately common practice is of concern to the NCAA and other Junior leagues like the United States Hockey League, due to the fact that they’re likely being used as leverage as opposed to being considered as a viable option for a player.
It’s one of the more dishonest and dirty practices being driven by players, parents and their family advisors to get little Jimmy the most favorable situation with a more competitive team. It hurts the integrity of the draft and has significant implications on the competitive balance within each of the CHL’s three leagues.
The issue of draft tampering is wholly on the CHL’s commissioners to get under control. It’s been turned a blind eye to, particularly in the past few years when plainly evident. That’s less a matter of interest in the Kitchener suit, but is important to know about as part of what has made this player-development landscape so contentious.
This isn’t meant to paint the NCAA as victims in this. I think it’s important to remember that the vast majority of players that commit to schools end up making it on campus. There have been several high-profile instances where that wasn’t the case, but by-in-large, the NCAA is holding onto a good portion of its recruits.
I think the NCAA coaches have an argument that the playing field is not level, but unfortunately for them, that’s due to the NCAA’s strict rules which are not likely to be altered.
The rules certainly work for football and baskteball, the NCAA’s cash cows, but hockey faces issues those other sports don’t. There isn’t a comparable sport in college athletics where there is direct competition for the same players by an outside entity. Perhaps the closest thing to it is college baseball, where the schools are actually competing with Major League Baseball teams who are trying to sign away their recruits and get them into their minor-league systems, but even that is quite a bit different.
These are essentially the key issues in the debate, many of which could potentially get examined thoroughly in the libel case brought by the Kitchener Rangers. Knowing the landscape and the issues that have brought the whole debate, battle, kerfuffle, whatever you want to call it to this perceived boiling point might help you as this case continues to unfold.
This is a topic I’ve covered at length here on United States of Hockey in the past. Here are some related readings for you:
Additionally, check out some of these intriguing stories and posts on the topic, many of which were already linked above:
Also, if you’re going to follow one reporter on this whole debate, Sunaya Sapurji of Y! Sports Canada is the one. She is as fair and measured as they come and has filed some terrific reports in the wake of this lawsuit.
Be sure to stick close to USofH as this dramatic turn in the CHL-NCAA battle develops.