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NCAA vs CHL... The Never Ending Debate

by Dominic Tiano

This debate is long, never ending, and frankly, getting tiresome. I am often asked about my opinion on it and what I feel should happen. First off, let me say I really don’t have an opinion on the matter, or at least a public one. I have listened to arguments from both sides and find them equally talking out of the sides of their mouths. My statements won’t win any popularity contests, nor have I ever attempted to.

The Canadian Hockey League, first and foremost is a business, one that the National Hockey League needs to succeed. As the premier supplier of talent to the NHL, the latter knows that it is in their best interest to have the CHL succeed both on the ice and financially. The CHL has over 1300 players playing under their three leagues. Some have already been drafted by NHL teams, some will in the next year and some in the coming years and the NHL needs a place for them to develop so the ultimate success of the CHL is also the NHL’s success.

The NHL, to ensure that the CHL has a good product to put on the ice to attract fans, and to keep those fans, came up with the age 20 rule – where a player drafted out of the CHL must turn 20 during the year in which the season is played – to play in the AHL otherwise, they must remain with the NHL team or be sent back to junior. There is no such rule for NCAA players, or for that matter Europeans. In fact, a player drafted out of the NCAA, or Europe, can make the jump to the CHL the following season and still be eligible to play in the AHL before he turns 20.

Furthermore, the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for its member teams to pay a salary to players playing Major Junior as long as they are signed to an NHL Standard Player’s Contract and it is negotiated in that contract. (Section 9.4, page 26 of the CBA)

What the NHL has created here is an opportunity for NCAA players to make the jump to Major Junior and earn a salary and still maintain their chances of moving up to the American Hockey League and earn an even larger salary. It’s created a financial reason for NCAA players to want to play in the CHL.

Sure the CHL covets those players and tries hard to lure them to play Major Junior. But, as I said previously, it is a business and they have to do whatever it takes to make their business successful. It’s something that’s done at just about every level of hockey so why then are teams in the CHL being accused of doing something illegal in some circles? Or is it because of National Letters of intent?

National Letters of Intent are not a legally binding agreement. If there is a clause promising exclusive negotiating rights, then that clause is legally binding but the total document is not. The vast majority of those LOI are signed before the player is 18 years of age. And that is the age in most States that a person can enter into a legally binding contract.

If the NCAA firmly believes that players should honour LOI’s, a document that is not legally binding and is asking someone not of legal age to sign that document, then they should include the clause that is

legally binding – exclusive negotiating rights – in every LOI. So why don’t they? Only two reasons that come to my mind: Firstly, they know that players won’t sign it and throw away other options – one that includes the CHL and secondly, they know that they can’t legally enforce that on a person under the legal age of majority (in most States).

College Hockey Inc. Led by the former head of the NHLPA Paul Kelly seems to be taking the right approach. In an article on United States of Hockey website yesterday, it states that College Hockey Inc is trying to get legislation with the help of the NHL to make National Letters of Intent a binding agreement.

The article goes on to explain that it would take a gentleman’s agreement between the NHL, CHL and College Hockey Inc. It also goes on to talk about how USA Hockey and Hockey Canada could be involved because of the transfer rules that are governed by the International Ice Hockey Federation. My fear is that if LOI were made a legally binding agreement, that you would have players waiting out the CHL drafts and putting the NCAA in a more difficult situation trying to put squads together.

If College Hockey Inc is unsuccessful in having LOI’s made legally binding, would USA Hockey or Hockey Canada impede a players choice to make a jump across the border? It’s a possibility but highly unlikely. There is always the possibility of appeal to the IIHF or even court action to reverse their decision and I can’t see either supporting the decision to enforce something that isn’t legally binding, although with some of the decisions that have come down from the IIHF in the past, it wouldn’t be surprising.

I have always maintained that for any resolution to be successful, the NHL will have to be involved. Part of this lays on them for having seemingly two sets of rules governing drafted players, those from the CHL and everyone else. And if anyone thinks that the financial reward doesn’t play a part in this remember that these players are advised by player agents who have a vested interest. It’s about time the NHL stepped up to the plate.

As a hockey fan, I want hockey to be successful everywhere not just Canada, and that includes the United States. If I had to make the decision and fix this situation from a CHL standpoint, this is what I would do:

I would change the import rule and have every non-Canadian count against the import maximums and increase the import maximum to 5 per team. It currently stands at two and only Europeans count as imports. There are those that believe that this would harm the US based franchises. Well, a quick look at some rosters from the Ontario Hockey league shows the Windsor Spitfires having as many Americans as the Plymouth Whalers and Erie Otters on their roster with 8. Only the Saginaw Spirit has more with 11. I would even consider making American born players available only to the US franchises, but that may never fly with the Canadian teams.

With almost every other team other than the one’s mentioned above having 3 or less Americans on their roster, some that don’t have any, I don’t see a big change in how they do things. We could, theoretically see even more Europeans.

As it stands now, NCAA players lose their eligibility once they sign a pro contract. The NCAA could, as long as no monies are being handed out – such as signing bonuses, change their own rules to allow players to remain in the NCAA as long as their contract was signed after they entered school and will not receive any moneys before they leave school. For some players, there is no other option to leave the NCAA once they sign their pro contracts.

In turn the NHL could, with new CBA talks about to begin, eliminate salaries allowed Major Junior players after they’ve signed a pro contract and thus level that playing field. It’s not that many CHL players are collecting that salary, but the option is there and it is enticing.

There are two things we know for certain: One, the CHL will never give up the age 20 rule, and it’s unlikely the NHL wants that to happen. So do they even the playing field and make it the same for NCAA players? Also unlikely because once that player signs an NHL contract they lose their NCAA eligibility and are free to go where ever they want.

The second is that the CHL will never willingly and of their free will honour Letters of Intent. And this is where the NHL has to persuade the CHL. After all, isn’t that in the best interest of hockey and what the NHL stands for? If persuasion doesn’t work and a threat is needed, there is always the age 20 rule.

Then there is the moral issue: those that believe it’s morally wrong for players not to honour their LOI. Well the vast majority do honour them. Show me a group of 15-17 year olds in everyday life that hasn’t changed their minds in what could be life altering decisions, get the picture.

In closing I’ll say this: The NCAA is the only innocent bystander in this. There is blame to be shared by the CHL, the NHL and yes, even the players, their families or their agents. So before we continue to put fingertips to keyboards and continue to blame the CHL, let’s remember that there are others involved and stop blaming them for something that is widely accepted at every other level.

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