Friday, August 5, 2011

Running For the Border

Lost in all of the discussion of the shell game going on amongst Division I conferences this offseason is the continuing war between the CHL and the NCAA over talent - and there is new evidence that the NCAA is losing the battle.

The 2011 NHL Entry Draft was somewhat noted for its lack of collegiate talent in the early rounds. The first selection linked to a college team was defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who just finished his freshman year at Northeastern, selected 14th overall by Dallas. That followed on with North Dakota recruit J.T. Miller, taken next at 15th by the Rangers, and a pair of Miami recruits, Connor Murphy and Tyler Biggs, by Phoenix and Toronto respectively, at 20th and 22nd. That was it for first round picks - four.

Now, it looks even worse. It's actually down to one. Miller and Murphy have decided to reneg on their commitments and will instead play major junior in the Ontario Hockey League, Oleksiak has left Northeastern and will also play in the OHL, and throw in early second round choice John Gibson (Anaheim), a Michigan commit, who is also bound for the O. Of the top eight draftees who had college hockey connections a little over a month ago at the draft - either as commits or current players - fully half have now defected north of the border.

RPI was indirectly hit by this last season, with recruit Nick Quinn eventually choosing the OHL over college shortly after decommitting, though his choice not to come to RPI may have been affected by other elements, not the least of which was his unexpected cut from Dubuque by Jim Montgomery due to a misinterpretation of USHL rules. There's also Jerry D'Amigo, who ended up finishing his season last year in major junior with Kitchener after he struggled in the AHL, but again, that wasn't a direct correlation - he signed a pro contract, which is why he left RPI, and was probably a little disappointed to have ended up in the OHL.

The Engineers have won some battles, too. D'Amigo and Brandon Pirri were both highly coveted by their OHL teams, both ultimately chose RPI during the summer of 2009. Incoming freshman Jacob Laliberté had also apparently been pursued by Gatineau of the QMJHL that same summer.

Make no mistake - the "war" we talked about last summer has largely come about because some very talented players who in years past probably would have been pushed 100% to the CHL are now considering and in many cases playing NCAA hockey in the United States, both Americans and Canadians. This speaks to the still-growing value of college hockey as a route to the professional ranks. Though this year's draft wasn't the best in that respect, recent drafts have had college and college-linked players performing extremely well (along with American players in general).

The CHL, however, isn't ready to admit that the NCAA can be a fertile ground for talent to grow, not while they're losing good players. They're also willing to take advantage of NCAA rules which force a player who chooses major junior to stay on that route, since the NCAA considers the CHL to be a professional league since many of its players are paid. Once they reel a player in, there's no going back, though NCAA players always have the option to change direction - like Oleksiak did.

College commitments are almost always adhered to within the college community - after all, no coach wants his own commits poached, so he's not likely to go after another's. The CHL certainly doesn't respect those decisions and in many cases will relentlessly pursue top college-bound players up until the point where it becomes obvious that they will not change their minds. It does speak a bit to the character of some (not all) of these players that their commitment - their word - doesn't mean much.

Don't forget, though, that the NHL plays a role here. Some teams out there have proven themselves to be friendly to college hockey - especially teams like Toronto (Brian Burke), New Jersey (Lou Lamoriello), and Washington (George McPhee) who have administrators with links to college. But there are a number of teams out there that clearly accept the CHL's line - Montreal, Anaheim, and Dallas among them. Atlanta was long known to be fairly hostile to college hockey, we'll have to see whether a wholesale management change during their move to Winnipeg will change that for the Jets, who have Jason Kasdorf's draft rights.

For the time being, however, the role of college hockey's PR arm, College Hockey Inc., continues to be important. Paul Kelly has the arduous task of winning hearts and minds for the NCAA experience, and while there's still a long way to go, the effort is being made, and the die has been cast. The CHL may emerge victorious this summer, but the battle continues.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, as this battle continues, (which the NCAA is losing since they have tied one hand behind their back with their definition of professionalism), I have always felt the that broader question should be dealt with.

    Is NCAA men's hockey prime directive to graduate student-athletes or prepare players for the NHL? The CHL has one public goal - prepare players for the NHL - and one quiet goal - make money for their owners. Of course they will pursue every player they can. I thought Americans embraced capitalism?

    College football is the prime (only?) path to the NFL. Same with basketball. It is just not the case with hockey, and won't be until the perhaps the day Americans make up the majority of NHL players. So why lose sleep over it?


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