Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Open Letter: CHL & NCAA

During all the CHLPA hoopla last week there was one chapter in the series I wrote which touched on the possibility of CHL players retaining their NCAA eligibility. While that may in the end prove to be nothing more than a pipe dream, the conversation about whether it would be a good idea or not was definitely interesting. 

I received a letter from an owner of a USHL franchise which outlined his opinion on the subject and I found it intriguing. Here is the owner of a team from a league largely considered to be a gateway to the NCAA and, to some extent, in competition for players with the CHL. 

I asked the owner for his permission to post the letter and he agreed. After the jump, an open letter from Josh Mervis, owner of the USHL's Muskegon Lumberjacks on whether allowing CHL players into the NCAA hockey should be considered.

Photo: Matt Deblouw / USHL
The Muskegon Lumberjacks joined the USHL in  2010 at the same time as the Dubuque Fighting Saints. In their short 2-year history the team has produced a few drafted players; Matt Deblouw (CGY 7th, 2012) is now at Michigan State but the Jacks currently house three others in Patrick Koudys (WSH 5th, 2011), Rasmus Bengtsson (FLA 2nd, 2011) and Adam Gilmour (MIN 4th, 2012) who was the 2nd overall choice in the last USHL draft.

The team hosted the first USHL Top Prospects Game last January and is set to do so once again in January of 2013. Currently in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, Muskegon is off to its best start since joining the league and appear poised to return to the playoffs after missing out last year.

The team's coach is former NHL forward Jim McKenzie. The Saskatchewan native played in just under 900 NHL games with 9 different teams. He was originally drafted by the Hartford Whalers in the 4th round of the 1989 event after a 3-year WHL career spent between Moose Jaw and Victoria.

The following open letter comes from Josh Mervis, CEO, part owner and General Manager of the Lumberjacks. This is not a CHL vs NCAA discussion and should not be turned into one.  

Also please note: ***The following letter is from Mr. Mervis and is his own personal viewpoint. In no way does the content of the letter represent an official perspective or statement from the United States Hockey League. This is one man's opinion and should not be taken as anything other than that.***      

Photo: Muskegon Lumberjacks

I don’t know it it’s newsworthy – but I for one think allowing CHL players to have NCAA eligibility is a good thing. It won’t hurt me a bit in Muskegon, and I don’t think it would hurt the NCAA or the CHL.

Why should we arbitrarily “punish” some kids (and remove them from the development pyramid early at age 20) just because they go play in the CHL and play against a few kids who are signed to NHL contracts?

It just makes no sense to me. I spend a lot of my capital to get kids to the NCAA (as well as to the NHL draft), I’m pro-NCAA, and I for one – think the CHL kids should be allowed to come to college if they are academically eligible.

From a 20,000 ft view – all we are doing is unnecessarily taking kids out of the development pyramid who could still develop past the age of 20 (when junior ends) and essentially throwing them away to the low minors (where no one develops if you examine the numbers).

The AHL is for grooming, not developing, there is a difference. The essential truth of the CHL is this: If you’re going to be ready to play in the AHL or the NHL at age 20/21 – then the CHL is a great path to select. Let me be clear – it’s not the BEST, or the ONLY path, but it is undeniably a very good path if you are an early developer. If you’re not sure you’re going to be ready for the AHL at 20 – then you better go the NCAA route and give yourself more time. The reality is – if you don’t start your pro career in the AHL – you’re probably not going to make it to the NHL. The numbers don’t lie. Keeping kids in the development pipeline longer will allow some of that pool to refine their game to the point where they ARE NHL prospects. That’s a good thing!

Then there is the societal issues inherent in our game…

In a day and age where hockey is getting more and more expensive to learn and play, when the population that plays hockey is shrinking in number (see the birthrates for countries who predominately play hockey, and the citizens who play the game)  - when the game is basically under siege due to cost, and shrinking enrollment – why are we constricting the development pipeline? It’s crazy!

From that altitude that I mentioned before – in the day and age when the need for a college education has never been more vital – why would we NOT want to find a way to get more kids into the NCAA game (and thus educated) – it’s only better for the Canadian and American societies as a whole!

There is a lot to admire about the CHL, and there are a number of things I don’t like about it, I’m sure CHL proponents feel the same about NCAA hockey – but there has to be some way we can all come to a sensible conclusion for the betterment of the young men who are attempting to play this game. If we don’t – we’ll basically be “fiddling while Rome burns”.

If the CHL is willing to stop the “purported” under the table payments to players – then why not simply tell the NHL clubs – you can sign ‘em, but then you have to take ‘em? Let those few kids go to the AHL. (and there goes the NCAA prohibition/violation that causes all CHL players to lose their NCAA eligibility)

I know that because the CHL thrives on the star power of those kids, and those elites are the marquee players not only at the box office, but on the ice – it would be tough to give them up, sure it would. But how many kids are we really talking about? 5, 10? 

The same is true again on the NCAA side for the supposed “lost” players who would go to the CHL and “never return”…how many players are we really talking about? I don’t believe it is that many. Some kids are going to go to the NCAA route no matter what – it’s just in their DNA, and the same is true for the CHL – some kids are just going to play Major Junior. What we most often forget is that for most young men – if they could choose – they would probably like to play as close to home as they can – and for some – that is achieved by playing NCAA hockey, for some – it’s CHL hockey.

Some NHL GM’s want their top picks with their AHL clubs so they can control the development, those GM’s probably hate the NHL-CHL agreement that forces them to keep their AHL-ready prospects in the CHL (just as they don’t like the agreements with the foreign federations that also prevent young Europeans from playing in the AHL) – that will never change. But one possible effect of this would be that it would force the CHL team that wants to keep it’s NHL picks to do a better job of developing those players, because if that CHL team can prove that they can develop players better – the NHL teams will allow them to keep them another year. That’s beneficial. 

That’s one of the reasons the USHL has striven to improve its operations, so that better players will come to the USHL, and better players will stay in the USHL, and better players will emerge from the USHL.

I don’t see a loser here? Kids get longer timeframes to develop (and a better safety net if they aren’t AHL-ready at 20), CHL teams don’t have to pay specious Canadian college packages (an underfunded liability for most CHL teams balance sheets), and the NCAA gets more players in its “pool”, and finally the NHL gets more kids developing longer, and most importantly - society gets more hockey players with college educations!

I know my email is rambling, but I thought I’d share my thoughts as I enjoy your show.


Josh Mervis

I appreciate Mr. Mervis taking the time to pen that letter. One thing I want to make note of is in regard to the "5-10" signed players in the CHL each year. 

A reader sent me the total number of signed CHL players currently in the CHL for the 2012-13 season. The number he came up with is actually 68 players (and that may even be missing a couple) not 5-10. 

Included in that group are the 14 or 15 players who were drafted in the 1st round in 2012 who have already signed their entry level deal. A small number of those would probably be in the NHL if not for the lockout.

That total of 68 does not take into account the majority of the 2011 draft class which saw 101 CHL players chosen. Half of those players will need to be signed by their parent NHL team before June 1st, most that will be will get inked before the CHL playoffs. That will increase the number of signed CHL players significantly before the end of the 2012-13 season.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the letter from Mr. Mervis. Please take a second and leave them in the comments section below.


Joe said...

I never understood why the NCAA considers one a pro if they never have singed a pro contract nor received any money from a pro team, but because they play with and against pro players they are deemed to be ineligible to play college hockey. Yet the NCAA does not see any problem with its players participating in tournaments where "amateurs" can and do play with and compete against "professional" players.
To me it seems that this is only a hockey related issue, as other college athletes, such as tennis players, are not sanctioned nor lose any eligibility by playing with and against pro circuit players. I can only conclude that the rule against CHL players has more to do with limiting the number of Canadian born players in the NCAA under the pretense of "amateur" eligibility.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment by Joe regarding the tennis this not also the case for Golfers? Seems like that may be a loophole in their system.

I also agree with a lot of what Mr. Mervis had to say. It was a very well thought out and reasonable stance on an issue that rarely sees either of those qualities. As a father of an 11 year old Pee Wee player in the states I would like to see the option of either route being open to him if he develops enough to be able to play at that level. In my mind the betterment of the athletes both athletically and socially should be the goal for both organizations. Now if only we could get someone in a decision-making capacity to come to these conclusions....

Dean Millard said...

Great point Joe, the winner of this year's LPGA Canadian Women's open couldn't accept the cheque so she keeps her eligibility...but she still played against what's the difference???

Anonymous said...

As a parent whose player had to make this choice we feel...When the USA decided to let Pros in the Olympics they should have changed the same to let "pros" of any sort in college if they fit the age requirement. I think they do this so they can profit off the players instead of the player profiting. (Just look at all the remodeling done to Yost.) Big Bucks

Anonymous said...

as a parent of a player who had to make this choice we feel when they let pros in the Olympics this also should have been changed for colleges. They don't do it because the schools want the money.