Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Worm Turns for College Hockey

It's been a newsworthy offseason in the college hockey world, but very little of it has been wholly negative.

There was the potential for the new conference alignments to blow up in certain people's faces, but that was just potential. Nothing bad has actually happened in that regard. We haven't lost any programs, and a number of programs that appeared to be on thin ice have been somewhat invigorated by the news, talking openly about their commitment to the future.

Unfortunately, no one told the players about these changes.

College hockey is suddenly hemorrhaging players to the Canadian major junior ranks, and there appears to be little the sport can do to stop it.

Last week, North Dakota lost prized recruit J.T. Miller to the Plymouth Whalers, and sophomore defenseman Jamie Oleksiak left Northeastern to join the Saginaw Spirit, both in the OHL.

Now, there are rumors that Miami recruit Connor Murphy is heading to the Sarnia Sting, and Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald tweeted Tuesday night that goalie John Gibson -- a Michigan recruit -- is possibly the next college recruit to "defect" to the OHL.

This isn't about attacking the CHL. I understand what's going on here. Their teams are looking to improve and get the best players available to them. In many cases, those players are in the 17-18 age range, and they have already committed to attend a U.S. college. For CHL teams, it makes sense to work on college-bound players, because it provides them a chance to put older players on their rosters.

The problem here is that the second a kid signs on to play for a CHL team, they relinquish all NCAA eligibility. It's considered akin to playing professionally.

In order for the NCAA to make headway in its "war" against Canadian major junior hockey, it seems to me that there is work to be done on the educational front. Right now, a kid like Oleksiak can decide college isn't for him (I'm not saying Oleksiak did that here, as I don't know his reasons), and he can join a CHL team. The reality is that the same kid can go to the CHL, hate it, and not have a chance to go back because of the NCAA's rigid stance on amateurism. It's a problem that needs to somehow be overcome.

I've written numerous times in the past about the different paths that exist. John Moore chose major junior over Colorado College. That worked out well for him. Jack Campbell chose major junior over Michigan. That hasn't gone as well, as he's still playing in the OHL when he said he'd be in the NHL by now.

When College Hockey, Inc., started up, a WHL executive accused the NCAA of starting a "pissing match" against the CHL. That's hilarious, since the CHL's pissing on the NCAA is what started this whole thing to begin with.

In the end, the college game is where the work has to be done. Chris Dilks believes the upheaval this offseason has contributed to all these players moving to the CHL.

A big part of the problem is that college hockey is too busy fighting and scheming against itself these days to even worry about fighting against the CHL. Why should JT Miller or Connor Murphy think playing in the WCHA or CCHA for the next two years is worth their time when their own schools made it pretty clear that those conferences aren't good enough? Even College Hockey Inc., which was designed to help present a unified message for college hockey, has been neutralized this summer, since they work directly under college hockey's conference commissioners, and thus have had to keep fairly quiet on the current reorganization. It's another instance of North Dakota thinking they could do things better on their own, and, at least initially, being wrong, and another consequence to the sport that was apparently overlooked in the 20 minutes of planning that went into the Secondary Six.

Dilks can be a bit heavy on the grudges, as evidenced by his annoying insistence to call the NCHC the "Secondary Six," but it's hard to argue against the idea that there is a legitimate point in all the madness above.

I can't blame these defections on the NCHC. Really, do you think J.T. Miller isn't going to spend a year or two in Grand Forks because North Dakota decided to help start a new league in 2013? More than that, do you think the conference changes that haven't impacted Hockey East in any way influenced Oleksiak to bolt for Saginaw? Or is it more likely that Northeastern's long coaching search played a role?

If Gibson leaves Michigan at the altar, however, Dilks' "these schools decided their current league was no longer good enough" take gains more traction.


No matter what, the ball is in the court of Paul Kelly and College Hockey, Inc. They have done a good job establishing themselves as a voice for college hockey, but their message is clearly not being heard over the yelling and screaming from the CHL about how great their program is.

I'm not going to blame Pierre McGuire for this. I'm not going to blame NHL organizations for this.

(I've already taken my shots at McGuire. I still think he's wholly unprofessional when it comes to his commentary about college hockey, but I'm going to be naive here and say he's not the problem, even though it's plausible his commentary influences NHL organizations and young players to make uninformed decisions about which path is best.)

For Kelly and his people, the job is to somehow get the message out through the noise. Propping up players like Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Brian Rafalski, Tim Thomas, Martin St. Louis, and others is simply not good enough.

It's not stopping the CHL teams from convincing players that their path is best and fastest. There is a mountain of evidence that the CHL system simply doesn't work for anyone.

Take the case of Jim O'Brien. The Maplewood native played 43 games as a freshman at Minnesota in 2006-2007, scoring 15 points on seven goals and eight assists. The Ottawa Senators drafted O'Brien 29th overall in 2007, and the decision was made for O'Brien to move on to major junior after that, playing for the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds for two years. O'Brien eventually got into the Ottawa Senators' system, where he played two full seasons for the AHL's Binghamton Senators. This past season, O'Brien finally made his NHL debut, playing in six games for Ottawa.

There's no way anyone can sanely argue that O'Brien got to the NHL faster by going to the WHL. Had he played four full years at Minnesota, he would have been set to go pro after the 2009-2010 season. Even if he goes pro after his junior season, it's hard to say he would have been in a worse position heading to Binghamton.

He blew a free education at Minnesota -- a fantastic school -- and the obvious goal was to enhance his development. It's impossible to argue that he did that, and his case should serve as a cautionary tale to any player who thinks the grass is greener in Canada.

It might be for some, but just like college isn't for everyone, neither is the Canadian major junior system.

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