Like the swallows flocking to Capistrano or salmon swimming against current, developmental hockey has a similar ritual involving a species called the late-summer jumper.
Regardless of where one sits in the endless CHL vs. NCAA bun fight, where the high ground is to be pro-prospect, many are left cold by seeing NHL draft picks decide in July or August to go play major junior hockey. There's a whole charade to it; the player stands there in May or June and swears he's committed to ol' State U. Then after the draft, the tune changes and John Gibson is a Kitchener Ranger instead of playing at Michigan. That's not all on the CHL. A lot of it is on the NCAA for its archaic façade about amateurism and some of it is on NHL clubs for being so anxious to get a draft pick under contract so he doesn't miss some team activity, like when the New York Rangers signed J.T. Miller, leading to him playing for the OHL's Plymouth Whalers instead of at North Dakota. Another instance was Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder Connor Murphy jilting Miami of Ohio for the Sarnia Sting in the last week of July and then signing a NHL contract eight days later; not all on the CHL, but easy to pin entirely on it.
Either way, Paul Kelly and College Hockey Inc., are trying to put a stop to it.
From Brad Schlossman:
College Hockey Inc., is working to enact legislation — either with the oversight of the NHL or through the transfer agreement between USA Hockey and Hockey Canada — to bar Canadian major junior teams from stealing a player who has signed a letter of intent until after the player's freshman year.
... The Canadian Hockey League, which routinely tries to poach college players and recruits, is driving these developments to an extent.
UND has lost two highly regarded recruits to the CHL since July in first-round draft pick J.T. Miller and possible 2012 first-rounder Stefan Matteau. Both had signed letters of intent. Miller bolted in July, leaving UND with few options to find a replacement before the start of this season.
And while the CHL routinely pursues college players, NCAA teams are not allowed to do the same because CHL players are currently not eligible for college.
"We need to have a deal in place with the NHL and with the CHL," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "We are going into a back-alley brawl. They are bringing guns. We're coming with no weapon and one hand tied behind our back." (Grand Forks Herald)
It's fairly obvious why the college coaches would prefer some framework, any framework. The current wild west scenario often doesn't leave anyone looking good and honourable — as if that's really any huge concern in such a cutthroat business.
It is fair to wonder whether such a policy could have unintended consequences. Top NCAA teams might have a safeguard against losing a recruit before he even sets foot on campus. North Dakota would have had more assurance of having Miller for this season or Matteau for next season, provided neither would have filed an appeal to be released from the letter of intent (a mechanism which is occasionally exercised by a perspective NCAA athlete). But would knowing the letter of intent — which many believe is of contestable legal validity, although it has never been challenged in court — effectively binds a player to attending school cause some to get cold feet about committing and elect to keep their options open? Quite possibly. Legislation doesn't always come with built-in foresight. Granted, one plus for the NCAA is this could also ferret out whether a player is serious about education or is just signing the letter of intent as leverage to land with a particular CHL team somewhere down the line. There's nothing wrong with a player trying to take control of his career when he only has a brief window to make a career in the game, but NCAA teams and their fans are probably sick of being used.
If this doesn't pass, there is the threat of declaring open season. North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol has been quoted several times about lobbying to re-open college hockey to former major junior players (remember, there was a time when someone could do each, before the NCAA enacted its short-sighted, self-defeating rule).
"I am getting to the side where, it is time for our coaches' body to seriously consider opening up major junior because all of a sudden, I think the recruiting battle maybe tilts a little bit our way.
"I believe in our product. I think college hockey is a great way to develop, not only as a hockey player but you develop into the young man that is going to be successful the rest of your life.
"I am pretty sure right now [UND assistant coaches] Cary [Eades], Dane [Jackson], myself and the rest of our staff could go up somewhere in the CHL, somewhere across Canada, and recruit a pretty darn good 18-year-old." (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Jan. 31)
Reading between the lines, perhaps that's a negotiating wedge for College Hockey, Inc.; getting the NCAA to drop what Alan Caldwell calls the "ridiculous professional designation" with regard to major junior is easier said than done. It would no doubt be in a player's best interest if he could leave the CHL after two or three seasons and then play four full NCAA seasons. Having 6-7 years' elite hockey training and a degree to fall back on by age 23 might be win-win. Or it might be a wash if enough players and parents believe the CHL education package will cover school.
Of course, one can only imagine how receptive CHL teams will be to the idea they could invest 2-3 years' time in someone and then lose him before he fully blossoms as a junior. (Never mind that's a daily reality for USHL and Junior A coaches.) That's what they really do not want, meaning at some point they might have to give college hockey programs something they want — putting some teeth into the letter of intent.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.