The next team with a superstar it wants to protect from aggravating an injury in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game will think twice — and there's always the chance they might not do right by their player.
As a league that purports to put its players and their well-being first, the Canadian Hockey League's choice to suspend Nail Yakupov two games for skipping the game might have betrayed their priorities are about where the buck stops. That is not a bad thing since money makes the world go 'round, but the decision might not pass everyone's stiff test.
The Sarnia Sting believed they did due dilgence on Yakupov's condition, taking him to a sports medicine clinic. Also, the CHL itself replaced Yakupov on the roster two weeks in advance. How can he be suspended when he'd been replaced and not reinstated, at least never publicly? There's also the eyeball test. Those who watched Yakupov closely in any of the three games he played last weekend could discern that The Saucy Tatar was not exactly able to stop on a dime and leave nine cents' change like he usually can. He was unable to make the fine cuts and stop-and-start moves he usually does so well.
A physically limited star makes a poor headliner. Mikhail Grigorenko, whom Quebec coach-GM Patrick Roy wanted to keep home, had little impact in the game. And, well, he was a minus-6 tonight. But that wasn't good enough for CHL president David Branch, who said Yakupov being "prescribed rest" is not the same as being injured. From Ryan Pyette:
"We believe he could've been there," Canadian Hockey League president and OHL commissioner David Branch said Friday evening. "This is a tremendous event. There were 300 scouts and NHL general managers in attendance and fans who came to see 40 of the best hockey prospects in the world."
Yakupov missed nearly a month with a knee injury suffered during the world junior tournament. He returned to the lineup last Friday in Kingston and played in three games in three days.
Sting GM and head coach Jacques Beaulieu released a statement saying Yakupov would not be going west and the club had a note from Dr. Bob Giffin of London's Fowler Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic advising rest for Yakupov and that it was "in the best interest of the player not to partake" in the event.
... Branch pointed to the example of Mikhail Grigorenko, a Russian prospect with the Quebec Remparts expected to challenge Yakupov for the No. 1 status.
"Mikhail had a slight injury coming into the event and he flew out to Kelowna and was examined by the doctors there," he said. "He was cleared to play but his activities were curtailed. You look at what the Plymouth Whalers did with (forward) Tom Wilson. They sat him out (a league game) so he would be able to play in Kelowna. (London Free Press)
Branch's justification is parsed in plausible deniability that would shame Jason Kenney, pointing out to Pyette, "The Canadian Hockey League asked the OHL to look at the possibility of discipline. That's an important distinction to make." It might be hard to get far with that when the head of each league is the same person.
Granted, in fairness to the CHL, this is consistent with one of its other policies. For instance, the Halifax Mooseheads had to sit out star right wing Martin Frk during the world junior championship after it was decided he wasn't healthy enough for that competition. This does read a bit like trying to build a protocol for how a team should go about having a player scratched from the Top Prospects event. That's a good idea in the wake of all the injuries to potential high NHL picks this season. For instance, Branch made a distinction between Yakupov and another likely first-rounder, Cody Ceci, who did not travel west after injuring his back.
From Dave Paul:
Branch said while the Sting submission was carefully considered, a doctor's letter that "prescribed rest" was not the same as an injury.
The situation differed from the case of Ottawa's Cody Ceci, said Branch, who left his team's game on Sunday, due to injury, then did not play in the Prospects Game.
In Ceci's case, said Branch, "the information from the doctor was very specific, regarding his inability to play."
In fact, Ceci was not in the lineup for his team's game on Friday night. (Sarnia Observer)
(Cue the snarking off that this is really comes down to how two doctors fill out medical reports. Hope they weren't handwritten.)
Again, though, Ceci was on the roster until Sunday. The same went for Grigorenko. That explanation also seems to be gloss over any acknowledgement that young athletes can suffer burnout or might need more recovery time from an injury.
That seemed to be at the heart of Roy's resistance to sending 17-year-old Grigorenko to Kelowna. The Quebec Remparts coach-GM wasn't alone in worrying that teen players are simply being asked to do too much between their season, international play at Christmastime and/or the NHL research and development camp. Rimouski Océanic coach Serge Beausoleil concurred with Roy's stand. As far as Gregg Drinnan was concerned, it should have made many sane people laugh like hyenas.
When I first heard about this suspension, I burst out laughing. I actually did. A two-game suspension to a player coming off a serious knee injury because he didn't show up for an exhibition game? Sorry, but I still don't get it.
I'm thinking that it's time to cut some of these players some slack. That a player gets suspended for two games for not playing in a game that is nothing but a money grab is silly. Especially when none of that cash would have made its way into his pockets.
Junior hockey operators, Hockey Canada and all the other nations already push these teenagers almost 12 months of the year. If a player is coming off a knee inury, if his own team (never mind that there was a doctor's slip involved here) believes he would be best-served by rest, well, let him rest.
It is things like this that really make one wonder if a Major Junior Hockey Players Association isn't somewhere in the not-too-distant future. (Taking Note)
There is always going to be a push-pull in junior hockey between generating revenue and the overall player experience. The CHL is also supposed to be a breeding ground for the NHL. The mentality of being "prepared to play 80 games half dead if you have to," as Wayne Gretzky once phrased it to one of his brothers, still thrives there. However, junior hockey should veer more on the side of caution with how injured players are treated.
This was, to some extent, about preventing any copycat actions from other teams who might try to keep their franchise meal ticket out of the game for reasons so flimsy the doctor's note might as well be signed "Epstein's mom." It was probably a little about pacifying Patrick Roy from painting a picture of a double standard for the QMJHL and the rest of Canada. It probably had very little to do with NHL scouts. They have chances galore to profile every player. Having a one-stop shop to see players from Saskatoon, Sault Ste. Marie and Shawinigan weave around pylons is a bonus but not a necessity they need to their jobs.
This was about a cash cow for the CHL where it believes the market will bear a $40 ticket for the Top Prospects Game. Hopefully the consequence is the intended one and not something unintended that could compromise a player's future and the balance of his team's season.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).