The NHL's self-immolation over the small stuff, as you know, has put upwardly mobile major junior stars in limbo. Please excuse being a news cycle late to this, but it is fair to wonder what to make of the Quebec Remparts receiving a guarantee that Buffalo Sabres first-round choice Mikhail Grigorenko will play out the season in the QMJHL.
The Remparts, as you know, briefly carried Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Nikita Kucherov as an extra import player for much of the season with the apparently belief the 18-year-old Russian might clock some NHL time. The cloud of not-knowing about other the status of certain 18- and 19-year-olds hangs over other teams such as the Saint John Sea Dogs (whose superstar Jonathan Huberdeau will be the most coveted player during the QMJHL trade period) and the OHL's Niagara IceDogs and the Sarnia Sting with superstar Alex Galchenyuk, who is having his way with major junior at age 18.
No doubt this will all unfold on case-by-case, franchise-by-franchise basis when/if there is a season-salvaging deal. Which, please excuse the editorializing, sucks out loud from a strict junior hockey-following perspective.
It is accepted and acknowledge that major junior s a cog in the wheel of the massive hockey industry. The Canadian Hockey League obviously benefits hugely from its symbiotic relationship with the big league. Its selling point is that this is where one can go to see future NHL stars develop. Perhaps that gives it more of a selling point in the boardrooms of media partners and sponsors, though. It's great for getting the CHL on Sportsnet or the U.S. iteration of the NHL Network.
Junior hockey owes its origins to the Original Six era when the big clubs owned and operated their own teams. (Those days ended when the NHL had an epiphany that it ought to expand across the U.S. to California only a near decade after Major League Baseball and the NBA had done so.) So is there that idea of being there for the NHL. It is also implicitly understood that the players who might feel like surrogate sons or brothers are just making a three- or four-year whistle-stop as they try to hit the jackpot of a long and lucrative big-league career.
At the same time, the fans who support the CHL in 60 arenas spread across nine provinces and four states are not just coming to watch prospects. There's also the hope to see a good game, with the local shinny concern coming out on top. What makes junior hockey so unique in North America and perhaps tough to know is that it's been able to become this quasi-independent, half-amateur, half-professional, development league. The Big Three sports on this continent really have nothing of the sort. Baseball has its layers of farm teams in Minor League Baseball (MiLB) whose regular season and playoffs is only viewed as being in service of the Big Club's priorities. Football and basketball have the NCAA as their free feeder system.
Junior observers can reconcile themselves to seeing the best players move on at age 18 or 19. It is quite possible that John Tavares will be the last superstar to play four full seasons of junior, and that is okay. It's also unfair that J.T. Miller, Team USA's likely captain for the world junior championship, could play in the AHL this season as a 19-year-old while fellow Plymouth Whalers Stefan Noesen and Rickard Rakell could not since they were already in the CHL at the time they were drafted.
Still, someone needs to say it. It is not like the NHL and NHLPA should give a candy-cane wrapper about the lockout's trickle-down effect on junior teams, their plans, and their fans. It just sucks that hockey consumers in the outposts Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr will never visit, who choose to support a niche league, end up taking collateral damage. It is also not like it is rational or reasonable for a junior fan to wish the NHL stays out until September 2013.
The top league on this hemisphere committing seppuku would be very bad for the industry and almost everyone good enough to move from the CHL. It would be just great to know, even in the event of (don't hold your breath) a mid-January puck drop, what that actually means for the woman in Barrie with a Mark Scheifele jersey. Or the forward-thinking fan of a MasterCard Memorial Cup contender who bought a blank jersey for Christmas and is ready to stitch a star's name on the back if a big trade goes down.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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