Sonny Milano's tough call leaves NCAA out in the cold... again

Sonny Milano is selected 16th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2014 NHL Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Sonny Milano is selected 16th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2014 NHL Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

When Sonny Milano made his decision to forgo his commitment to Boston College, he phoned head coach Jerry York to break the news. The 18-year-old had decided to give up his scholarship and sign with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers. Going back on his word meant it wasn’t an easy conversation.

Milano said he offered to meet with the long-time NCAA bench boss to explain in person, but the coach said not to worry.

“That was a tough call to make,” said Milano. “He took it pretty well. But it was tough; obviously he was a little upset. It just had to be done.”

It’s not the first time York’s program has been rejected in favour of the Canadian Hockey League and if the current climate holds, it won’t be last, either. And it’s not just a problem for Boston College. Every year myriad NCAA teams are hit with decommitments. If college coaches are lucky, they’ll at least be given the courtesy of early notice so they won’t have to scramble a week (or days) before the start of school to fill a roster spot.

Back in 2012, there had been talk through College Hockey Inc. – the educational and promotional arm of NCAA hockey – about making the National Letter of Intent (NLI) a legally binding document to hold players to their promises.

“From the standpoint of our coaches they would love to have the NLI more enforceable across leagues,” said Nate Ewell, the deputy executive director of College Hockey Inc. “The problem there is that there’s really no motivation on Hockey Canada’s side or the CHL to honour that – and that’s not to say that’s any fault of theirs. The system is what it is and if they can use it to their benefit to get a good player, I can’t say I blame them.”

The cold war between the CHL and the NCAA has been waged for years now over top junior-aged prospects. In the last few years, the CHL has won the majority of those battles, so it won’t be leveling the playing field any time soon.

Before Milano joined Plymouth it had been reported the talented forward was on the verge of signing an NHL contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. In that case, Milano would have lost his NCAA eligibility regardless. Who would argue against a first-round draft pick taking the money now rather than waiting – while risking injury – to keep his NCAA options open?

But according to Milano, taken 16th overall at the June NHL draft, he hasn’t signed and there’s no deal from Columbus on the table. By signing with Plymouth, his NCAA eligibility is now void since the collegiate body considers the CHL a professional league.

“I haven’t spoken to Columbus at all about it,” said Milano of a contract. “I’m going to the Traverse City (prospects) camp so maybe I can show something there. But as of right now, there are no talks at all.

“Columbus had nothing to do with (my decision). They didn’t care where I went, so they said I could have gone to BC or Plymouth. They didn’t mind.”

The 6-foot, 183-pound forward said the decision to head to Plymouth was based on hockey alone. On the ice, Plymouth is one of the OHL’s most stable franchises – they haven’t missed the playoffs since 1991-92. This summer, coach and general manager Mike Vellucci left the team to join the Carolina Hurricanes as assistant GM and director of hockey operations. Replacing Vellucci are GM Mark Craig, returning to the team after an absence of three decades, and head coach Don Elland, who previously had been an assistant. They also traded for talented centre Matthew Campagna in the week leading up to Milano’s arrival, which many saw as a precursor to the defection.

Milano said he also felt the OHL’s 68-game schedule would serve him best en route to his goal of playing pro hockey. The NCAA plays fewer games, but there’s more focus on school, practice and off-ice training.

“It was probably one of the tougher decisions I’ve ever had to make,” said Milano, who will continue live with his U.S. NTDP billet family in Ann Arbor. “You can’t really go wrong with both (Boston College) or Plymouth, so it was tough. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but in the end I just thought the OHL was the better route for me to get to the NHL.”

Players with Milano’s high-end talent are more likely to succeed regardless the path they choose to take, and the more choices available to prospects and their parents, the better. The idea, however, that the CHL is the best or fastest way to get to the NHL isn’t always the case. The problem for the NCAA is also one of perception when top-end players break their NLIs like clockwork each summer for the CHL.

“It is a bit of a perception problem because you don’t get the same story about (U.S. star) Jack Eichel maintaining his commitment because it’s not news,” said Ewell. “Most of the players keep their commitment … those players that stay, there hasn’t been a story about Dylan Larkin maintaining his commitment to Michigan. It’s just the nature of the situation. It gets more attention when a player changes his mind.”

Brandon Shea was once a highly touted prospect destined for Boston College, but like Milano he had a change of heart and ended up in the CHL with the Quebec league’s Moncton Wildcats. After a disastrous first year which saw him leave the team in a dispute over ice time, Shea bounced around the league before clearing QMJHL waivers altogether. A player once considered among the best Americans in the 1995 age group went undrafted and is now in the OHL trying to salvage what’s left of his junior career with the Windsor Spitfires.

That’s not to say Shea would have had a better shot at the NHL had he gone through with his original commitment, but in hindsight one wonders what might have been given his potential.

There are many hits and misses on both sides of the NCAA vs. CHL argument.

“The fastest route is to be Steven Stamkos and be a great player,” said Ewell of the NHL track. “In the NCAA there’s nothing that stops players from leaving after a year or two years. Most stay three or four, but I think it’s up to the player how fast they can get to the NHL.”

Milano’s route started this week at training camp with Plymouth. Now that he’s made his decision in the CHL, with his eligibility gone, there are no U-turns. His path at this point is like many others trying to take the next big step in hockey, hoping they’ve made the right choice.

“The contract is the goal for me, but I still have to show them what I’ve got.”