Thursday, May 31, 2012

Border Skirmish Brewing Between AJHL and USHL

The player recruitment battle has been waged for a long time but usually we're talking about players choosing between the CHL and the NCAA. Over the past week or so on The Pipeline Show we've uncovered another facet to the conversation, one which could evolve into something even nastier.

Everyone knows that both the CHL and NCAA are viable options for prospects to choose from to achieve their goal of one day playing professional hockey. The differences between the two paths are many and players must make a major decision between them because trying the CHL eliminates the NCAA. 

But what we've seen develop over the last couple of weeks is completely different. Now we're seeing one NCAA feeder league adding players at the expense of another NCAA feeder league therefore creating an all new twist to the cross border fight for players. 

The United States Hockey League held their annual draft on May 22nd and the first thing I noticed was the number of Canadians that were taken in the first round; five of the fifteen players. 

Photo: AJHL
The second thing I noticed was that Alberta Junior Hockey League MVP Peter Quenneville was among them. Knowing that Quenneville was expected back with the Sherwood Park Crusaders next year before beginning his NCAA career at Quinnipiac, it was a surprise. The Dubuque Fighting Saints aren't going to use a first round pick based on a leap of faith and crossed fingers so, the USHL club obviously knew that they were going to get him. 

Quenneville had 81 points in 53 games for the Crusaders this past season, his second in the AJHL, and is ranked as a mid-late prospect by Central Scouting for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. 

I put in a request with the Fighting Saints to have their GM and head coach Jim Montgomery comment on the show to talk about the selection of Quenneville and another AJHL player, defenceman Matt Benning of the Spruce Grove Saints. Montgomery appeared on TPS last weekend

"We're excited about [Quenneville] and what he can do for us on the power play and what he's going to me for us in the dressing room," Montgomery said. 

I asked Montgomery if he saw the AJHL as a developmental league for the USHL and if that was why he plucked a couple of players from there for his team next season. 

Jim Montgomery
"The 'AJ' is a very good league and I scouted there a lot when I was in college," he began, "It's a great league and if you can get players like Matt Benning and Peter Quenneville that have proven it already in the [AJHL] then they should come in and be able to be impact players right away."

I imagine that the AJHL, a league that has the same mandate as the USHL - to help players earn NCAA scholarships - isn't going to be thrilled at losing players to a league they would consider to be its equal. I asked Montgomery if he spoke with anyone from the AJHL about what he was doing. 

"That's junior hockey though," Montgomery said, "I had a discussion with Kyle Chase, the GM in Sherwood Park, and he wasn't happy that he's losing Peter Quenneville but we're going to try and come to a working relationship where players, that are maybe not ready for us that we think would be excellent AJHL players, we could help make the transition over to Sherwood Park."

Montgomery continued the discussion by outlining the basis for how he plans his roster from season to season. 

"In our league we expect every player to be a one year player, we have only 6 players returning from last year and I have to go out and try to do the best job possible for our fans to put the best product on the ice," the GM said, "That's why we go out and look for players from the AJHL and all across Canada for that matter. We're only allowed 4 imports and we want to make sure that our imports are impact players."

The idea of creating a working relationship between teams from the USHL and the AJHL was interesting but I wondered how such a thing would be possible. After all, these are two leagues which are essentially competitors for the same talent pool.

To get the AJHL perspective I invited Kyle Chase, the Governor of the Sherwood Park Crusaders, to be a guest on The Pipeline Show and he joined us earlier this week.  Eventually the topic of the phone call from Montgomery and the idea of a working, player exchange relationship came up. 

Kyle Chase
"Well we definitely had a conversation but I'm not sure that it went that direction," Chase began, "I voiced my concern from our organization's perspective and that's that a simple heads up in saying what your intentions were and that you were going to [draft Quenneville]. It's not as though this snuck up on the Dubuque Fighting Saints; this is something that has been worked on for months, the family has told us that now."

"I could say that I'm mad but mad is the wrong term. I'm disappointed that we didn't get the heads up," said Chase, "And as far as fostering a relationship... we don't advance players to the USHL. That's not what we're about. We're not a feeder league for them and it's asinine to think that we ever would be."

"Peter Quenneville got a scholarship out of our league, he played for us as a 16-year-old and he's the MVP of our league," he continued, "There's not a lot of Peter Quenneville's in the AJHL who are 17-years-old and have 80-plus points  let alone 19-years-old and getting 80 points. If he and his family feel that this is a better opportunity for him, then all the best to Peter."  

"As far as [Sherwood Park] promoting players to that league, it's not happening and it's not going to happen. Our job is to get kids NCAA scholarships."

It's a huge blow for the Crusaders to lose the league's MVP and no one would expect Chase to be taking this with a shrug and a smile. But I wondered what the league-wide perspective was. Out of curiosity, I put a request in to the league office to see if the AJHL would comment on the situation. I spoke with President Craig T. Cripps and asked him if he was concerned that this might be a growing trend.

"Any time we lose players it's a concern," said Cripps, "At the same time you have to understand the politics in place and the USA Hockey and Hockey Canada agreement does permit players to cross borders. We see that on a regular basis in provinces like Ontario which has major issues with players going back and forth at both the Jr. A and Major Junior level."

Craig T. Cripps, former Crusader Cody Kunyk and Kyle Chase
"My concern is if we are losing our top players, why aren't we doing a better job at the team level to make sure that the relationship we have with our players kind of prohibits those thoughts of ever moving to another league.," said Cripps, "In this day and age, Guy, I find that players and their families gravitate to where they think their best situation is going to be."

Cripps also made the argument that often players choose to move based on personal relationships with other people in the hockey world. 

"You could have people that have relationships with General Managers or owners from other teams who say they can provide a better opportunity for specific athletes," said the AJHL President, "Most of the guys that have left our league have had some type of relative or close family friend involved in [the USHL] where that person will say 'you should come down here, it will be a better opportunity' and then the family is persuaded like that."   

That argument definitely holds up in this case. One of the owners of the Dubuque Fighting Saints is Peter Chiarelli, the GM of the Boston Bruins. One of the Assistant General Managers in Beantown is Jim Benning who also just happens to be the uncle of defenceman Matt Benning from Spruce Grove.

That's not something you can really legislate against but at the same time, Cripps has a lot of sympathy for what Chase is having to deal with now after losing the league's best player. 

"[Sherwood Park] has invested a lot of money into Quenneville and he has a right to be uspet," said Cripps. It was indicated to TPS that AJHL leagues spend about $25,000 per player over the course of a season so double that for the investment that the Crusaders have put into a player that they successfully helped develop and earn a NCAA scholarship.

"I have a bit of a problem with investing a couple of years into a player and then they arbitrarily get to leave, I do have a situation with that," agreed Chase, "If they were going to a better league, in my opinion this is a bit of a lateral move, but if they were going to the Western Hockey League then it would make sense to me."

There will be those who would argue that moving from the AJHL to the USHL is not a lateral move. USHL Commissioner Skip Prince wrote us a now infamous open letter last year in which he declared his league to be on par with Major Junior hockey in Canada, a claim that the AJHL would never make. 

The only way to settle that debate would be on the ice and although I doubt the CHL would have it on their agenda in the foreseeable future, I think we could find two willing dance partners from the USHL and the AJHL. 

Stay tuned for that.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kyle Chase is a marketing manager for the Sherwood Park Crusaders and not or any where close to a GM. If USA Hockey thinks that it's better than Hockey Canada they better think again and count how many times they have failed in the past 5 years.