Monday, November 29, 2010

More CHL/NCAA Cross-Border Confusion

I always like to read articles about the CHL written by Americans because they often contain inaccuracies, generalizations, spin doctoring and blatant bias. In fact, anti-CHL (or pro NCAA) stories out of the U.S. are usually just as bad as the anti-NCAA (or pro CHL) stories originating from Canada. Suffice to say, 99% of these articles appear to be written by people with an agenda that can't seem to see the story from both sides.

That's where we come in.

I was emailed a link to this story that appeared in the Denver Post on Sunday written by Terry Frei. I've never met Terry, we've never had him on the show and I'm sure I've read his stuff before but do not recall seeing a CHL story from him in the past. I tell you this because I want to be very clear that I am not taking issue with his professionalism or objectivity here - that's not the case with a lot of American hockey journalists but I have no reason to believe that Mr. Frei is particularly anti-CHL.

The article is a well written piece quoting two key members of the Denver Pioneers, coincidentally, both have been guests on The Pipeline Show in the past. The players confirm that they weighed the pros and cons of the CHL route but ended up choosing college hockey in the end. That's terrific, as anyone who listens to our show or reads our blog already knows, both Dean and I are very open to both the CHL and the NCAA. In fact, we agree wholeheartedly with Frei when he writes "Arguments can be made for both routes — NCAA or major junior — and neither fits all."

At the same time, we feel it is wrong for one side of the debate to make inaccurate or inflammatory claims about the other. We'd be happy if pro-NCAA people made their case by talking up the college route as opposed to downplaying the CHL, and vice-verse.

with that said, Frei makes a few points in his article that need to be addressed.

He writes:
"...the talented players and their families have to choose between major junior, which contaminates NCAA eligibility because of the payments involved; or Junior A, which in many cases involves the players living away from home, but preserves NCAA eligibility because the players aren’t paid."
1) His use of the word "contaminates" is particularly effective because it immediately draws up a negative connotation. I can picture a snake-oil salesman standing on a box shouting to a gathered crowd "Playing Major Junior doesn't just end your eligibility for NCAA hockey my, it contaminates you! There must really be something wrong with the CHL if just playing in it poisons you. Only people of low character would ever subject themselves to such a league!"

It's hogwash and sensationalism at it's best.

2) Major Junior is considered a pro league by the NCAA but NOT because players "get paid". CHL players receive a weekly stipend which varies depending on age and experience in the league but maxes out at about $600/month* for 20-year-olds. Considering a lot of the players won't have part-time jobs as many students do, it's fair that they get compensated by the teams and I don't think anyone can realistically claim that a paltry $600/month is a "pro salary". [*edited from $600/week]

But this is not why the NCAA considers the CHL to be a "pro" league. The reason is because there are a small number of players on junior rosters who have signed NHL entry level contracts but whose team returned them to the league.

A perfect example from the 2009-10 season is #7 above, Jordan Eberle. He signed with the Edmonton Oilers but was returned to the Regina Pats. Although he wasn't drawing a NHL salary during last year, he'd already received his signing bonus and that, as well as the contract in his back pocket, made him a professional player in the eyes of the NCAA.

College players are not allowed to play with or against professionals and so players like Jordan Eberle playing in the WHL makes the entire league a "pro" league. (I guess you can argue that he contaminated the league). Eberle, like the other 24 members of the Pats last year, received his weekly stipend but it was his NHL paperwork that is the actual problem for the NCAA.

Interestingly, last year Dustin Stephenson played for La Ronge in the SJHL after having signed a NHL contract with Washington. He was headed to St. Lawrence in the ECAC but obviously has turned pro with that deal and is now in the ECHL. Odd that his presence in the SJHL, with his NHL contract safely tucked away in his sock drawer at home, didn't "contaminate" that league though isn't it? It's possible that the timing of the contract, (it was to kick in for the 2010-11 season), is the loophole there but I don't know for certain.

3) Players playing Jr. A are sometimes paid MORE than players playing Major Junior. While it's not reported or talked about, the general feeling is that there are Jr. A teams that offer incentives to players to join their programs (there is no draft for Jr. A) and that the remoter locations may do it more often. Those weekly stipends might come in thicker envelopes or there might be material bonuses like vehicles provided. There are "have" and "have not" teams at all levels but at the Jr.A level it seems much more apparent which clubs are able to flex their monetary muscles the most.

So when Mr. Frei says that Jr.A "preserves NCAA eligibility because the players aren’t paid" he's incorrect. Players are paid, just as they are in Major Junior and in some cases in ways normally objected to by the NCAA. The difference is that no one in the BCHL or the AJHL (or the USHL for that matter) has been re-assigned there from a NHL team after signing a pro contract. No pro contracts means not a pro league and that means you still have your NCAA eligibility.

4) The section of the article that I spotlighted above also points out that young Canadian players have the unenviable choice between two evils; the "contamination" of Major Junior or the slightly less deplorable Jr.A which keeps the NCAA door open but forces participants to live away from homes where they'll, get this, be subjected to four square meals a day and may even have curfews! (Yes, my sarcasm font is working overtime).

This is an argument I'm starting to hear about more and more and it's so utterly ridiculous. I'm a parent, I understand the trepidation I would have if my 17-year-old son moved 10 or 20 hours away to play Jr.A or Major Junior hockey. But I have to tell you, the billet family would be the smallest part of that concern. Don't take it from me, take it from a kid who would know.
"At first I thought it was going to be kind of weird living with billets, but my billets are unbelievable people," he said. "They’re really nice and they feed me well. In college, you eat horribly. You come home from school at night and you make pizza rolls or something like that. I come home here from practice and I got steak and potatoes—the works." That from Tyler Pitlick of the Medicine Hat Tigers in a story from after moving to the WHL over the summer.
The whole argument about how junior hockey in Canada, Major or Tier 1, eventually leads to the uprooting of children is pure fear mongering.

Does it happen? Well duh... of course it does. Did you really believe that everyone on the roster of the Trail Smoke Eaters comes from Trail, B.C.?!

If you go the NCAA route, will you be spared this hardship? Of course not.

Pointing out that young Canadian players often have to live away from home is true... but that's far from isolated to Canada.

How many players in the USHL live at home? Not many. After all, how many USHL teams are based in California? NONE... yet there are boatloads of Californians in the league.

And I guess since there are no USHL teams in Minnesota, there must be no Minnesota kids in the league or if there are, they must only fly in for games and practices and then return home right after.

Obviously there won't be any Canadians in the USHL then either. I'm sure if we looked closer at the birth certificate of USHL scoring champ and current WCHA freshman extraordinaire Jaden Schwartz (above), we'd learn he's from Kearney, Nebraska and not Wilcox, Saskatchewan... Canada.

Using that as a reason to choose the NCAA over the CHL is a horribly weak argument for anyone to try and make.

The other 90% of Mr. Frei's article is great - it's always nice to hear what factors played a role in the decision making process for players. I particularly agree with him when he says
"In the case of the most talented players, they often leave school before completing their four-year careers — and without a degree. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, because it almost seems a contradiction to emphasize the value of an education in the selection of the NCAA route, yet then leave without a degree."
I don't know if there is a way to legislate it but finding a way to retain players is important I think. Some players leave before they are ready and it's damaging to their career but also to the program that then must find a replacement player. I have empathy for the Michigans and North Dakotas of the world who face that problem every summer.

Quickly, here are three former Denver Pioneers who I think are getting three very different results from the decision they made.

Joe Colborne was considered by everyone I spoke with in his draft year as a project - someone who would benefit from the college route because he needed time to physically develop his body after hitting a late growth spurt as a 17-year-old. Colborne was drafted by Boston as a 6'5 175 lb guy but he left Denver after two seasons and is now 220 lbs. He got exactly what he needed from the college system, time to concentrate on getting bigger and stronger while still playing at a high level. (Although, as Mr. Frei would point out... without a degree).

Matt Glasser played four full seasons with the Pioneers and is now toiling in the Central Hockey League. He was a long shot for the NHL, drafted in the 7th round by Edmonton, and so did the right thing and played out his eligibility, finished his education (I assume) and now can play for a while but has the education to fall back on when he eventually hangs up the skates. Terrific for him! Who could possibly argue that he made a mistake with the choice he made to go to Denver? Not only did he get to play at a great institution on a highly respected team with excellent players and coaching but he leaves better prepared for his future. That is an NCAA success story every bit as much as Colborne's.

Geoff Paukovich had the opportunity to play in the WHL with the Medicine Hat Tigers and at 6'4 and 215 lbs he would have be a dominating force in the league. At Denver, his career took a turn after an ugly hit from behind (not college hockey's fault) and never mentally recovered from that. He was lost in the program, felt pigeon-holed as a defensive player and left before graduating, signed an entry level deal, floundered in the minor leagues and is now playing in the ECHL. Already pro size, he could have went to Medicine Hat as a 16 or 17-year-old, left in 2006-07 (same as he did Denver) and either turned pro then or used the 4-year CHL scholarship he'd have banked. He would have had a much clearer idea if hockey was in his future or not and if he chose education, he could have taken the same classes at Denver if he wanted to and had a portion of those expenses covered by the Tigers.

My understanding, and I'm open to being told differently, is should I ( as a hypothetical WHL player) elect to take Business Management 101 at Denver I can and the WHL team I played for will give me a scholarship to DU equal to the cost of taking that same course at the nearest CIS school (in this case the University of Calgary) would be. So if the course cost $100 at Calgary but $150 at Denver, I have the security knowing my WHL team will cover $100 either way. (And yes I realize that university and college course cost more than $100... it was for simplification purposes). The difference is, going to Denver after playing in the WHL means you can't play hockey whereas if you go to the CIS school, you can still continue on much like Mathieu Darche, Joel Ward, Steve Rucchin or old timers like Mike Ridley and Cory Cross did.

Again, this was a response to some of the things written in the Denver Post article that I found to unfairly paint the CHL and CJHL in a negative light. If this was a writer out of Saskatoon suggesting that the NCAA doesn't produce quality NHL talent or some other bunk about college hockey, you should know and expect that I'd be all over that story too.

The CHL is not for everybody and neither is the NCAA as there are pros and cons to both options. Players need to educate themselves on both paths to pro hockey and decide, with the help of parents, coaches and their agents/advisers which fork in the road is the right one for them.


Shawn said...

I just wanted to say I back you 100% on this Guy. I can't tell you how many young men have told me how awesome their experiences were living away from home and getting to know a billet family. Often they become true family.

A friend of mine who used to play Jr A hockey will at times even spend Christmas with his old billets in Fernie. Players who I knew in my time in Trail have often been back and certainly more often than not kept in touch with those families.

When a player is 16/17 it might be harder for parents to swallow. However, even in those cases the guys seem to thrive as long as the program is run with discipline. For the 18/19/20 year olds how is it any different than going away for university?

Dylan said...

"And don't let it bother you that you're pretty much watching a bunch of Canadian teenagers playing under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella."

from this article:

From this and the article you highlight it's apparent he has an issue with pre-college kids leaving home that he doesn't have with college kids.

On the other hand I struggle with that myself from time to time, even when following a CHL team for 10+ years.

I also think the CHL teams oversell their education packages, at least to the general public, and don't do themselves any favors by doing so.

Anonymous said...

One note...Terry Frei was a beat writer for the Portland Winterhawks for a few years when he worked for The Oregonian. So, he's familiar (or was familiar) with the junior hockey system...doesn't make him right, though.

Andy Kemper

Noel said...

THE best article written on this subject that I have ever read. As a former AJ coach and WHL fan I know how muddy the waters can be for young guys with the talent to go either direction. Getting the truth out to the families about each route is hard and an article like this should be distributed to every bantam family in Western Canada. Personally I am of the opinion that unless your kid is a top 2%er (ie/ Eberle, Schenn, etc.) then I would go with whoever is offering the guaranteed package first. Too much can go wrong from ages 16 to 18.

dggoddard said...

Keep in mind that when Terry Frei is writing an article in the Denver Post, 99% of the readers have no idea that major juniors, Junior A or the USHL even exists. He writing an article for Coloradians who know about the Avs and DU, but have no idea how or where the players develop.

Many people in the US find it strange that major junior players are considered professional, but European basketball players, who often play as teens with professional teams can and do play NCAA basketball.

Matt Glasser graduated with honors from the University of Denver. Colborne will make millions playing hockey. Paukovich probably peaked physically and hockey-wise at 19. Happens to lots of players.

Long and the short of it is you've only scratched the surface with this article Guy. Its incredibly complicated situation and both sides of the Border have many misconceptions that need to be cleared up. If having Americans play in the CHL and Canadians play in the NCAA helps to build bridges and encourages better hockey; That's a good thing.

Unknown said...

I believe the maximum for a 20 year old is $600/Month, not a week.

Greg said...

A very one sided piece of journalism.
"talented players and their families have to choose between major junior, which contaminates NCAA eligibility because of payments involved; or junior A which in many cases involves players living away from home, but preserves NCAA eligibilty because players aren't paid. "

Who is it that forces the player to choose NCAA, CHL or Jr A ? answer only the NCAA forces the player to chose....neither Jr A or the CHL force the player into anything that is not reversible.

So the CHL "contaminates" because of payments???? truth be told the payments are stipends ie $200-$600 per month......or as the author later refers to as "minimum stipends".
How are these "minimum stipends" anywhere close to full ride scholarships that players are being offered? They aren't so who is buying who?
The last time I checked the USHL, the BCHL, AJHL and its equal leagues across the nation all have players living away from home and all have trades.
Are players in the NCAA also not living away from home?
I would love to see this author do an article/interview with Taylor Stefishen.
In my mind the most restricted/limiting option available to a player is the NCAA as they clearly block a players option which these others avenues do not.
There rules remind me of US Free Trade....nothing is free unless it favours the US.

Guy Flaming said...

@ Rod - You are exactly right, my typo... that should be $600/month and not per week. It will be changed by the time you read this response.


Donald Dunlop said...

Don't let dggoddard fool ya ...

The folks in Denver that Terry Frei writes for have no idea DU even exists.

Anonymous said...

Also, there's also the cases of Mike Comrie and Louis Leblanc (among others) who leave Michigan and Harvard to go to the WHL and Q respectively.

Comrie's case was even stranger because he completed two seasons as a Wolverine before going to Kootenay for only 37 games, then being called up by the Oilers. So he did NCAA-Juniors-NHL, a little unconventional but so be it.

Greg said...

Actually Comrie did - AJHL, NCAA, WHL, NHL

Steven said...

Coach, you hit the nail on the head. I have seen it before where a player has a WHL team making a reasonable offer at 15 or 16 which they turn down for the hope of an NCAA scholarship only never to get one. Personally, I turned down two NCAA offers to play in the WHL. My time in the WHL was much shorter than I would have liked, but my deal was unbelievable. I would not go back on my decision one bit. Straight up, nothing beats the WHL scholarship if you can get a solid deal. I'll be finishing my degree soon and have no regrets.

My biggest pet peeve is when people want to compare NCAA graduation rates to CHL players. Compare CHL players to Junior 'A' players. Of course people in college have a higher graduation rate than people not there yet. Of the teams I played on in the WHL, more have gone onto post secondary than the players I played with in Junior 'A', looking for that scholarship that never came.

I like both routes, each one offers benefits. I have played with players who were drafted from Junior 'A' and I can guarantee if they played major junior they would not have stood a chance. Also, there have been guys in major junior who like myself have basically had a free education, when the NCAA was not a guarantee.

One last thing, in Junior 'A' I know of many teams that pay players ridiculous amounts of money. The most I have ever heard of and this came straight from the source was $20,000 for the season. It was a team in the BCHL making the offer. In the AJHL, I have no set figures, but I know of certain teams, including those not even in a remote spots paying players to play.

Guy Flaming said...

@ Steven - Thanks for chiming in with your perspective.

Great point about comparing CHL university grads to Jr.A grads instead of NCAA grads.