Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Open Letter From the USHL

"You guys talked about playing the Memorial Cup winner. Sure. Ready to do it. It would provide some great hockey." - Skip Prince, (Commissioner of the USHL)

For the last week or so there has been a lot of discussion on our show comparing the caliber of hockey leagues across North America. It began with a listener's comment to us via Twitter and took off from there. We've tossed around hypothetical match ups that would pit the Memorial Cup champs against the USHL's Clark Cup winners, considered a clash between Clark Cup and RBC Cup champions and wondered if it was all just a pipe dream.

Those conversations have spawned a TON of feedback to us via Twitter and to our email inbox. Last Saturday we were joined by Brian Werger, Director of Communication for the USHL, who offered up a perspective from his league's vantage point.

Yesterday, CHL President David Branch dropped a bit of a bombshell on the subject and today we've got an open letter from USHL President/Commissioner Skip Prince.

First, here is what David Branch had to say when we asked him about the feasibility of ever seeing the CHL play the USHL or NCAA in a head-to-head game. Branch was quick to explain that it wouldn't be realistic to play against NCAA programs simply because of the age difference, 16-20 year old against 19-24 year-old players is too apples/oranges. That's not the case with the USHL though...
"I think the concept of a junior league in the United States market place, I think that's something that we should look at and have discussed, quite frankly - informally." Branch said, "The day may come where we have a true North American championship."
One might interpret his response as though he was suggesting that a new league would need to be formed, a Major Junior league based in the United States, and that he was not directly referring to the USHL.

However, if you listen to the interview, Dean's question specifically mentions the USHL competing for the Memorial Cup and a NCAA scenario as well and since Branch mentioned the NCAA, I think it's fair to think the USHL was in his mind even though he didn't mention them by name.

We have also confirmed with the USHL that "we’ve spoken in the past about some form of game or games, taking into account the need to get NCAA approval, etc. There are certainly player eligibility and availability issues to consider" so I think we can consider this a CHL vs USHL game concept.

Yesterday, before the show and our discussion with David Branch, TPS received a letter from Skip Prince who is the Commissioner of the USHL and with his permission, we're happy to post it here in its entirety. Again, this was written, sent and received prior to last night's show so it's not a reply or response to anything that David Branch said. His letter, which begins and ends with tongue firmly planted in cheek, is below.

Guy and Dean:

Boy, we’ve really stirred the pot, haven’t we?

It’s Skip Prince here, Commissioner of the USHL. You know, that little house league south of the border, full of bespectacled college geeks without game, sending the occasional emaciated rocket scientist to a Division III college program somewhere in the upper Midwest. There we were, choosing up sides and hoping folks might come to watch our occasional weekend scrimmage…

…and then Brian Werger of our staff comes on, and the next thing you know, we find ourselves in a tug of war for the hearts and minds of hockey fans everywhere. We’ve got to stop listening to the radio.

Seriously, we’ve appreciated your continuing attention to the USHL. I’m sorry that I wasn’t available Saturday morning, or would have been glad to join in the conversation, but I listened to it, and Brian’s comments were dead-on. Brian is “Iowa nice,” but behind his respectful disagreement with some of the exchange you guys were having that spawned all this, I hope you and your audience heard the bottom line – which is that the USHL has quickly come of age, and we we’re not going to wear the mantle of second team comfortably any longer.

So indulge me for a couple of minutes on this.

The USHL will enter its tenth year as “Tier I” USA Hockey this October. I’ve been here about three. We’re still babies in the world of elite junior hockey as a league and organization, though the USHL has deep historical roots in Midwestern hockey. In that short decade, though, I don’t think you can find a sports property anywhere that has progressed more quickly, coherently, or ambitiously. I wish I could take credit for all the improvements, but in fact what you’re seeing now is the result of a solid foundation, firm business principles, ten years of great coaches, some of the smartest owners in sports, and a commitment to doing good by doing well. I just drive the bus.

Certainly we have our limitations. We’re not yet 16 for 16 in fulfilling all of our goals for all of our Member Clubs. Still, just a quick look reveals that we’re not going to stop this bus ride. We’ve expanded in my three years by 25%, from 12 to 16 teams, and not only are we not diluted on the ice, we’re better than before. As the top of USA Hockey’s development model, we’ve just passed new, tougher standards – at the league level, before they’re even adopted by USA Hockey – that address everything from the financial qualifications of ownership, to focused business planning and reporting for all Member Clubs now in pursuit of best practices, down to the amount of disabled seating required in our venues. Together with their partner cities, USHL owners have put more than $60 million into new and renovated venues – locker rooms and facilities, off-ice training centers, scoreboards, lighting, study centers. We’ve increased our staffing at both the business and coaching level, and now see our coaches now regularly recruited by the NCAA and the NHL.

And I know this sounds sanctimonious, but we really do try to stand for something. We play fast, clean and tough hockey, and we’ll take anyone on. We send players to the NHL…by way of college. And to board rooms and careers…by way of college. And to the best years of their lives. Our players go to class, and they work in the community, and they have a blast doing so, and they come out of our league ready for the next step – on the ice and off it. That’s something to believe in.

Still, I’m regularly amazed that the NHL part of us, the professional aspirations of players we fulfill, gets lost in the fact that we’re pointing our young men there via the single greatest developer of elite sports talent in the world – that is, the NCAA. Somehow, the message has been mis-translated north of the border. There we go, thinking we could speak Canadian.

Enough of that. It’s odd to hear second-tier status ascribed to the USHL, the notion of “Well, if you’re going to go to college, then the USHL is the best place to go.” There’s an implicit demotion there – an implied statement “…because I guess you’ve decided you’re not good enough to go pro.” Really? So that’s an either-or decision?

No. It’s not. Our website equally celebrates the 165 NHL alumni we sport and the 283 college commitments we have in hand. They go together. It’s our pyramid at work. The fact is, 35% of the young men wearing an NCAA Division I sweater this past year – more than one out of every three rostered players in college hockey – is a USHL alum. That’s extraordinary. That 3% of those kids make it to the NHL is also extraordinary. The fact that’s right on par with the CHL is not extraordinary – not to us – but somehow that gets lost in translation.

So we are damn proud of that special 3% - and the other 97%. Every ­– every – player departing the USHL this year, who was eligible for NCAA play, had a Division I commitment in hand. Last year we were one short of perfect, a great young man who chose Division III instead. Match that.

Sure, there are those who depart from the USHL-to-college-to-NHL route, and take the CHL direction instead. We’re well aware of the four well-publicized de-commitments this past month. Point given. The CHL gets four great players. Hey - we celebrate them, and hope they all do well. That’s American freedom of choice.

We just think it’s a risk they didn’t need to take. Each and every one of those players had just as great a chance of making the NHL playing college hockey, lifting and getting better, over a time period they control, as they do with the two-year bet they’ve now made. But we know each of those young men, and our competitiveness does not stop us from wanting that bet to play out for all of them.

We’re not CHL-bashing. They have a great pro/semi-pro league going (I’m not saying that disparagingly, just trying to recognize their mixed player base), in a country that loves both the game and the three regional leagues. It’s really good hockey. There are some great owners and coaches out there – a lot of decent men. I don’t like putting a league-size black hat on the CHL – it doesn’t fit, and it isn’t fair. Personally, I believe the “best of both worlds” thing stretches things a bit. I’m concerned by payments to pull players up to Canada – but that stuff tends to get exaggerated, and in any case it doesn’t matter. Once you’ve made the choice as a player to be a professional, to take that bet, my sense is to go get it while you can. It might be the last money you see.

Obviously I could go on. You guys talked about playing the Memorial Cup winner. Sure. Ready to do it. It would provide some great hockey.

What it won’t do is decide anything. It will accentuate just how different our systems are – how differently we build our rosters, how little trading we do, how no USHL Member Club “bigs up” for a Clark Cup run…and how many great NHL draftees and signees play for the CHL, while their USHL counterparts are pursuing an NCAA championship and won’t be there. That’s not to say it won’t be a battle, and I like our chances. In any case, I’m open to anything that promotes and develops the game.

But I’ll take our system, and what it delivers – to the NHL, to college, and to the game of hockey – 100 times out of 100. That one’s already settled.

Thanks for paying attention. Let us know when you need a guest on behalf of the weak and wounded down here in that second-rate hockey power somewhere south of Edmonton.


E.T. (Skip) Prince

Commissioner and President

United States Hockey League

1327 West Washington Boulevard, Suite 3C

Chicago, Illinois 60607

It’s not just hockey. It’s the USHL.

(Photos: David Branch - CHL Images, Skip Prince, Kyle Okposo, Joe Pavelski, Sam Gagner, John Carlson, Jaden Schwartz - All USHL Images)


Anonymous said...

Great discussion on a topic that I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to. Each player has to follow their own path. My question has there been a study of post-hockey career success (careers\ earning potentail) of CHL players vs NCCA. Maybe ones that never made Pro, ones that spent 1-5 Pro, etc. I think that would be really interesting to read.

Mark-Ryan said...

Oh boy.

I do think there's a right and wrong answer here, because it always seems to be the USHL or College Hockey that climbs up on a soapbox and claims moral superiority on the grounds that they send kids to higher education.

The CHL does too, they just can't get sports scholarships in the United States because they don't fit the same loopholes that the USHL does under Title 9. And let's be honest here, they are abusing a loophole.

NHL teams can't spend cent one on anything regarding any prospect in the NCAA system without voiding their eligibility, yet the USHL can pay for all billet and equipment expenses and not fall under the same purview of "professional hockey".

Building yourself around a loophole is fine, but don't bust out the moral superiority crap. They're superior only in a technical sense; they benefit from the unfair and frankly idiotic system that was laid out for other sports with no regard for the children who have been excluded. Their moral highground is built on a path of selfish intent.

Skip's delusions that either the USHL or NCAA are on par with the CHL in terms of developing professional hockey players is amusing and all, but the only reason he can make an argument is because of the US U20 development team that picks out 20 kids and does everything they can to push them forward.

I'd love to see the Sea Dogs play the Fighting Saints by the way. It'd be a lot of fun to watch that. I'd want a camera on Skip though. Love to see his face after the 2nd period.