Monday, October 29, 2012

CHLPA: NCAA Eligibility

"I just wanted to tell you that the biggest hurdle for the NCAA eligibility was squashed by Hockey Canada, the CHL and USA Hockey." - Derek Clarke, CHLPA Advisor by phone on October 27th, 2012.

The primary objective of the CHLPA, according to Executive Director Georges Laraque and Spokesperson/Advisor Derek Clarke, is to ensure that players in the CHL have their education needs taken care of. 

As explained in the last part of this series, even the legal actions taken by the CHLPA over the last few days in the OHL and QMJHL (which will continue this week I'm told) are actually about forcing the CHL and Hockey Canada to meet with them. The talk about suing for minimum wage, etc. is all Plan B should Plan A, a new CHL education package including a funding model designed by the CHLPA, not come about. 

A large part of the CHLPA's argument stems from the ongoing debate as to whether the CHL is a professional or an amateur league. 

If it's a pro league, then the "union' suggests that the players, as employees, should be paid a salary which would be enough for them to pay for their own education should they not go on to higher levels of the game. If it's an amateur league, then the "union" sees things much differently and that's where the NCAA comes in. 

Oh dear Lord. Settle in for a long read because this will take a while.

Dean and I have often talked on The Pipeline Show about the pros and cons of the NCAA one day allowing former CHL players to join their ranks. We see the positives - programs could fill the holes left by players who turn pro with CHL players who are looking for a change. But we also see the negatives - if a player could do both, wouldn't the vast majority go to the CHL as 16-year-olds essentially turning the NCAA into a safety net league? 

We've talked to NCAA coaches, players and media - men and women who are much more ingrained into the NCAA mindset than the two of us are up here (although we are unapologetic proponents of the college option for those who take it) and even they give us mixed opinions on whether it would be positive or not. 

I think it's a worthy discussion to have but isn't that really an exercise in futility? I mean, it doesn't really matter what the coaches, players or media seem to think when it comes to the NCAA because, as it's been described to us, the organization is layer upon layer of bureaucracy that often drives its own crazy. Just look at the back-and-forth that went on (and might still be going on) over the University of North Dakota's use of "Fighting Sioux" as it's nickname.

How on Earth can the CHLPA hope to convince the NCAA to change their rules, rules that affect every sport under the NCAA umbrella, simply for hockey? Especially when the college teams already have a source of high calibre players to draw from? Why would the NCAA do the CHLPA any favors when, as Chris Peters wrote on Sunday
"I find that hard to believe considering the NCAA doesn’t often listen to its own coaches and athletic directors about making changes to their amateurism rules. Now they’d start listening to an entity that has questionable credentials? I don’t think so."
And yet CHLPA Executive Director George Laraque has told many media outlets including Sportsnet  that the NCAA has given the CHLPA documentation confirming that there is a way for CHL players to keep their NCAA option open. In response to that, our friends at College Hockey News tweeted on Sunday: 
"George Laraque's comments that he has a letter from the NCAA that players can retain eligibility after 4 yrs of major junior ... are bizarre."
The first time I heard that the CHLPA was looking at exploring the NCAA path was the night Laraques appeared on The Jason Gregor Show. I was in the studio at the time and when Laraques made mention of it I nearly fell off my chair.

That night I ended my show on a rant which earned me my first phone call from Derek Clarke, immediately after TPS ended while I was still in the studio. He insisted that I was the one who didn't have my facts straight when it comes to NCAA eligibility. Me. The guy who has co-hosted a junior and college hockey radio show for 8 years and has made it his job to know these things by having countless NCAA guests on the program who have said the exact same things I did?  

What a ludicrous and borderline arrogant statement. How could the CHLPA, a collective group of unknown people, even dream of creating that level of change?

It's crazy right? Well, hang on to your butts...

Now this is the part where I remind you that the rest of this article is derived from the perspective of the CHLPA. I had a lengthy conversation with Derek Clarke on Thursday night and then another one on Saturday. I have chosen to set aside my own personal beliefs (for now) and simply outline how the CHLPA sees the world. That way, perhaps we can better judge their vision. So to the disclaimer:

I am not a member or a representative of the proposed union and have actually been one of the more outspoken voices in the media questioning the very legitimacy of the group. That said, what follows is an explanation of events as it was outlined to me by the CHLPA and should not be taken as my own personal opinion except where plainly obvious.   

I recommend that you read this story before moving forward here. It outlines the position taken by everyone I have ever heard talking on the subject of NCAA eligibility for CHL players. Chris Peters is a frequent guest on the show who talked about this with us recently. In that story he quotes from the NCAA rule book which saves me the time of doing so here, so please, I urge you to use his write up as the counterweight to the CHLPA's vision which I'll attempt to outline now. 

According to the CHLPA, there are two obstacles preventing CHL players from being eligible for playing NCAA hockey. 


$50 in CDN loonies
Georges Laraque outlined the first one while speaking with Jason Gregor: 
"the $50/week and I don’t know why the CHL calls it salary because I would call it contamination money, because that contamination money is the reason why they can’t go to the NCAA." 
 I'd always assumed that the traditional NCAA feeder leagues like the BCHL, AJHL and USHL all saw players receive a weekly stipend too. I was surprised when I checked with representatives (a coach, a governor and two league presidents) to find that I was wrong. There was mention that some of the Canadian Jr. A leagues used to do it and that the SJHL (Saskatchewan) was the most recent to stop.

That made me wonder if there actually was something with the stipend. It would make sense since the NCAA feeder leagues are not doing it. 

To find out I contacted College Hockey Inc., the marketing arm of the NCAA which The Pipeline Show has had a relationship with over the last few years. I asked Nate Ewell, Director of Communications for clarification on the stipend and if it really is an issue for the NCAA. 
"The fact that highly paid professional players play in the CHL likely has a bigger impact on its professional status in the eyes of the NCAA than the stipend. The stipend, if it is $50, likely could be considered just covering actual and necessary expenses" - Nate Ewell    

We'll get to the professional players part in a bit, let's stay focused on the stipend. Again, Nate's assertion echoes my own belief which in turn was formed after speaking with numerous NCAA inclined people.    

So, "A-Ha!"... the CHLPA is flat out wrong on that one. 

Professional Status

The second eligibility roadblock, according to the CHLPA, is the designation by Hockey Canada that the Canadian Hockey League is a professional league. The creation of the term "Major Junior" may or may not play a role as well, again, that's according to the CHLPA.

The night that Derek Clarke called me at the station after my rant, he assured me that Georges Laraque's claim that the CHLPA and NCAA had been corresponding was in fact true. He promised to forward me an email from the NCAA which outlined specifically their concerns surrounding eligibility. 

The next day I did in fact receive the email which included an excerpt from the 2010-11 NCAA Division I Manual which is very similar to the one that Chris Peters quoted in his article above: Major Junior A Ice Hockey: Ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada, classified by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association as major junior A teams, are considered professional teams under NCAA legislation.   
The way most people read that excerpt is to conclude the same way that Chris did: 
"If the CHLPA wants CHL players to be eligible for NCAA play, they might be barking up the wrong tree by trying to accomplish this through the CHL. The NCAA is the organization that designates CHL as professional, not the CHL or Hockey Canada."
However, that is definitely not how the CHLPA reads that same paragraph. To them, it's clear that it's the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association's (Hockey Canada's) own, self designation as "Major Junior" that is the issue. No "Major Junior, no problem.  

Sounds a bit far fetched to me but how about Nate Ewell from College Hockey Inc.?
"I don't believe that the term 'Major Junior' has any impact on how the NCAA characterizes the CHL."
OK so it's not just me then. Let's move on.

That excerpt above comes from the NCAA's handbook, let's check to see what Hockey Canada says in it's own literature. Does Hockey Canada actually consider the CHL to be professional or has that been misconstrued south of the border?
"2. CHL Team(s)/Player(s) - It is agreed that CHL Teams are considered and treated by third parties as being professional. Therefore, the signing of a contract with a CHL Team is the equivalent of signing a professional contract." - Hockey Canada Articles and Bylaws 2009-10, page 120.  
Alright, the word 'professional' does appear there twice but the first time it seems more like the meaning is "It's is agreed that CHL Teams are considered and treated by third parties (like the NCAA) as being professional - we agree that that's how they see us."

But with the second usage of 'professional', could it be read as "OK screw it, if they see us as professional, then fine we're professional and if a player signs with a CHL team then he's a pro."?

I'm not sure but I can tell you that that is exactly how the CHLPA reads it. And furthermore, since it's in Hockey Canada's own book, it's easy for them to argue that it is Hockey Canada declaring pro status for the CHL.

Regardless, the real key here is what the NCAA thinks and not the CHLPA. For that, I present the email that I was forwarded:
"Mr. Clarke,
Per our phone conversations, our legislation indicates that a professional team is one that pays players beyond actual and necessary expenses or considers itself professional (NCAA Division I Bylaw 12.02.5). Per our discussion, it is my understanding the league pays its players a stipend that is beyond actual and necessary expenses; therefore, the players are considered professional. 
Our legislation in Bylaw notes that ice hockey teams in the US and Canada classified by the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA) as major junior teams are considered professional under the legislation. As a result, even with the elimination of the stipend, these players would not have eligibility because of the classification of their hockey teams.
If the stipend were to be eliminated and the association were to not classify the team as major junior, then they would not be considered professional per our legislation; however, you would need to consult with the CHA regarding the process of changing the classification.
If there are any other questions, please let me know.
Thank you,
Natasha Oakes 
Assistant Director of Academic and Membership Affairs
National Collegiate Athletic Association"

Wait... WHAT?

Take a second and read that bolded portion again. 

In that one brief email everything I have ever been told by anyone with indepth or intimate knowledge of the NCAA's policies when it comes to hockey just fell into question. 

So the stipend actually IS a problem? Dropping "Major Junior" actually WOULD clear the way to NCAA eligibility?  

Who am I supposed to believe? All my trusted media colleagues in the United States who live and work around college hockey every day or a representative of the NCAA itself?

The sceptic in me said "there's something weird going on here" so I contacted the NCAA myself to get an answer. I wanted to book someone as a guest on the show who could confirm or deny the contents of that email. This was the reply I got from Mark Bedics, the NCAA hockey media contact:

Just wanted to give you the heads up that we won't be able to have anyone on the show on this issue at this time. For background info, we are currently working with the CHLPA on this, but due to the complexities of the issues we are dealing with we are unable to make any definitive statement at this time. Once there is more clarity on the topic as a whole I will be sure to be in touch with those details."

Frustrated, I sent a second request asking for a simple confirmation on whether the information in "Natasha's" email was in fact correct.

"I can’t speak to any statement being accurate or not. I’m working on getting more of the background information on it, but due to a number of factors still being considered (ongoing discussions with CHLPA, ongoing changes to overall NCAA legislation as led by an NCAA Rules Working Group charged with streamlining the rules book, etc.) there is not a clear cut answer at this time. It would not be accurate for me or anyone to say if a league did A and B, then C would result. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help here at this time."

It's been two weeks and I have not been updated. Mark is a good guy and I hope that his inability to comment on the record in this matter doesn't paint him in a negative light. That is not my intention.

Moving forward to this past thursday night and my conversation with Derek Clarke. The bulk of that conversation was about the CHLPA's activities that day and can be read about HERE and HERE. However, I did also ask if the "union" was making any progress on the NCAA front.

"We have the marching orders from them [the NCAA], we know what we would have to do in regards to the stipend and the classification from Hockey Canada," said Clarke possibly refering to that very email above. "If we ever get to speak to Mr. Branch and Mr. Nicholson about this, that’s going to be what our line is. That’s going to be a harder negotiation because along with the change of the classification, ultimately the $10M ($9.8M) that they got this year from the NHL, will probably disappear from the CHL’s books."

The money he eluded to is, I believe, a payment from the NHL for allowing NHL teams to return their signed players to the CHL. I could be wrong.
Saturday's conversation with Derek Clarke began with the line that sits atop this entire article.
"I just wanted to tell you that the biggest hurdle for the NCAA [eligibility] was squashed by Hockey Canada and the CHL and USA Hockey," he said.
I asked him to explain what he meant and he directed me to Hockey Canada's website, specifically the "Downloads" page. From there he told me to click on the 2012-13 bylaws link, then scroll down to page 125.

"2. CHL Team(s)/Player(s) - It is agreed that CHL Teams are considered the highest level of non-professional competition in Canada, administrated as a development program under the auspices of Hockey Canada in a member league of the CHL."

Did you notice? Clarke sure did.

"They changed the wording this year," he said with obvious joy in his voice, "For the last 20 years that agreement has said 'professional', now look at what it reads. Instead of using “amateur” they use “non-professional” which... it’s one thing or another."

"The biggest hurdle that we had to get was the classification from Hockey Canada [to amateur]. Now they’ve changed it," stated Clarke, "On Friday I got an email from the NCAA because we sent one to them about three and a half weeks ago asking for clarification. The clarification came back that these players now, under Hockey Canada’s certification, are considered amateur."

Is that the letter that Georges Laraque was referring to over the last couple of days? Does the NCAA really consider CHL players amateur now because in June, Hockey Canada ammended the language of their bylaws?
What about that other hurdle? 
"Now all we have to do is remove the stipend," said Clarke who had the solution to that one too, "Instead of the word stipend let’s use the word ‘expenses’. According to the NCAA we can use 'expenses' up to about $160-170/week, maybe more."
"Everybody thought that we were stupid, everybody did," he audibly smiled, "I don’t know what the league did to change that because the structure of the league is still the same, contracts are the same, the teams are the same. Why all of a sudden now are they ‘non-professional’?"  
So, according to the CHLPA, something no one believed would be possible has in fact happened. The NCAA is on board.
Well... almost.
"The NCAA laid out the steps that we would have to take to get the NCAA route," he summarized, "One of those was changing the classification from Hockey Canada’s 30-year policy about the CHL and the USA transfer agreement from being ‘professional’."
To which I replied "And it appears they may have done that for you?"
"They did... love’em!" he laughed, "Now it’s going to come down to whether they will treat them as amateur players. Dave Branch says they’re amateur, then let’s treat them as amateur."
And just when you thought everything was running smoothly with no perceivable speed bump in sight... you get to what EVERYONE ELSE has been saying is the real problem all along.  There are CHL players who have signed professional contracts still playing in the league which, in the eyes of the NCAA, makes the CHL the same as the Swedish Elite League - professional.
But don't worry, according to the CHLPA, that won't be an issue anymore. It can't be.  
"When a player signs a pro contract, he can’t come back to the amateur league," Clarke declared, "He should be entitled to go and earn the wage in the American Hockey League or somewhere in the farm system of the National Hockey League teams where they pay those players to play."
Clarke was quick to clarify one point. 
"Not a drafted player, a drafted player can still play as long as he hasn’t signed a signing bonus with the NHL and if he has signed a signing bonus then he should be playing in the AHL."
And by "signing a signing bonus" I'm just assuming that he means signing an entry level contract and collecting the signing bonus that comes along with doing so. 
"We’re going to go that route," he said. 
For the sake of clarity, I asked him if it was the CHLPA's desire to have the CHL following the same rules as the USHL and Canadian Jr.A leagues (often called Tier II) like the BCHL and AJHL. For those leagues, many active players have been drafted but because they are feeder leagues to the NCAA, none have signed NHL contracts or therefore collected any signing bonuses.  If they do, like Dubuque forward Zemgus Girgensons (BUF), he immediately moves up to the professional ranks. 
"That’s right and it should be because Mr. Branch said they are amateur," Clarke confirmed, "Amateur status is not professional, it’s amateur hockey."
COMING NEXT: What I had initially planned to be a 3-part series is now going to be 5. Next I will outline what their hockey world would look like should the CHLPA become a reality. Inlcuding the "union's" ideas on how to generate funds to cover their new educational packages. Lastly, I'm going to offer up some ideas or counter opinions for the proposed union to consider and invite all of you to chime in with your own thoughts or messages for them too. Feel free to start letting me know: email me at with your ideas or concerns.


Dylan said...

BIG thumbs up for this.

Speeds said...

So, what does that mean for players currently signed to NHL contracts playing in the chl? Are they now able to report to their ahl team right away, is that something where the chlpa and a player are going to challenge their chl assignment right away ? A player like a strome or huberdeau or d. Hamilton?

Chris Lerch said...

Excellent work. Really curious about that NCAA memo - so much of the CHLPA's case hinges on that and it seems almost rogue.

Dean Millard said...

If this was to happen at first I thought current signed players would be grandfathered in, but that would still violate the NCAA. I believe this still hinges on the NHL and PA agreeing on 18 and 19 year olds in the AHL.

I can't see a guy like Michael St. Croix in the AHL this year.

Otto said...

So what will happen is, NHL teams eill wait a year or two to sign players because they would rather they develop in junior. At which point these players that the chlpa is supposedly protecting would continue to get only $50 a week instead of the good faith signing bonus