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Major junior veterans should get shot at pro hockey

Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman has proposed to allow major junior veterans access to the AHL early. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman has proposed to allow major junior veterans access to the AHL early. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the debate sparked by Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman concerning whether or not junior-aged players should be eligible to be dispatched to the American League, we haven’t heard much from either side about what would be best for the players involved.

Yzerman, who is taking a bullet for a lot of GMs on this one, has come up with a reasonable proposal that players who have played three years in one of the Ontario, Western or Quebec Leagues be allowed to be sent to the minors instead of being dispatched back to junior.

Yzerman and the GMs want more control over the development of their players and want to amend the NHL-CHL agreement this summer to accomplish that goal. That, they feel, will make their drafted prospects better players quicker and more valuable assets to the organization. They’re not wrong.

But that’s not something the CHL wants to hear. Anything that threatens its near monopoly over the best teenaged players in the world is bound to garner a ton of opposition. After all, these guys are its star players, the ones people pay to see and who contribute to a healthier bottom line. They want these players all to themselves for as long as possible.

But if I’m the NHL, here’s what I’d say to the CHL (perhaps a little more diplomatically than this): “Hey guys, we’re the NHL and you are our feeder system. We provide you with $10 million each year in developmental money that we really don’t have to give you. We’re going to take these three-year juniors and put them in the AHL if that’s what is best for their development. Let us know when you want to sign the agreement.”

What exactly is the CHL going to do? Close its business? It has almost no leverage in negotiations with the NHL. Players who play in the CHL are still going to aspire to play in the NHL as much as ever and unless the CHL is going to start signing binding contracts with their players and paying them a competitive wage, there’s really not a lot it can do.

(By the way, neither the league nor the NHL Players’ Association should be accepting any pats on the back for wholeheartedly looking out for the best interests of young players. After all, the two sides have been more than happy to bargain away their rights with a cap on rookie salaries, despite the fact these men are neither NHL players nor members of the NHLPA when they negotiate their first contracts.)

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The player eligibility debate isn’t limited to the NHL. There is a 15-year-old named Connor McDavid playing up with the Toronto Marlboros midget team. In order to play in the OHL – or any level of junior hockey – next season, he would have to be deemed an “exceptional player” by Hockey Canada.

That McDavid’s immediate future as a player at any level of junior is up to some panel of handpicked Hockey Canada experts is absurd. The kid can play. If he were automatically eligible for the OHL draft, there’s a chance he’d go first overall.

And how many other 15-year-olds are being prohibited from playing junior hockey – not just major junior, but any level of junior from A down to D – because of this rule? There are a lot of 15-year-olds who are too good for major midget and not good enough yet for the CHL who should be playing Jr. A or B, but can’t because Hockey Canada says they can’t.

That was not always the case. There was a time when 15-year-olds could play Jr. A or Jr. B. But instead of having their sons playing some level of junior hockey for free, parents have to spend thousands of dollars for them to play another year in minor hockey.

It’s not surprising that 15-year-olds are treated this way. But what is surprising is the NHL isn’t willing to flex its muscles and change the parameters of its agreement with the CHL. A change would not affect the true superstars of the CHL because those guys go directly to the NHL as 18-year-olds, anyway. And those players who would start their pro careers in the AHL one year earlier would also burn up one year of their entry level contracts and be on the road to unrestricted free agency a year sooner. It’s a win for them, too.

There’s no reason for a change not to be made. The only question is why has it taken so long for it to be done?

This article originally appeared in the March 19, 2012 issue of THN magazine.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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