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CHLPA faces complex NCAA eligibility issues

If all players with NHL contracts had to report to the AHL instead of CHL, Alex Galchenyuk would currently be with the Hamilton Bulldogs. (CHL Images)

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If all players with NHL contracts had to report to the AHL instead of CHL, Alex Galchenyuk would currently be with the Hamilton Bulldogs. (CHL Images)

“I’m not crazy; you’re the one who’s crazy. You’re driving me crazy.”
- “Institutionalized,” by Suicidal Tendencies


There may not be anything more labyrinthine than NCAA regulations, but several newsworthy items of late make it important to delve into what makes a player eligible for the college hockey experience. And oh yes, there are caveats.

The most recent salvo launched by the CHLPA, a group attempting to unionize major junior players in the Canadian Hockey League’s three circuits, involves the proposal that the group would seek to make major junior players eligible for NCAA play.

What kills that eligibility? Depends on whom you ask.

“The biggest issue is that you have signed NHL players on major junior teams,” said Nate Ewell, a spokesman for College Hockey Inc.

His group was created by college hockey’s Division 1 commissioners in order to promote the NCAA game and educate potential players on eligibility requirements. So let’s take Nino Niederreiter as an example. Drafted out of Portland in the Western League, ‘El Nino’ signed his entry level contract with the New York Islanders, then played nine games in the 2010-11 NHL season before being sent back to the Winterhawks. He’s already been paid as a professional hockey player at this point, already received his signing bonus.

According to the NCAA, that would affect the status of every other Portland player that skated with him. Now think about how many CHL teams have signed NHL prospects on their rosters. It would make sense that the NCAA would have a blanket policy on major junior (which they do – there’s a specific one-year automatic suspension for playing even a CHL exhibition game). But this gets especially tricky when it comes to European players who want to play college hockey. This season, Boston University freshman Ahti Oksanen of Finland was suspended for two games because his Espoo Blues junior squad featured a paid player who was briefly sent down last year.

The United States League is a junior hockey circuit that features elite young players, some of whom have already been drafted by NHL teams. But the USHL is not considered a professional league by the NCAA.

“The last thing we want to do is jeopardize a player’s eligibility,” said USHL spokesman Brian Werger. “We always try to err on the side of caution and avoid any grey areas.”

How does the USHL differ from major junior? First off, USHL players receive no money whatsoever for playing – not even the $50 stipend major junior players are paid (more on that later). Also, there are no signed players in the USHL – Waterloo’s Zach Stepan may have been selected by Nashville in the 2012 draft, but he plans on attending Ohio State next season and therefore has not put ink to paper with the Preds yet.

But Derek Clarke, a spokesman for the CHLPA, maintains that the $50 stipend major junior pays, along with the designation of major junior as a “professional” league, are the reasons CHL players are ineligible for NCAA play. In an email he has circulated from Natasha Oakes, assistant director of academic and membership affairs for the NCAA, Clarke highlights Oakes’ affirmation of his claims (The excellent Coming Down the Pipe! blog has also covered this controversy extensively – and spoken to many of the same people). But under the NCAA’s own guidelines, the $50 stipend should not be a problem.

“A low amount like that could be justified as a necessary expense,” Ewell said.

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To wit; that’s basically gas money for the week. NCAA bylaw 12.02.4 permits teams to provide expenses for transportation to and from practice or games, provided it’s not an excessive amount. Has Oakes misinterpreted her own organization’s bylaw, or am I missing something here?

Clarke correctly notes that Hockey Canada recently changed its bylaws to refer to major junior as the “highest level of non-professional competition in Canada,” instead of “professional.” That puts the CHL in accordance with section (b) of NCAA bylaw 12.02.4 (a professional team is any team that declares itself professional).

Major junior is specifically mentioned in NCAA bylaw 12.2.3.2.4 (Ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada, classified by the Canadian Hockey Association as major junior teams, are considered professional teams under NCAA legislation). But that bylaw has yet to be updated to reflect Hockey Canada’s change in bylaw (are you asleep yet?).

I’ll give the NCAA the benefit of the doubt that it simply hasn’t revisited that rule yet, but if Clarke wants to spearhead a movement for CHL-NCAA crossover, he may hit another roadblock: Only member schools can initiate such a change, not an outsider, according to Ewell, “and it’s a long process,” he said.

For Clarke, this is an opening to overhaul the CHL.

“If the CHL is truly an amateur league now, these players would be free to play in other leagues,” he said.

Clarke believes signed NHL prospects should not be playing major junior. That means Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk would be in Hamilton, not Sarnia right now.

“Trust me, a first round draft pick would rather be in the AHL, not the CHL,” Clarke said. “They should go to the farm team and leave the (CHL) door open for players who are 16 or 17.”

The last exception worth noting involves recently suspended University of Wisconsin freshman Nic Kerdiles. Last weekend, the blossoming power forward received permission to play two games for his old squad, Team USA’s NTDP, against the University of Minnesota and Division III St. Thomas. The rationale? Team USA needed to evaluate Kerdiles, who has a very good chance of making the national team for this year’s World Junior Championship. International play/evaluation gets a pass from the NCAA, which is why John Carlson, as a signed Washington Capitals prospect playing pro hockey in the American League with Hershey, did not “pollute” his U.S. teammates en route to his gold medal overtime goal at the 2010 WJC.

Unfortunately for incoming Bowling Green freshman Ralfs Freibergs, he was suspended 33 games by the NCAA for playing on a Latvian team (Dinamo Riga Jr.) in the Belarus League in 2010 that competed against pros. Even though the Riga juniors were constructed to prepare for the world juniors, they weren’t technically the national team. Confusing? Unfair? That’s reality, unfortunately. And this institution is driving me crazy.

Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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