Q&A with Paul Kelly
Executive Director of College Hockey Inc., on a Recruiting Battles, Expansion and More
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Paul Kelly is a few months now into his tenure as Executive Director of the fledgling College Hockey Inc., the marketing arm for college hockey — its official ambassador, if you will.
Kelly — the former NHL Players Association boss, and a long-time trial lawyer in Boston — deals with things that are too time-consuming, or too unwieldy, for the conference commissioners group to do. They have their own day-to-day things to deal with.
Most of all, this includes marketing and education. There's a high-pitched battle going on for talent with the Canadian Major Junior leagues. For a long time, it was not an issue. Then, through the 1990s and beyond, more and more elite players began going to U.S. colleges. In response, the Major Junior leagues changed many rules to make it more attractive for U.S. and Canadian players to head north of the border. Because of NCAA restrictions, college hockey has often been powerless to respond.
Kelly goes around giving seminars, passing out information, giving talks. But any hope of "peace" to be made with the CHL seems far off.
This August, in Toronto, hockey people will convene for the Molson Canadian-sponsored World Hockey Summit. Hockey Canada, the IIHF, USA Hockey, and the Canadian Hockey League were all invited. College Hockey was not.
All of this means Kelly has his work cut out for him.
The CHL has done everything it can to freeze out the NCAA. It has bolstered its dubious "scholarship" packages — costing them tens of thousands of dollars per year — in order to entice players. It "drafts" players earlier from midget leagues, before the NCAA even allows colleges to contact players. Meanwhile, Hockey Canada has finagled a way to cut off the pipeline from Jr. B and Tier 2 that used to be a haven for college-minded kids. There is a ban on 15-year olds in those leagues, and a limit to 16-year olds. Plus heavy restrictions on U.S.-born players. And Hockey Canada's "transfer deal" with USA Hockey means that Canadian kids can't come play in the USHL at 15 and 16, so that option is gone too.
Instead of having numerous options while waiting for college, players are funneled to the major junior, where their NCAA eligibility is shot after they play one game there.
One of the few Canadian writers who seems to sympathize with the U.S. colleges, and has been quick to point out the flaws in the major junior marketing schemes, is Jeff Hicks of the Waterloo (Ontario) Record. His writing, in the heart of OHL country, has been comprehensive and frequent. Among other things, he wrote an exhaustive piece on the CHL education packages, breaking through the mythology.
There are now over 100 U.S.-born players in major junior, almost double what it was just a few years ago. This is one reason why Kelly believes that expansion of U.S. college hockey is viable and won't dilute the product. If you get 50 of those kids back, that's two teams right there.
A long-discussed option that would allow players to play major junior, then come to U.S. colleges without penalty, is controversial in college ranks. Kelly, when initially hired, thought that might be a good idea — but he was also accused of being naive on the issue. Ultimately, coaches don't want players to have that option, because all elite players would go and never come back. Does college hockey just want all the scraps?
The NHL gives the Canadian system and USA Hockey each $8 million per year. But USA Hockey is not college hockey — and USA Hockey only gives NCAA hockey a fraction of that money.
Meanwhile, Kelly also works other, hopefully more fruitful, angles — expansion, television and NCAA legislation. His group can help speak as a unified voice, and commit its time and resources to the issues.
Believe it or not, College Hockey Inc. is also working on the long-fabled college hockey video game — hoping to get NCAA teams included in the EA Sports release of its popular NHL title.
(This Q&A originally was part of a podcast, published during the Frozen Four)
CHN: What reaction are you getting from Canada as you lobby for different things?
Kelly: For most Canadian families, I think they're happy to hear about the college game, because they don't see it or hear about it very much. And there's a number of parents who would like to see their kids develop their education, particularly at some of these world-class institutions down here. So I think from the perspective of most families, they really welcome us being up there. I think that some of the guys in the CHL that are in junior programs probably view it as a bit of a threat. You're fishing their pond and potentially drawing away some young players that may not play for one of their teams. So obviously they're not happy about that. But I want what's best for the game and best for the players, and I'm in the information business, and parents and families can decide for themselves.
CHN: So is that the way you see it, in a nutshell, that you just want the information to be out there? Because that's been the frustration of college hockey people, that some of the Canadian literature is misinformation. I don't know what you can do to combat that.
Kelly: Well, I think I can point out the instances where I think they have not given the full story, such as with their so-called education packages, and things of that nature. But for the most part, I just want to make sure families, whether they're in the U.S. or Canada, have all of the information so they can make the right decision for their kid. There's too many horror stories in Canada where — you know, they can get drafted (into major junior) at age 14 — they don't make the big club right away at age 16 and they're on their midget teams, and near the end of the season, the WHL team will call them up to play two games and destroy their eligibility ever to play college hockey; in many instances, without even having full knowledge what they're doing. I hate to hear those stories, and I want kids to have options and make informed decisions.
CHN: What are the odds of some level of cooperation with the CHL or at least detente, in the sense of making sure it's a level playing field and some of the trickier things are taken out of the equation?
Kelly: I think it's going to be a challenge. I think both leagues should work at some agreeable compromise. I think that both leagues should co-exist. They obviously play a great brand of hockey up there and obviously have been successful developing NHL players, but I think that NCAA hockey also does a terrific job of developing players — and people that don't make it to the NHL. But we've proposed it. For example, we told them that, in our view, having a draft for the Western Hockey League at the age of 14 is not only not good for the families and kids involved, it's not healthy for hockey. It's way too young. And why are they doing it? They're doing it because they want to get ahead of the colleges. They think the colleges are committing certain kids — at least verbally — to scholarships at 15 or 16, and they want to leapfrog that. And if everyone continues to do this, we'll be recruiting kids at 12. It makes no sense. I'd much rather see the age level go up to, certainly 16. It makes more sense than what we do now. But we have a system, and so we have to kind of work within the system. And because the college coaches can't reach out and talk to these kids at 14 and 15, that's part of what I'm all about, which is to get out to these kids, get information into their hands, be a resource, be a place where parents and kids can call and ask questions about it.
CHN: There's no one that can make anyone in Canada — or even here — do anything they don't want to do. So is it more the power of persuasion than anything?
Kelly: That's true, but it's interesting — if you go to a veteran hockey person in Canada, even a veteran media hockey person, and ask them what they know about NCAA hockey, the answer is, very little. Because they don't see it. NCAA college games, for the most part, have not been broadcast in Canada. They've done a very effective job of keeping it out of their country, and they do it largely because the CHL does not want Canadian kids exposed to that game. We're trying to change that. We're in discussions with television broadcasters both here and in Canada to broadcast a college game of the week. Last week I was in Toronto, and I made a presentation to one of the elite midget teams there, and after it was over, every one of the kids came up and were very interested, had a lot of good questions. These are some of the top kids at age 15 likely to go in the OHL draft — and one guy told me he was interested in Michigan, another said he was interested in Dartmouth. And when kids understand the pros and cons of these options, I think you're going to see more and more elite young Canadian players opt for NCAA hockey.
CHN: You have an age old debate on whether the NCAA should be opened to players who played a few games in major junior or not. The problem is the debate rages within the NCAA fraternity itself. So I don't know where you stand, or where you think you can even take the discussion.
Kelly: They don't agree, and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides of this issue. I want to learn more and saturate more, so I haven't formed a final opinion on it. I guess my current tentative view is, for the hardship cases, for the kids that gets dragged up for 3-4-5 games without knowing he's forgoing his college eligibility, we have to make exceptions for that. So maybe pick a number of games — maybe 10 — or something like that where we can say, "If this was truly a mistake, or this kid tried it for a few games and realized immediately it wasn't for him, then we should allow him to play NCAA hockey." I don't subscribe to the view that a kid can go up there for a year or two then change his mind, because I do see the position of those coaches that say, "Look, we will lose a lot of the elite kids, because they will give it a try and never come back."
CHN: What can you do within the terms of the NCAA? You're an outside body, but I presume you're still beholden to the rules of the NCAA. Like you said, you can reach out to 14- and 15-year olds — is there any sort of NCAA issue there because you're an arm of the leagues, in a sense?
Kelly: Well, no, because when we're out there passing along information about college hockey, we're talking about college hockey generally. We're not out there recruiting for any particular institution and we don't work for any institution, we're not paid by any of the colleges. So we don't run afoul of any of the NCAA restrictions. And any time we run into an area where we have some question about it, we have a regular communication channel with the NCAA. For example, there was one event recently where we wanted to leave behind some T-shirts to the audience of American kids that just said "College hockey Inc." on them. But before we did that, we checked with the NCAA to make sure that if we did that, we wouldn't somehow be accused of leaving behind some improper benefit. They said it wasn't a problem given who we are and what we do.
CHN: Were you dismayed or took note of the comments (L.A. Kings general manager) Dean Lombardi made? He was disparaging about Red Berenson. Whether he was speaking off the record or not is somewhat immaterial. I've seen a number of those kinds of comments through the years. And I was wondering if, in your dealings around the NHL, if those kinds of thoughts are pervasive?
Kelly: I think if you asked the players who played for Red Berenson, I think they would not only disagree with Dean Lombardi, but vehemently disagree. I think Dean, in retrospect, wishes he didn't say that. Even if he thought that — and I understand there's something in the history between Dean and Red that may have motivated that. I certainly don't agree with that. And I certainly don't agree with the general statement I've heard some CHL guys or NHL GMs that came out of that (junior) system, that college hockey doesn't adequately prepare players for the NHL game, or college coaches don't prepare players for the NHL game. That is baloney. I've been around enough NHL players and NHL games, college games, to know that quite the contrary is true, and I think you're going to see it more in the future — that the NCAA game does a better job preparing players. It makes them bigger, stronger, better conditioned, better able to fight off injury — they certainly are as skilled if not more sikilled. so I don't but Dean's arguments. I think Dean just wanted to get a kid out of Michigan so he could put him on his minor league team so he could be available when needed.
CHN: I know that, you know that, we're preaching to the converted here. The question is whether you ever got the sense that it was ever a pervasive thought, or if Dean was just having a bad day?
Kelly: I don't think it's a pervasive thought. Guys that came out of the U.S. college system that are now in management in the NHL, as either GMs, coaches or scouts, they understand the college game and they favor it. On the flip side, if you're (someone) that went to major junior, you're going to favor major junior. That's why it's a little astounding to hear someone like Garth Snow last year (in comments about Minnesota coach about Don Lucia). That one was particularly off the reservation where you have a guy that was a big college hockey guy and a very good player, making a disparaging remark about an existing college coach. That kind of stuff probably shouldn't go on, and I suspect in retrospect those guys who made those public comments probably wish they hadn't. But they're not fact based. There are an average of 7-8 players on every roster that come from college hockey. You'll see this year in the draft, if there are 210 guys drafted, probably 40-50 or so will be in college hockey or have already committed. And I think the numbers of college guys in the NHL will steadily increase. The Canadian pool is shrinking, and the European and Russian players are not coming over here in as big a number for various reasons.
CHN: I guess your job is to have the Bill Clinton/George Stephanopolous "rapid reaction" at the ready every time a guy makes one of these comments. At least they've got you to do that.
Kelly: I'm not going to pick fights with the NHL. But we're out there, we are ambassadors for the college game, and we're believers in the college game. (But) we're hockey guys at the end of the day, and we want what's best for the sport. And at the end of the day, what will make college hockey thrive is if we continue to get some of the very best players. Keep the elite U.S. players in our programs, but I'd also love to see an increase in the number of Canadians and Swedes and Finns — we welcome that. I'm not trying to take scholarships away from college kids — I'd actually like to see more college add the sport, which would counteract more Europeans coming in.
CHN: Well, that leads to the next question. Those of us who have been around the game for a long time, have wished for that day all the time. What are we going to do to get more teams? But it's so hard. Schools have their agendas, priorities. I realize it's not up to you to solve every issue — there's only so many things you can do, there are limitations. What is it that you think you can do?
Kelly: We're facing a different economy now and Title IX creates its own challenges. If you add 18 scholarships for men's hockey, you have to add 18 women's scholarships, not necessarily in hockey. We've been contacted by three or four universities who want to talk seriously about it, and we have a number of others that we know have mature club programs and arenas that we'd like to talk to. Part of the problem is, we've got to find them a place to play. We've got to either find a spot in an existing conference, or get a series of teams together to form a new conference, or shuffle the deck in some fashion. I think it's realistic to think we'll see a number of new teams. I think it will be a couple of years before that happens, but I can see it going from 58 at present to probably something in the mid-60s within five years. Hopefully we don't lose any programs. We've had some programs that have had some tough economic times, and of course next year we have Alabama-Huntsville without a conference. So we have to fix some of those problems, and stabilize those teams. But I am actually optimistic. I think you're going to see a couple programs on the West Coast sooner than later.