October 29, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

CHLPA's Agitation Could Affect College Hockey

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Over the last few months, there has been buzz about a Canadian Hockey League Players Association, but it has meant little so far, particularly to college hockey.

The CHL is the governing body of the three Canadian major junior leagues. Players who go there are not eligible for the NCAA anymore, because it's considered a professional league by NCAA standards.

The CHLPA came out of the blue claming to have organized major junior players for better conditions. However, its credentials were dubious, at best.

Putting that aside for now, the CHLPA leaders say its main goal is getting better opportunities than they're getting from the CHL's education and scholarship packages, especially considering how much money is made off of those players.

Interesting that the CHLPA is saying the same thing about major junior that college hockey people say — beware those dubious "educational packages."

Thing is, the CHLPA's apparent solution to this is to open the door for players to head to the NCAA, where they would get better packages. And that's where we come in.

To date, the CHLPA has been nothing more than a minor nuisance for the CHL leadership. But if it has any success, it could also become a major nuisance for college hockey. There has been an age-old split in college hockey ranks over whether it wants major junior players to be eligible for college hockey. There is no sign of that split being reconciled any time soon.

The CHLPA was just a curiosity at first, making several public proclamations that were dubious at best. It was difficult to pin down exactly what they were all about, what their goals were, and even who they were. They made several claims about the size and scope of the organization that stretched the truth, and they were elusive to communicate with.

But recently, though still very far from getting anywhere, their efforts are at least more out in the open, and at least merit some discussion.

Before we go on, we must tip the cap to the stellar work being done, specifically by Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show in Edmonton, who has been writing about this extensively on his blog; and by Chris Peters of United States of Hockey blog, who has good insights as a former USA Hockey employee.

What brought this to the forefront this week was the claim of CHLPA "leader" George Laracque, a former NHL forward, that he was in discussions with the NCAA over how major junior players could be considered amateur, and thus open to play in the NCAA. He said he had a letter (e-mail) from them outlining how this could happen.

That all sounded bizarre, but Flaming did great work in uncovering some of the back and forth that actually took place.

The CHLPA has been threatening lawsuits over getting minimum wage for its players. After all, it says, the NCAA and CHL each consider major junior to be professional. But it even admits that it doesn't really want players to get paid — it just wants to use the lawsuits as a hammer to open discussions about improving the players' educational opportunities.

The CHLPA made an inquiry to the NCAA about what it would take for major junior to be considered amateur. They received a reply from Natasha Oakes, Assistant Director of Academic and Membership Affairs, that said:

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.

The CHLPA believes those hurdles have been cleared. It points out that the CHL's by-laws recently changed, and it now proclaims itself as a non-professional league instead of a professional one. Therefore, says the CHLPA, if the stipend is within NCAA's allowances for necessary expenses, the problem is solved.

That reply, however, is not the whole story.

As Chris Peters pointed out, the issue is not just the stipend players receive, but also that there are players in major junior who have already been drafted, received NHL signing bonuses, and are under NHL contract. Nevermind whether the players, or league, in general are amateur or not — that alone would be a no-no under NCAA regulations. We just saw Boston University freshman Ahti Oksanen suspended for two games because he was playing on an amateur team in Finland which briefly had a player on its roster that was under a pro contract.

Flaming also quoted College Hockey Inc.'s Nate Ewell, saying the same thing: "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 CHLPA is claiming they could get that situation taken care of as well. Again, for a whole lot more, see Flaming's recent article.

Perhaps most of all, regardless of what the CHL says, the issue would probably still have to go through legislative layers in the NCAA to get its own by-laws amended.

The issue for college hockey is — does anyone want this? As we mentioned, college hockey coaches have been split down the middle for eons. And as more and more players bail out on college hockey commitments and head to major junior, the issue has become more acute, but no closer to being resolved.

Sure, it would be great if major junior players were as free to bolt the CHL for the NCAA, just as NCAA players can easily bolt to major junior at any time. But the concern has never changed — that if you open that door, even more players will go major junior at 16 to try it out, knowing they could come back, but then never come back.

In other words, be careful what you wish for.

There have been times in the past where these eligibility issues came up. There has been legislation over the years that would change the definition of amateurism. Like many things in the NCAA, it's debated ad infinitum by its membership, and doesn't get anywhere.

So that's always been the stalemate.

Meanwhile, the CHLPA, whatever it is, is agitating for this to be allowed, in order to help current major junior players they believe are being treated unfairly.

If this continues, you might find some strange bedfellows between the CHL and college hockey, both trying to stop the CHLPA from getting what it wants.

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