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July 4, 2012

Maize N' View: College hockey needs to fight back

Michigan fans breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday when prized incoming freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba issued a statement though his family confirming what he told TheWolverine.com last Friday - he's coming to U-M. But how long will that euphoria last with two months of offseason departure rumors still to come?

Two years ago, with an urging (really a begging) from coaches across the country, College Hockey Inc., was formed to served as the marketing arm of the sport. Paul Kelly, who had strong ties to the NHL as the former executive director of the NHLPA, served as president for the first year and a half before resigning in February. Nate Ewell has served as the interim director since.

College Hockey Inc., does a terrific job with the resources at its disposal, relying on its marketing efforts to stump for its sport while hosting information meetings with recruits (headlined sometimes by U-M's own Red Berenson) and working with the professional leagues to form better relationships.

However, what it hasn't been able to do - and what has the greatest negative impact on the sport - is convince the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) to keep its paws off of college-bound recruits that have either offered a verbal commitment to a school or, taking it a step further, signed a letter of intent.

That's what happened last week when the Plymouth Whalers (an OHL team that exists as a sub-division of the CHL) plucked U-M signee Connor Carrick from his intended destination. He's simply next in a long line of future Wolverines that opted for the CHL, including A.J. Jenks, Jared Knight, Lucas Lessio, Trevor Lewis, Jack Campbell and John Gibson. And that's just in the last five years.

The young men are obviously not without fault here, going back on their word, but imagine the carrot being dangled in front of them (most 17 or 18 years old) and the slick 'sell-job' these professional organizations have perfected.

What type of sales pitch? Well, according to Carrick, one of the more inane ones is that "four-year college players don't make the NHL." According to College Hockey Inc., more than half of the 294 NCAA alums now playing in the NHL spent four years at their college programs, including 15 of 26 Wolverines that played in the NHL this past year.

The CHL general managers and coaches also sell players on the idea that they will speed up their development playing in a longer regular season (68 games vs. 36 for college hockey) within a schedule that looks and feels more like the real thing - midweek games as opposed to the Friday-Saturday double-dip most common in college hockey.

What they fail to mention is that with rosters chalk full of teenagers, the CHL doesn't have the depth of talent that the NCAA, which can roll four capable lines instead of two, does possess.

But this is all part of the sell, and it's effective, obviously, because more and more kids jump each summer, reneging on their college commitments in leaving those programs in an incredible lurch. But there isn't much the NCAA can do about it at the moment, no legal recourse it can take to prevent the CHL from sliding into town to pilfer its current rosters and arriving freshmen, and the CHL knows that, showing absolutely no misgivings.

The only hope the NCAA has is to become more proactive and less reactive. Setting up camps and informational meetings where college coaches explain to recruits the value of going their route is a start, but simply isn't powerful enough to change the current landscape. The NCAA needs to think big, and needs to ask the NHL for help.

The NHL has no governing authority over the CHL, and even though the two leagues have had a contentious relationship at times, the CHL is still the top feeder of pro talent in the world - college hockey is up 35 percent over the last 10 years and now produces 30 percent of all NHL players - and the NHL knows that, limiting any type of reprisals the NHL could (but never would think to) muster.

But the NHL doesn't need to impose consequences to make a point. A well-worded statement or two from its commissioner and a select few respected general managers publicly criticizing the CHL for its tactics could be just the support the NCAA needs to further its cause, while simultaneously giving the CHL reason to rethink its approach.

In a bold move, the NCAA should look to tie a signed letter of intent to a restraining order, with possible prosecution of any coach, scout, GM that comes into contact with a signee. It's a long shot, some may think a grandiose overreaction, but college hockey has to protect its commodities, especially after spending two, sometimes three years, on money and time to secure a commitment and a letter of intent.

The CHL has its chances. It drafts many of the very same players college coaches are recruiting and has two years, usually, before they sign a LOI to convince them their league is the way to go. But once that signature is inked on a letter of intent, that should be it. They had their chance and couldn't get it done, and need to back off. Instead, they double and triple their efforts, offering incentives that can cross the line. The NCAA needs to fight back.

The NHL could rebuff any sought-out help from the NCAA, though, and the courts could deny college hockey its legal claim, so it's up to the NCAA to make a few changes to its own framework. It could start by extending the season to at least 50 regular-season games, pushing beyond April and into May to coincide with the NHL playoffs.

Staunch academic critics will cry foul, arguing the athletic side of the sport will overwhelm the educational side, but college hockey already extends from October through April (practices actually begin in September), a seven-month span in a eight-month academic calendar (at Michigan anyway).

There is also the very real question of whether doing so is feasible because it would likely require midweek games, and unlike college basketball, which has the money across the landscape to afford flights in and out of any given locale, there are few programs like Michigan that are making money. Would the sport be able to afford jaunts from city to city on a Tuesday or Wednesday (currently many programs bus on Thursday evenings, missing Friday class, and return Sundays)?

But if it can be done, it needs to be done, to squash that CHL argument, and to give college players a better feel for what they can expect on the next level.

One colleague suggested to me that college hockey should allow its players to attend NHL training camps in September (CHL permits its skaters and goalies to) but the timing couldn't be worse because practices start in September as programs prepare for the upcoming season. Practices start then for the CHL too, but college hockey can't sign a free agent if it loses a player like the CHL could.

Programs like Michigan, which routinely boast 10 or more NHL draft picks, would also be unfairly handicapped as it readies for the new year while a lesser team like Bowling Green, with a few NHL selections, would be better off than the Maize and Blue.

But there are other big ideas out there and the NCAA needs to start reaching for them. Unlike the cliché 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' the current status is, well, broke, and it needs fixing.




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