MATT CAREY, J.D., CFP®
DECEMBER 12, 2022
WCHANCAA@YAHOO.COM (715) 944-8849
Canadian Hockey League (CHL) players are currently ineligible to play NCAA hockey. Why? What is the reasoning? Maintaining the status quo and precluding CHL players from NCAA hockey is not logical and it contradicts how similarly situated athletes in other sports are treated. Furthermore, the landscape of NCAA athletics changed on June 21, 2021 with the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Alston v. NCAA. Therefore, the NCAA should allow CHL players to be eligible for NCAA hockey. The NCAA should preemptively amend its rule and not wait for a class action lawsuit to force the change.
The CHL is comprised of 60 teams and each team may have an active roster of 23 players. The 1,380 player CHL is comprised of teams in three member leagues. Western Hockey League (WHL) has 22 teams, Ontario Hockey League (OHL) 20 teams and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) 18 teams. Incidentally, 8 of the 60 CHL teams are in the United States; Washington has 4, Michigan 2, Pennsylvania & Oregon each have 1. The age range of CHL players are from 16 to 20, with similar age restrictions as the USHL, but slightly younger than the players in NAHL and NCDC. CHL players currently receive a full year college scholarship for every season played in CHL. It is likely the CHL would modify its college scholarship policy if their players became eligible for NCAA athletic scholarship money.
IMPACT ON VARIOUS ORGANIZATIONS
The CHL has approximately 1,380 active roster players. If 15% to 25% of CHL players go to the NCAA, 200 to 350 CHL players will play NCAA hockey. A vast majority of the CHL players going to NCAA will play D-1, and a scintilla will end up at D-3. NCAA D-1 currently has 63 teams. If 200 to 350 CHL players are spread out amongst D-1 teams equitably, each NCAA D-1 team will have between three to five CHL players. As a result, the skill and speed of NCAA hockey shall improve. The players on NCAA teams that did not play in CHL benefit by playing with and against better skilled players that come from CHL. A rising tide of NCAA hockey talent will lift all players, which will equate to more NCAA players having opportunities to play professional hockey.
Additional beneficiaries of a faster, more skilled NCAA hockey are scouts of professional teams, fans, and the colleges. The faster, more skilled CHL players augment the professional team scouts’ ability to provide a more accurate evaluation of NCAA players. The fans benefit because they watch more exciting hockey, which will increase attendance and viewership via television & webcasts. Elevated attendance and viewership will provide NCAA colleges with potential to increase revenue from ticket sales, food & beverage purchases, and more advertising revenue.
Furthermore, having the 60 team CHL available for NCAA teams to recruit will be very beneficial if the number of NCAA D-1 teams continues increasing. For example, the Pacific Coast states are ripe for the growth of hockey with Seattle recently adding an NHL team, but currently it is void of any NCAA hockey teams. The state of Washington has four CHL teams and Oregon has one. If NCAA D-1 hockey expands into these two states, and California to a lesser degree, a potential recruiting pipeline is already in place if CHL players are NCAA eligible.
How will recruiting CHL players impact NCAA teams recruiting budgets, and will it diminish time spent scouting NAHL and USHL games? Answers to these questions will vary for each NCAA team. Some NCAA teams may drastically overhaul their recruiting strategy and others may not deviate much from their existing plans. It is reasonable to foresee recruiting the CHL is regionalized based on proximity to the college. For example, would an assistant coach from Colorado College predominantly recruit CHL players in the WHL, whereas an assistant coach from Boston College recruit CHL players in QMJHL and OHL?
The National Team Development Program (NTDP) typically has 44 players divided between two teams, U18 and U17. Speaking recently with a former NTDP player that was also a first round NHL draft selection, “if I could have played in CHL and still played NCAA…there’s a good chance, I probably, would have spent at least one season in the CHL.” This conversation confirms my belief that some players will undoubtedly choose to play in CHL in lieu of NTDP. This has already occurred even with CHL players not being NCAA eligible. However, the number of players choosing CHL over NTDP increases if CHL players are NCAA eligible.
How would this affect the development of the elite youth players in USA Hockey? It would likely increase the number of U.S. kids with exposure to development at the highest levels. For example, if 10 players select CHL over NTDP that means players graded 45 to 55 now have an opportunity to join NTDP. The current NTDP program only has 40 plus players being the beneficiaries of a majesty of resources of money and time. Moreover, we determine to whom shall be the recipients of this majesty of resources at ages prior to being fully grown and knowing whether they have the physical capacity to reach their “projected” levels.
The United States Hockey League (USHL) is the only junior hockey league classified as Tier 1 by USA Hockey. It is currently a 16-team league and regarded as the best junior league for players that want to retain NCAA eligibility. As the only junior league to receive Tier 1 status from USA Hockey and having NCAA rules preclude CHL players, USHL teams have in some measure a regulated monopoly regarding competition for players. If CHL players are granted NCAA eligibility, it would directly impact USHL rosters. The USHL’s main selling point in a side-by-side comparison with CHL is players retain NCAA eligibility. Removing USHL’s primary selling point will thus result in a measurable number of players opting for the CHL in lieu of the USHL. The question is how many?
For example, if 10% to 20% of USHL players opt for the CHL it is approximately two to four players per USHL team, which equals 32 to 64 players in the CHL and not the USHL. If that occurred, the USHL would need to fill its rosters with players primarily from the NAHL. Like any business, to mitigate future players from selecting CHL over USHL, the USHL would take steps to improve what it offers to keep up with competition. The USHL player experience would likely be enhanced. Potential enhancements may include academic services, off-ice strength conditioning training, additional positional & skills coaches, and increased budgeting for other player amenities.
Would a financially weak USHL franchise have the capacity to increase budgeting for enhanced player experiences? If not, a potential negative outcome could be a financially weak USHL franchise changes ownership or relocates to a different city. Would USHL teams (and NAHL teams) be allowed to make in-season trades with CHL teams? How would this affect the playoff fortunes of teams that gain or lose players, and would that provide an advantage for the financially affluent franchises by being able to stack a roster near the end of the season to enhance winning a championship?
The North American Hockey League (NAHL) is classified as Tier 2 by USA Hockey. It is currently a 29-team league, with teams from Alaska to Maine. The operating budgets, attendance and skill are lower than USHL and CHL. However, in the context of NCAA hockey, an argument could be made this is the most important junior league in the USA. This is the league where older, later developing players go to hone their hockey skills prior to playing college hockey. The younger junior players that are identified as high-end prospects around ages 15 to 16 years old are typically in USHL or CHL, not the NAHL. The impact of NAHL losing players to USHL, as a trickle-down effect of USHL losing players to CHL, will be faintly noticed by each NAHL team because the NAHL has nearly twice as many teams as USHL.
Another item to note, NAHL allows more older players to be eligible than USHL and CHL. Therefore, a likely, but unintended, benefit for NAHL is the train tracks could go both ways and the NAHL may gain very talented final year of eligibility players from CHL. It is reasonable to conclude granting NCAA eligibility to CHL players could be a net positive for NAHL.
National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) is an unclassified junior hockey league, which means not classified by USA Hockey as Tier 1, 2 or 3. In spite of being unclassified by USA Hockey, NCDC has risen quickly and is the third best junior league in the US. It is currently a 14-team league located in the Northeast, from Pennsylvania to Maine. If CHL players have NCAA eligibility, the impact will be minimal on NCDC. It is possible some CHL players, for example, older players that need additional development, end their junior tenure in NCDC. However, it is more likely the NAHL would be the first alternative and thus a more probable beneficiary in that scenario.
6. Minnesota High School Hockey
Minnesota is a gem of youth and high school hockey in the United States. The boys high school state hockey tournament is by far the best state hockey tournament, and arguably the best of any sport in any state. Youth hockey is played coast to coast in the United States, but only in Minnesota and limited geographic pockets in a handful of states is hockey affordable and accessible to a broad economic spectrum of families. Minnesotans have immense pride in their high school hockey, and it is less prevalent to leave early for a junior team. As a testament to the uniqueness of their community-based model, it is common for elite Minnesota high school players to play junior hockey in USHL in fall and return to the high school team in November.
If CHL players are granted NCAA eligibility, additional CHL scouts may travel the North Star state with intent to persuade its young elite players to leave home early. The potential exists that more Minnesota high school players leave high school hockey early to play in the CHL. However, there are limited numbers of high school players in Minnesota with the skill to play in CHL or USHL. Therefore, the most likely scenario is the number of kids departing Minnesota high school hockey early does not increase. Rather, the battle over the elite players in this limited pool becomes even more fierce between CHL, USHL and NTDP.
The Minnesota model is precious for hockey in the US. Just as with anything special and unique, it is imperative to safeguard. Opportunities to depart high school early for NTDP, USHL, NAHL, NCDC, prep schools, and Tier 1 18/16/15 already exist. This will continue with or without CHL players having NCAA eligibility. To safeguard the Minnesota model, it would behoove Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota High School Coaches Association to take more proactive steps than they already do in educating players and parents on the route to college hockey and benefits of what is offered in their home state.
7. US Citizens
If CHL players are granted NCAA eligibility, a logical result is an increase of a couple Canadian citizen hockey players on each NCAA D-1 roster. A scant number of US taxpayers may be in opposition to fewer of the roster spots and scholarships awarded to US citizens. It is important to note other NCAA sports, specifically basketball, had an increase in foreign citizen players since its respective NCAA Committee recommended modifying the vicarious professional rule over 10 years ago. The complaints of foreign players taking roster spots has been mute. On the contrary, most fans and television commentators give praise to the increase in skill and benefits of having players from multiple continents providing more diversity in the locker room and on campus. Furthermore, most colleges proclaim diversity is a benefit for campus life. In fact, the typical college provides statistics in their marketing brochures regarding the different states and countries its student enrollment hails from.