I have been a bit remiss of late both reading and contributing to AJH.com as I am in Florida visiting an ill aunt who just passed today. Had a few moments to do some catching up and I do love this time of year when things are getting solidified. Had a nice message yesterday from one of my former players that he made an NAHL team, and a few others are still attending NAHL & Tier III camps. I also loved a few of the articles in the last few days about Junior Hockey and the various leagues!
Our fearless leader Stephen wrote in one of his articles in the last few days about the USAH Executive Council overruling the Junior Council about some US based teams participating in the SIJHL. He then mentioned Wenatchee of the NAHL being allowed to go to the BCHL and Mike Butters' group being allowed to go to the AJHL and it got my brain going.
I think the simple answer to that question is if the league's will allow for that movement, then they should be allowed to participate wherever it makes sense for that team and league and its players. He rightly points out that we share a border, culture and language. In the big picture does it really matter based on our countries shared history which side of the border a team is located? I don't think it does.
To get to that point in Junior Hockey would take some changes in both federations to get agreement on key issues The most glaring in my mind being classification of the various tiers/levels and the costs involved.
Here is how I see the situation currently: for players beyond their minor hockey eligibility in Canada, there are the 3 Major Junior Leagues, what Hockey Canada considers Tier I. The key selling points to this level of hockey are their track record of players being drafted to the NHL (over a very long period of time), larger arenas and attendance figures, and increased visibility. The leagues all have college scholarship programs, as well. The downside to this classification is that players lose NCAA eligibility based on the fact that the players receive compensation in the form of a stipend. With a draft age of immediately after Bantams, that is a pretty major decision for a mid teenage young man to make. This level is completely free for players and family. There is a National Championship in the form of the Memorial Cup.
There is then a number of Junior A leagues (Tier II) in Canada. The venues are as a general rule smaller than those in Major Junior. Players in this category generally have NCAA ambitions, and as such they are very strict when it comes to compliance with NCAA guidelines to protect players' collegiate eligibility. This is a no cost level of play for either player fees or billet fees, and the teams cover most player equipment within their guidelines. There are import restrictions, but an American player is only considered an import player his first season in Canada. This level has a reasonable amount of success at placing players in NCAA programs. American citizens can NOT play at this level until they are 18 years of age. They have a National Championship in the form of the Royal Bank of Canada Cup,
From here, there is Junior B as well. This is more of a pay to play scenario with fees starting around the $1500 CDN mark plus monthly billet fees. Typically, the player development path is for these players to move on to Junior A programs. There is an additional classification that is referred to as Juvenile, which is for the player who just wants to play recreationally. These programs are generally an extension of the minor program and a player will most likely live at home.
Here in the US, things got a bit simpler with the elimination of the letter classifications this year. Currently there is one Tier I league (USHL)-no player fees, no billet fees, equipment provided and an excellent track record to NCAA D1 schools and a steadily improving record of NHL draft picks. There is a National Championship as well.
There is one Tier II league in the US-the NAHL-no player fees, some equipment covered, good track record to NCAA D1 programs. The venues are generally smaller, and players have to pay billet fees and some equipment costs. They also have players picked in the NHL draft. They have a National Championship as well.
There are a dozen or so Tier III leagues in the US and all are tuition based leagues. The size of the venues varies. Players pay tuition, billet fees, tournament fees and a larger portion of equipment costs. These programs range from the very good programs for player development to the not so great. These leagues do a good job of moving players on to higher levels of Junior Hockey and have a great track record with Division III NCAA schools. I REALLY like the AWHL's Standards of Excellence as a benchmark for what players can expect and see this as the new paradigm in Tier III hockey. The AWHL teams have shown this as a true recipe for success. There is a National Championship, but all of the sanctioned leagues do not participate for various reasons.
So here is what I see could be a potential solution: USAH and HC getting together and negotiating an agreement on three classifications-call it Tier I, II, III, or Junior A, Junior B and Junior C. It doesn't really matter what the labels are. For discussion purposes, let's call it Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III.
There are roughly 100 Tier I teams in both the US and Canada right now-counting the 3 CHL leagues and the USHL. Agree on the basics like draft ages, and bring the NCAA into the dialogue to see if there can be some resolution the issue of the stipend that is paid to these players and its effect on NCAA eligibility. There are some very smart people on both sides of the border such as Paul Kelly of College Hockey Inc. There should be a reasonable solution here. Frankly, I don't think a $250 or $300 a month stipend is a salary. It would barely cover gas to and from the rink. One of the roadblocks I see to resolving this dilemma is the other big college sports like football, basketball and to a lesser degree baseball would want to use whatever comes from this solution as a way to give their players a stipend-a situation that could spiral out of hand with the money involved in those sports. Get rid of the import restrictions BOTH WAYS, eliminate the geographic rules for player pools in the CHL leagues and open it up. This would be considered the top league for Junior aged players. Keep individual National Championships, maybe create a Tier I Championship. It would be no cost to the players for anything including all equipment, billet fees, community college courses, travel to and from the teams' location for the season and for the holidays. Allow a stipend of a reasonable amount of money-literally a stipend-not a salary-current economy say $500 per month.
Do the same for the Tier II level in both countries, which would seem at least on the surface to be easier than the Tier I level. Cover all player fees, billet fees, equipment and stick costs and any community college type costs. Players would have to pay for transportation to and from the teams' location. Agree if the model would be draft based or recruiting based. There are a whole lot of teams that would become realistic options for players. Eliminate the import restrictions both ways. Do National Championships and a Tier II Championship as well.
Take the remainder of the teams/leagues and classify them as Tier III. This would be a pay to play scenario. Set minimum and maximum rates for fees and billet costs (which could be indexed to the local costs), but adopt the AWHL Standards of Excellence unilaterally across the board as minimum requirements. Have professional coaching and training and allow for more open movement of players at the conclusion of the season. In this case, the teams that do the best development and have the best programs will prosper and flourish.
Finally, have a classification called Juvenile or whatever and leave it with the purview of minor and youth hockey-it would help solidify those programs and take some pressure off the constant debate of younger and higher skilled players moving to Juniors. The minor/youth hockey programs would see their programs grow and revenues increase. There is less need to have professionally run operations so the cost structure and revenue models would more closely fit with the minor/youth hockey models.
Is this the only way to skin this proverbial cat? No, but I think it would be a step in the right direction for Junior team owners, arena owners, coaches, players and parents as well as help reduce the tensions between minor and junior hockey organizations. It would give players a clear path based on what they wanted to do/accomplish and give room for changes or modifications based on growth, skill development or even changing desires of the players.