Is it time for USA Hockey to circle the wagons and get control of things before the entire system implodes? What would be the one thing that USAH Vice President and Junior Council chairman John Vanbiesbrouck could accomplish that would be considered the most important developmental transition in the last thirty years of junior hockey? Ponder that for a bit.
Now this is going to come as a shock but I am starting to actually appreciate Mark Frankenfeld and the job he is doing as commissioner of the North American Hockey League. With that said, Frankenfeld is in a bit of a pickle.
We all know that the NAHL has become an important component of USA Hockey's developmental system. Frankenfeld's problem is what the league has turned into; a juggernaut of power in the south division and just about everyone else. Will the commissioner be able to figure out a way to keep the entire group together, or will the south division simply break away and do their own thing? Topeka's Don Stone has his own claws into Rio Grande Valley and we also know that Consolidated Sports Holdings has the option in Laredo. That gives the south division eight teams in addition to anybody else they have their eyes on. Bossier City, Beaumont, Little Rock, Memphis, and Tupelo have all been mentioned in relation to the south division.
We also know that USA Hockey is going to do everything in their power to keep the NAHL from forming a Tier I league that is operated under the NAHL umbrella. The remaining NAHL owners are also not going to be too happy about a sudden decrease in franchise values. So what is the solution? Does anyone really benefit from a fragmented system? I am saying that it should just get bigger.
The United States Hockey League is certainly not in a position to fight a multi-front battle. What would make entirely too much sense is for USA Hockey to force a merger of the USHL and NAHL into one super-structure with programs at all three Tiers of junior play and deep into the youth level as well. I'm not sure if USHL commissioner Skip Prince wants Frankenfeld right down the hall, but it certainly beats the alternative of having to fight both the NAHL and the growth of the proposed new Tier I level league operated by the Central Hockey League. In reality, Prince should be making the same kind of call to the minor professional commissioner while in the merger mood.
Opening up the entire system to imports would easily eliminate any talent pool concerns and USA Hockey would still have the top end of the junior developmental system under their control. The minor professional league could also seriously benefit from such a super structure and has a history of working with USA Hockey's programs.
We know that CHL commissioner Duane Lewis sees the writing on the wall. Yes he is committed to the professional game but at the same time he also knows the harshness of the economical realities. There is also something to be said about the possibility of a full professional level of junior hockey that could be positioned at the top of a combined group's developmental system. Why would a professional prospect stay in Canada to play major junior for $50 a week when he could play in this system for $250?
Let's take a look at this closely and tell me it does not make a ton of sense.
Leagues broken into 4 regions at the Bantam, Midget 16 and Midget 18 levels. Cut down on the insane travel and let the winners come together at the end of the year. Junior teams are encouraged to field teams at the youth levels.
Remains the same but I'd like to see an open welcome to the American West Hockey League, Minnesota Junior Hockey League, Atlantic Hockey League, and both the Eastern Junior Hockey League and EJ-South. With this I'd like to see the programs with multiple teams spin those lower teams back into the youth level. Some current NAHL teams may seek the advantages of going to Tier III. Like the youth level, teams are divided into four regions and play a balanced schedule.
NAHL teams from outside the south division that are not wanting to move to Tiers I or III. Again, four geographical divisions and playing a balanced schedule.
The current USHL teams, the NAHL South Division, and current professional teams that want to join the group and can prove to be able to meet the qualifications.
Current professional teams from the CHL and others that want to join the group. This includes any current junior program that feels they can meet the criteria to move up a notch in play.
Any new expansion team would be required to pay the entry fee and enter the system at the Tier III level. Like European soccer, teams can be relegated or promoted to or from each level of play. Promotion is not forced and can be refused. The option is then passed to the next team down the standings. If all teams from the tier refuse promotion to the next level, there will not be relegation to that tier. If promotion is excepted, the last place team from the higher tier will be moved to the lower tier. Also like soccer, I'd love to see three types of championships. The regular season league tier championship, the tier playoff championship, and the over all league cup championship (a single elimination tournament that includes every junior level team in the system).
If Vanbiesbrouck can check all the egos at the door and manage to bring these groups to the table, everybody will see how this all makes perfect sense. They will also quickly see the disadvantage of playing outside of this super-structure. There could be as much as $750,000 a year in player fees on the table for successful programs that are able to build the youth program. Like soccer, players can be moved to higher level teams for a fixed transfer fee.
Now here is the multi-million dollar question. Does Vanbiesbrouck quickly move to establish a system of this nature or does he let Ron White and the Amateur Athletic Union beat him to the punch?
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Stephen Heisler resides in Puerto Penasco with his wife, Maria, and their two children, Sonia and Tomas. Friend him on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/stephen.heisler for more information and pictures from Mexico.