Let's face it, this COVID crisis is taking a heavy toll from the entire hockey development system. From the youth level to the American Hockey League, every player, coach, team, and fan is feeling the pinch.
Is it also the perfect time to take a wrench to the system itself? I think so. With a few less teams on the ice, there are a lot of prospects that would benefit from a system that does not hinder development.
“Why would we just give a player to a North American Hockey League team,” was a question that was once presented to an 3HL team owner. “We spend way too much money developing these players to just give them away.”
“Do the college hockey teams give you substantial money,” I asked the team owner. “Of course not,” he replied. “Then why would you expect money from any team at a higher level of play?”
“Because the player is our property,” the owner caught himself stating. And that my friends is the absolute root of the problem.
Let’s state this as clearly as possible, amateur junior hockey players are not property. These are kids trying to climb the ladder to higher levels of play, college hockey, and beyond. The problem is that there are way too many coaches and operators that do and say anything possible to restrict their players’ elevation.
In the case of the all-too-many pay-to-play operations on the continent; the player is the customer. For the free-to-play leagues and teams, the player is a volunteer. The issue that plagues junior hockey to this day is the continued perception that players are anything else.
Why would any advisor direct a player to a team (or coach) that openly admits the expectation of compensation for players moving up? Because there are guys out there that expect a handout from the pay-to-play teams. I’ve had teams offer a commission and have refused each and every one. How many other guys out there take the money? Likely too many.
So, what’s the fix? There must be a change of culture within the structure. Players should be able to freely elevate from one level to the next. The key is to make sure that the player is automatically returned to the lower level club if going back down is necessary.
I also like the idea of Tier I and II teams having a 29-man (17 Active, 12 affiliate) protected list where they can assign prospects to lower tier teams for development. Those prospects should be available for immediate recall when needed. The idea will ultimately lower operational expenses for the top two tiers while boosting the developmental relevancy of the 3HL. This is something the USHL and NAHL should be talking about sooner than later.
The argument against such a structure would be the practice of allowing up to six NAHL prospects from each club paying only a billet fee while assigned to an NA3HL team. The economics would easily work because the value of each NA3HL roster spot is raised considerably with such a system in place.
That list can be internal between the leagues and trickle down to the NA3HL. Such a program would elevate the NA3HL’s level of play while providing increased on-ice development for every player in the system.
The bonus would be the eventual collapse of leagues not operating within such a system. That reality would further enhance the value of each pay-to-play roster spot remaining.
Players within the USA Hockey junior level’s system of development should flow freely like water. When individual teams (and coaches) do whatever possible to hinder that flow, everybody loses.
It’s time to open the floodgates and let it rip.