March 16, 2012

Yzerman vs Nicholson: Canada's Hockey Future At Stake

In the March 19th, 2012 issue of The Hockey News, columnist Ken Campbell closes the magazine with an article entitled Arrested Development. He argues in favor of Steve Yzerman's idea to allow any three season veteran of the WHL, OHL or QMJHL to start playing in minor pro leagues like the AHL at age 18.

Currently the NHL and Canadian junior leagues have an understanding that any 18 year old who does not make the NHL is returned to junior. It allows junior franchises to keep star players, build teams and connections in the community, and, most important of all, sell tickets.

But the NHL would rather see exceptional young talent developed on their farm teams. They argue there are a number of players every year that are too good to continue playing junior, but not physically mature enough or not quite ready to play in the NHL as an 18 year old. Rather than let them allegedly stagnate back in junior, or waste away playing a few minutes a game in their rookie NHL season, NHL teams want to be able to apprentice their future stars in the minor leagues.

You can not blame the NHL for this. Just like you can not blame the junior franchises for seriously opposing this motion. But, as Campbell points out, there really is nothing the CHL can do. They have no bargaining power at all with the NHL, except for the public relations front.

Campbell also points out that "Yzerman is taking a bullet for a lot of GMs on this proposal." The NHL knows this will be met with a lot of resistance from the junior leagues and possibly Hockey Canada. Hockey Canada might have the strongest voice in all of this, as they oversee development of youth hockey in Canada from TimBits through the World Juniors Program of Excellence. Hockey Canada has no real influence on the junior leagues, but it should be voicing its concerns loudly.

Why would Hockey Canada get involved? The Canadian junior leagues, major and otherwise, are already over-taxed. There are too many teams, taking too many kids away from home too early, hindering their hockey development let alone the impact on the kids as people. By removing more top players from the CHL early the junior leagues will raid lower levels of junior and midget hockey. Diluting the junior leagues makes for inferior hockey development. That certainly is not in Hockey Canada's best interests. Nor should it be in the NHL's, but they are too short-sighted to see the long term implications of this move.

I asked Kamloops Daily News sports editor Gregg Drinnan about this movement. Drinnan has followed the Western Hockey League closely for years. Needless to say, he thinks the idea is a terrible one for junior hockey.

"I don’t think the Yzerman proposal will come to pass, but I have learned never to say never." says Drinnan, who has an excellent hockey blog called Taking Note. "From the standpoint of a major junior operator, a rule like that would be a disaster. I shudder to think how many players the NHL would move into the AHL under that rule."

Drinnan pointed out several struggling young NHL players who should have been back in junior hockey this season, including Nino Niederreiter of the New York Islanders, Ryan Johansson of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and, interestingly, Brett Connolly of Yzerman's Tampa Bay Lightning.

"These kids are playing six to eight minutes a game. How can that be better than playing 30 minutes a game in all situations in junior. The Connolly situation was especially devastating to Prince George. With him in the lineup, the Cougars, I would suggest, could be second in the B.C. Division. Without him, they won’t make the playoffs and it just might be that that will be the death knell for the franchise in that city."

Drinnan went on to lament that there are too many junior teams in Canada, and not enough focus on skill development. He believes Canada is on the verge of another dark period .

"There are far too many teams, not just in the WHL, but too many junior teams. I’m talking MJHL, SJHL, AJHL and BCHL," said Drinnan. "I would also suggest there are too many midget AAA, junior B, etc., teams. We need fewer teams and more skill development. Boy, I don’t see a whole lot of skill in the WHL games that I watch. There is far too much chip and chase."

" I would suggest that we (Canada) are going to get kicked in the next World Junior Championship and maybe even the one after that and the one after that. We need to re-examine our coaches and the lack of skill development. This is going to become a huge story over the next while, both at the national junior and NHL level. I just don’t see high skill among WHL players, especially forwards."

Hockey Canada has no direct power over all of these junior leagues, but it needs to re-examine how much influence it can have. If Drinnan is right about the upcoming Canadian drought at the World Juniors level, you can expect this to be a big story for years to come.

The NHL`s Yzerman-led proposal may be a small part of a more systemic problem for Hockey Canada. But in the immediate future Hockey Canada President and CEO Bob Nicholson needs to get on board to keep as many players in junior as possible. He has the most influential voice, and he has the ear of Yzerman.

The NHL knows this, and maybe that is why they have Yzerman heading up this cause. After all, Yzerman and Nicholson teamed up to deliver Olympic gold in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics, and they will try it again in Sochi 2014. Perhaps the NHL is hoping their amicable relationship can diffuse Nicholson's influence. It will be an interesting to witness the debate between the two.

If the NHL wins this battle, it is a bad thing for hockey in Canada. In the long term it will be a bad thing for the short-sighted NHL, too.

Meanwhile Hockey Canada has some bigger concerns about junior hockey looming.

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