The WHL and OHL drafts last week brought back an almost annual discussion about the NCAA and the CHL.
Among the most interesting came from Paul Shaheen's Research on Ice Newsletter, which brought up the possibility of allowing players to play major junior for a year or two before going to college.
In theory, I've always been in favor of allowing kids that haven't completed high school yet to play major junior hockey and still retain college eligibility. It would allow kids that were talented enough to play Tier I Junior A hockey the opportunity to develop against the best possible. Technically, the USHL does provide that avenue to players, though Canadian citizens like Michigan State commit Matt Duchene and BU commit Ethan Werek are bound by Hockey Canada's rules stating that a player that young can't leave the country to play junior hockey.
It would take a major issue to cause a shift in policy like that, and I believe that that issue is out there. College hockey has raised eyebrows not only throughout the hockey community, but throughout the country due to the fact that 14 and 15-year-old players have started giving verbal commitments to colleges. The most read story on this site is still when 14-year-old Jon Merrill verbally committed to Michigan. It is shocking for most people to see a kid that young choosing a college. The general consensus is that they are too young, and aren't mature enough to know what they really want in a college.
But what gets lost is that these kids are already being forced to make a huge decision at that young age. Players must choose if they want to go to college, or if they want to go to Canada to play in the CHL. And if they choose the NCAA, it only makes sense to also choose which college too. If the offer is there, they would be foolish not to take it. If they wait, that same offer might not be there a year or two down the road, and if they are offered a full-ride scholarship, it's not like a better offer can come along. By changing the rules, colleges wouldn't be forced to offer scholarships to players at such a young age, and players would have more opportunity to mature and make a better decision about what college is right for them, or if college is right for them at all.
Of course a major change like this would have its detractors. Specifically, there is a Lou Dobbs-ish contingent out there that feels the NCAA doesn't need to open itself up to allowing more Canadian hockey players into our colleges. They feel that NCAA teams should try to get as many Americans as possible. Not coincidentally, most of those arguments come from areas that would benefit most from fewer Canadians in the NCAA.
Another argument would be that it would create even more early departures. Some fans are already frustrated enough that so few of the top players play four years of college hockey. If more top players ended up coming to college hockey, there would be even more "one and done" players. Part of the joy of watching college hockey is watching a player develop and grow over the course of their career, and certainly some of that would be lost.
Hockey Canada would also probably fight this decision. Even though the move would probably bring them even more young talent, I can't see them being in favor of a change. Many pro-CHL people are still desperately clinging to the notion that Canadian major junior hockey is as good or better than the level of play in the NCAA. Allowing kids the opportunity to play there for a year or two before going to college would make the CHL look like a feeder league to the NCAA. Also, once a team got a top prospect onto their team, they wouldn't want to see him leave to go play college hockey.
And therein lies the problem. The NCAA shouldn't necessarily care what Hockey Canada thinks, but in my mind, their opposition is the biggest obstacle to making this thing work. You may be able to convince the NCAA that it is kosher to have a recruit playing against "pros," but you're never going to convince them to allow a player that is getting paid to play into the NCAA. I don't think that it is possible to have recruits playing for a team that wants a player to be ineligible for college hockey.
Despite whatever image CHL teams try to project, they are still a business first and foremost, and it would be in their best interest to keep a player. And all they would have to do is throw a bunch of money at a player, and once the player accepted it, that player would be finished with NCAA hockey and forced to stay in the CHL. Or perhaps teams woud allow a player's academics to slide to the point that he wouldn't be eligible for college, and would be forced to stay in the CHL.
Maybe I'm being overly cynical, but I feel like a decision like that would take a lot of cooperation from both sides of the border, and I've yet to see an example of the CHL going out of their way to help college hockey.