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Fighting in hockey begins long before games

By Robert Mays
Globe Correspondent / February 26, 2011

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In mid-January, the Division 1 Legislative Council made a decision that made little noise among the conversation of major college sports, lost among news of basketball upsets and football recruiting.

But for college hockey, the verdict could not have been louder. The failure of the proposal — which would have disallowed college coaches to verbally offer a scholarship to a player before July 1 between that player’s junior and senior year of high school — provides the sport’s coaches with a chance to keep significant ground in its fight for the game’s best young talent.

The last five years have seen an increased departure of the country’s best prospective players to the Canadian Hockey League in order to play professionally for a league with a proven track record of sending players to the NHL.

To stem the threat of CHL drafts that select players at age 15, college coaches began recruiting more younger players than ever. Players gave verbal commitments to four years of college before they could drive to the rink. Still, the migration continued. According to Paul Kelly, director of College Hockey Inc., about 50 Americans were playing in the CHL five years ago. That number has increased to more than 125.

“We’re not going to be able to survive that rule and recruit the best young players,’’ Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said before the legislation was defeated. “It could be devastating to college hockey.’’

While the legislation’s defeat doesn’t solve the problems college hockey has encountered in the last five years, for many coaches it stands as a victory in the battle the sport is waging to keep its most promising young stars.

Tough opponent
One of the first players to force Red Berenson’s hand is a face that dominates Kelly’s presentation. Jack Johnson, a member of the 2010 US Olympic hockey team and the Los Angeles Kings, was 15 when Berenson, the coach at Michigan, received a call from Johnson’s father.

“He said, ‘There’s a CHL scout here waiting for Jack at his 7 a.m. job at the golf course, and he’s trying to recruit him to play in the CHL,’ ’’ Berenson said.

Johnson had attended Michigan hockey camps since elementary school, and because of the extended exposure, Berenson offered him a scholarship without much concern. Despite the comfort, Berenson felt a new paradigm entering college hockey.

“We had to respond,’’ Berenson said. “We knew Jack, and we knew he would be a good player, but we weren’t anticipating offering him a scholarship at age 15. The system put us in a position where we had to.’’

Berenson speaks with a knowing respect for the drawing power of the CHL.

“We definitely have a competitor that is relentless,’’ Berenson said.

The CHL, which is made up of three separate professional hockey leagues — the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — markets its product to elite young players as the surest route to a career in professional hockey. For the last 40 years, that claim has met few disputes.

According to the OHL, half of all NHL players drafted since 1969 have come from the CHL, and in 2010, CHL players made up 51 percent of players drafted.

The success is credited to a hockey lifestyle that best mirrors what players will see at the NHL level.

OHL teams play an average of 68 games a year. A Division 1 program will play about 40. The schedule, style of play, and exposure to coaches and personnel departments with professional experience are all points on which the CHL claims an advantage.

Kelly concedes that historically, the CHL’s position as the best route to professional hockey may hold, despite recent gains from college hockey. According to his numbers, roughly one-third of players in the NHL are products of the collegiate game, a trend he sees growing because of the increased age and physical play of the NCAA product compared with the CHL.

But for Kelly and many of college hockey’s top coaches, the biggest gap doesn’t involve the players who eventually make it to the NHL. It involves the players who don’t.

To a degree
The challenge for those recruiting the best 15-year-old talent in the country is making players and parents understand the realities of their future.

“We tell them to use hockey,’’ Kelly said. “Get yourself admitted to a college. Use a scholarship to get you to a college. Don’t let hockey use you.

“Roughly 5 percent make it, and given that circumstance, education should never take a back seat.’’

From the educational packages to the institutions that provide them, Kelly believes schooling is what makes college hockey the superior option to time in the CHL.

Kelly claims that 84 percent of all NCAA hockey players will leave college with a degree, while the number in the CHL is approximately 16 percent. He also cites the limitations of educational benefits given to players at the major junior level. There, scholarships are given for each year of service to a team, and those scholarships, according to Kelly, are capped at around $4,500 and are only given for the institution closest to the home of the player’s parents.

“We’ll graduate more kids from our school each year than their whole league will,’’ Berenson said.

Each of those figures, and the claims such as Berenson’s that arise from them, are disputed by the WHL and CHL. Although the QMJHL limits its scholarships to $2,500 per semester, the WHL and CHL have policies they say give scholarships equivalent to tuition, books, and fees for the state university in which a player’s parents reside.

According to Joe Birch, the Director of Recruitment and Education Services for the OHL, for an OHL player from Michigan, a minimum scholarship of approximately $12,700 — the equivalent of a year of tuition, books, and fees at the University of Michigan — would be awarded per year of service in the OHL. Birch also claims the statement that only 16 percent of CHL players earn a diploma is “so far from the truth, it’s scary.’’

Birch’s figures show that 219 former CHL players accessed their scholarship funding during the 2010-11 school year, and that the league has a 95 percent success rate at the post-secondary level.

Luke Lynes is one of those players. A Washington, D.C., native, Lynes was drafted by the Brampton Battalion of the OHL in 2004 at age 16. He played four years for the team before trying his hand at professional hockey with the Edmonton Oilers and eventually choosing to use his education package to attend the University of New Brunswick.

Lynes says he is one of the lucky ones. His status as a third-round draft pick included a contract that comfortably covered his tuition and fees at UNB. For many of the midlevel players, however, their contract doesn’t come with the guarantee of a package that will cover their education costs after leaving the league.

“It ends up with a lot of guys that don’t get taken care of,’’ Lynes said. “I know there are a ton of guys that end up becoming police officers or firemen because that’s the only option available to them.

“I’ve got guys I played two or three years with, and I’ve got no ideas where some of these guys are. They’re definitely not in school.’’

Opinions vary
Jerry York has spent more than 30 years setting himself apart. The Boston College coach has more wins at the Division 1 level than any coach ever. Before the vote from the council came down last month, he was in scarce company again.

“It’s become a crazy situation for everyone that’s involved in it,’’ York said. “[The new legislation] would be terrific.’’

But for many of college hockey’s top coaches, the decision is one that preserves a fighting chance against the powerful opponent they face in addition to each other.

“The problem I would have with that legislation is that we’re already handicapped in our ability to recruit elite young players vs. the Canadian Hockey League,’’ Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “If we implement those rules on ourselves, it would further restrict our options.’’

“I think we’re just playing into their hands,’’ Berenson said before the vote. “We have to be able to fight fire with fire. We can’t legislate ourselves out of the battle.’’

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the number of Canadian Hockey League players who used college scholarship money allocated by the league was incorrect in this story on the competition for players between Canada’s junior hockey leagues and US colleges. The number of players was 1,040.