Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Some major USHL/CHL rumblings

One story we've followed all summer is this discussion between the Canadian Hockey League(s) and the USHL with regards to the feeling that the Major Junior circuits are raiding the league's players.

The Ice are no stranger to that. Adam Erne, a promising 16-year-old, left the team to play in the QMJHL with Quebec this summer, bypassing his college eligibility.

But there's some rumblings in the junior hockey world.

All of a sudden, independent of each other, the CHL's chief David Branch talks about adding a fourth team to the Memorial Cup tournament to spice it up -- either the USHL champ or a Euro team (or possibly  a fourth Major Junior league in the States?).

In this story, Branch is quoted telling a Toronto sports station: "The concept of a junior league in the United States, USA marketplace, that's something that we should look at." 

Of course, there are already a handful of CHL teams in the States. 

But independent of that, USHL commissioner Skip Prince had his own things to say, and said he'd be happy to play the Memorial Cup winner. 

And, on the same radio show, he speaks of his league in an open letter, almost getting defensive in defending the USHL (he spoke of "the little house league south of the border") -- but then goes on to say having the USHL champ play in the Memorial Cup tournament wouldn't really decide anything. 

Says Prince: "We really do try to stand for something. We play fast, clean and tough hockey, and we'll take anyone on. We send players to the NHL ... by way of college. And to board rooms and careers ... by way of college. And to the best years of their lives. Our players go to class, and they work in the community, and they have a blast doing so, and they come out of our league ready for the next step -- on the ice and off it. That's something to believe in." 

I'm not sure there's much wisdom in the USHL champ playing the CHL champ. While the USHL is the top-tier league in the USA, it has a different focus than the CHL (which Prince rightly points out ... read the entire letter. It's good stuff). The CHL leagues seem focused on developing professional players, and most teams have several NHL draft picks on them. Those who don't matriculate to the pros do retain their Canadian college eligibility, although no one would argue that Canadian college hockey is anywhere close to on par with the NCAA. 

Meanwhile, the NCAA is the USHL's focus. Prince noted that every player from the league last year that went the college route will be with a Div. I team this year save one player who chose to go to a Div. III school. The league has its NHL alumni and NCAA commitments taking equal billing on the homepage. The USHL's focus is on developing amateur players for the NCAA, and yet the league still has a ton of players get drafted (and undershoots that number, because several players get drafted before playing in the USHL, which deflates the number). The Indiana Ice alone often have multiple current players or alumni who are drafted each year, and the list grows. This year, Brian Ferlin, Blake Coleman and Sean Kuraly were all picked within two rounds of each other. R.J. Boyd will suit up for the team next year with a Florida Panthers draft pick already in his pocket. John Carlson -- who went the CHL route after a year with the Ice -- is one of the best young blueliners in the game. The USHL is a great league, both for those who want to go to the NCAA and for those who want to keep their options open about either NCAA or CHL. 

It doesn't have to be on par with the Canadian Major Junior ranks. It has a different focus -- which is essentially what Prince was saying. 

Personally, I like that focus. It's hard, clean, fast, exciting hockey. It's a league full of guys you'll see in NHL and AHL jerseys in a few years. It's nearly impossible to watch an NHL game without seeing at least one (and usually a few) ex-USHL player on the ice. The 2010 Olympic team that came within one unfortunate bounce off a referee's skate away from winning gold had several USHL graduates on it. It's a league full of guys who, as Gino Gasparini excitedly told me seven years ago, "are going somewhere." It's a stepping stone for both players and coaches -- just witness Jeff Blashill's rise from the Ice to the Red Wings in two years. It's also a great league to be the top of the American hockey pyramid -- developing *American* players. It is awesome to see guys like Coleman (from Texas) as well as Boyd and Ferlin (from Florida) -- guys from non-traditional hockey markets -- use the USHL to improve their game and eventually get an NHL call. The USHL has had a big, big hand in that. I'm enjoying the fact that our local community has a hand in that. 

Does it matter if it's on par with the Memorial Cup champ? Not in the least. What matters is that it fulfills its mission -- to develop the top American-born players for the next level and to provide an exciting product for the fans in the cities that follow the league. It does that and more, and continues to improve the ability to do that every year. 

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