CHL changes long overdue

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:03 AM ET

Hockey Canada is re-examining the way we develop young male hockey players and it's a good thing.

This weekend in Toronto, the organization released a list of nine proposals.

The ideas are starting points and absolutely guaranteed to be ground up, recycled and spat out as something different six months to a year from now when a new set of proposals is put to the organization's board.

"These things are not going to come to pass in the form they are now," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said.

That said, the notions are radical.

End the draft of 14- and 15-year-olds into major junior. Allow teams only one 16-year-old and mandate the amount of playing time the player receives.

Cut the number of Europeans on Canadian junior hockey teams from two to one. Invoke residency rules to induce midget-aged players to play in their hometowns.

Perhaps most controversially: Impose a cap on the number of American players who can play in Canada's three major junior leagues.

The notion of limiting American players is problematic because it would require two sets of rules, one for Canadian teams, another for American-based teams who operate in the OHL, the QMJHL or the WHL.

Presently, major junior teams can use an unlimited number of Americans. The OHL's Sarnia Sting carries half a dozen U.S. players and stars such as the London Knight's Rob Schremp and Mississauga's Patrick O'Sullivan dot lineups all over major junior.

Don't expect major junior operators to endorse the idea of abandoning talent streams in the name of developing Canada's talent pool.

"My position is that we are in the business of providing entertainment to the public and the best athletic and academic opportunities for players," Sarnia Sting general manager Alan Millar said. "We want to be able to bring the best players possible into our league."

The ideas will inflame many elements of the hockey development system.

"We know this is a business versus development question," Nicholson said, "but our position is we've got to be there for the development and for the players first."

Drafting 14-year-olds, as does the Western Hockey League or 15-year-olds as is done in the Ontario and Quebec junior leagues is fundamentally wrong.

"Just because a player is good enough to play, doesn't mean he's mature enough to play," Nicholson said.

Consider the choice we give kids.

Wanna be an NHLer? Well, to play in the country's best developmental system, you need to leave home at the critical years of your social and physical development and undertake the life of the apprentice hockey player without meaningful pay. You may even be separated by provincial or national borders from your family. You can be traded to any other team in your league.

No matter how well-meaning the team or how earnestly coaches and peers preach the need to attend school and make wise choices, the system is taking kids and making them into little professionals.

Yes, they are mentored by able, compassionate coaches and billets, but they still encounter all the risks -- alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy or sexually-transmitted diseases, even sexual predators such as Graham James, without the safety net of family.

Any system that can trade a kid three or four times before his 19th birthday needs a rethink.

We need a new way to stock major junior teams and if that makes for weaker leagues with more local kids playing, so be it.

Do we sacrifice the kids for the game, or the game for the kids?

Hockey Canada is asking that question. High time somebody did.


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