OHL to lower draft age

John Tavares, with former Maple Leafs great George Armstrong at yesterday's Marlies news...

John Tavares, with former Maple Leafs great George Armstrong at yesterday's Marlies news conference, is a highly regarded 14-year-old player and says he would consider making the jump to the OHL. (Toronto Sun/Alex Urosevic)

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

Despite appearances, the OHL is not flying in the face of Hockey Canada with a proposal to draft "exceptional" 14-year-old players.

In fact, OHL commissioner David Branch, a member of a Hockey Canada committee that's studying the development of young players in this country, proposed the change in the draft age.

The OHL's board of governors is expected to approve today the drafting of players born in 1990 in the first round by the four teams that did not make the playoffs.

This year's draft is scheduled for May 7.

Each of the four teams will be eligible to select one player and he would be eligible to play in the league next season.

Currently, the OHL does not allow any player under 15 to be drafted but the league doesn't want to risk losing 14-year-old John Tavares of Toronto to a rival league, such as the United States Hockey League.

Tavares plays with the Toronto Marlboros minor midgets in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

Branch sits on the Hockey Canada committee as president of the Canadian Hockey League.

"We (major junior) have made a commitment to reduce 16-year-olds to two and to reduce the number of imports (Europeans), but there is also a provision in place to deal with the exceptional player (such as Tavares)," he said on the Fan radio network of the committee's recommendations that go to Hockey Canada's annual general meeting in May.

"We're trying to work with Hockey Canada so we can see some sanity brought back into the development system, but we have positioned ourselves that if there is an exceptional player, that he will be there.

"We are not bringing this in just because of John Tavares. This is a byproduct of this committee."

Branch went on to say they won't be robbing minor hockey because exceptional players wouldn't be playing minor at age 15.

Before previously lowering the draft age to 15 from 16, the OHL allowed 15-year-olds to play for their hometown team prior to being drafted.

Recent examples are Rico Fata, who played a season with the Soo Greyhounds before being drafted by the London Knights, and Jason Spezza, who was with the Brampton Battalion before being drafted by the Mississauga IceDogs.

The USHL, which wasn't around for Fata and Spezza, calls itself a bona fide major junior league and Branch said the USHL "has become extremely aggressive" recruiting 14- and 15-year-old Canadians and that's one of the motivating factors in changing the age limit.

Tavares, who has been courted by the USHL's Indiana Ice and already watched some games, said last night the OHL is an option next season.

"I'm still kind of deciding. If I did end up in the OHL, I wouldn't have any regrets.

"I had always heard about the Spezza rule and I thought they'd never let any under-agers play in the OHL again. It's a good surprise."

The OHL competition committee -- consisting of five general managers, including the Knights' Mark Hunter -- has unanimously recommended to the governors that they change the draft age, but only for non-playoff teams and only in the first round.

The Oshawa Generals, Sarnia Sting, Saginaw Spirit and Kingston Frontenacs did not make the playoffs this season and will select in that order.

The Western Hockey League has a full draft of 14-year-olds, but they're permitted to play just five games as a 15-year-old, then a full season at 16.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League drafts 15-year-olds.


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