OHL in retreat over draft

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

The Ontario Hockey League is in full retreat.

What seemed like a brilliant idea two days ago doesn't seem so bright after all.

News broke yesterday that the league was planning to change the draft age of minor hockey players to allow the four teams that didn't make the OHL playoffs to select one 14-year-old player each.

This was how the OHL was going to keep the exceptional young player in Canada rather than have him enticed by leagues outside the country.

The OHL doesn't allow any player under 15 to be drafted.

This comes at a time when legitimate concerns have been raised about the effects the draft has on young players both socially, since they usually move away from home, and in their hockey development.

Branch and the league's competition committee, which consists of five OHL general managers, including Knights GM Mark Hunter, were trying to ensure that John Tavares, 14, of Toronto would play in the OHL rather than jump to a league like the United States Hockey League. To that end, they concocted a rule allowing non-playoff teams to draft a 14-year-old each.

Their recommendations and report was circulated among the governors.

"The report detailed a number of positives on how to deal with and identify an exceptional 15-year-old and it detailed a number of negatives," Branch said.

After review and discussion, a vote was supposed to be taken. There was no vote.

"(The governors) weren't comfortable with the image of a draft of players age 14 and 15, conjured up," Branch said in a conference call. "The governors were clear. They did not necessarily approve the direction that we had taken as a competition committee on how to define what an exceptional player is. They've called for the competition committee to address a process how better to identify an exceptional player."

They don't need to identify the exceptional player. The league knows who they are. What they need to find is a process that protects their interest in what is becoming a border war with the U.S. in the recruitment of players.

There needs to be an acknowledgement the OHL is a business first. It will do whatever it needs to do to make its business more profitable and attractive. That means finding and protecting commodities (players).

The recommendation to lower the draft age had nothing to do with what was best for the young players involved. It had everything to do with finding some way to keep Tavares in Ontario.

Don't believe it?

"What we have said is that a 15-year-old should not play junior hockey period," Branch said.

Unless . . . "you have absolutely exceptional skills, the necessary physical maturity, psychological maturity, social maturity and educational ability to match and deal with their new environment."

This proposal didn't work because the concept was flawed from the beginning.

From a public relations standpoint, drafting 14-year-olds merely emphasized all the concerns many have with junior teams taking young players.

From a legal standpoint, whenever one makes an exception to the rules, it opens the way to challenges from those in the same situation who have been left behind.

From a business standpoint, how does anyone ensure that true "phenoms" are the only ones who make the jump?

Joe O'Neill, president of the London Junior Knights, believes an exceptional player should be given the opportunity to play at a high level, especially if there is a chance that player might leave the country.

"I don't have a problem with it the way David Branch outlined it," O'Neill said. "It's only four players. You have to provide an avenue to deal with a phenom. We have a kid on our bantam team who is (born) in 1990. If one of the teams picked him up, he could play junior hockey."

But is he a "phenom?"

"No," O'Neill said.

There's the rub. One year, it's the phenom 14-year-old. Then regular 14-year-olds. Then why not draft the exceptional 13-year-old and let him play minor hockey until he's ready? Just where does it stop?

"It's definitely a meat market," O'Neill said. "Junior hockey is a meat market.

"When a parent approaches us for a release for their kids to try out for junior D and junior C, we say to them, 'Congratulations, your son is now officially a piece of meat.' "

Despite all the spin-doctoring on the conference call yesterday, that's exactly the impression the OHL wanted to avoid.


Photos