OHL could see struggles

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

This is nail-biting time for the Ontario Hockey League.

A lot of its star power is still skating in NHL training camps. By looks of things, many won't come back. If they don't, Memorial Cup contenders will have holes.

Clubs banking on making the playoffs could be in for a struggle. One guy makes that kind of difference at this level.

Alan Millar knows.

The Sarnia GM is fiercely proud of first overall pick Steve Stamkos, a Sting standout for two seasons, who is NHL ready with Tampa Bay. He's aware of what losing him -- and players of his calibre -- at age 18 means to the OHL.

"Our guy Stammer is in that same category as a Rick Nash or Joe Thornton, the players who were ready to make the jump at that age," Millar said.

"You don't know yet what's going to happen with the (Drew) Doughtys, the (Alex) Pietrangelos. Is this an exceptional class of players or is it an economic thing because of the NHL salary cap (where young guys are cheap)?

"It's too difficult to predict right now which way it's going to go."

But it's easy to see where this is heading.

The OHL, and the whole Canadian Hockey League for that matter, trumpets its status as the No. 1 talent provider to the NHL. To keep that label, pressure is on to continue recruiting the best.

Early graduation of its stars is the OHL's biggest dilemma. The quality of play be better than what's offered elsewhere.

Scrap the import draft?

There couldn't be a worse time to do it.

Shy away from drafting American players who might never show up and choose the NCAA college route instead?

Not on your life.

OHL teams are constantly scouring international tournaments and rosters for talent. Their links to NHL teams is usually what gets European players here.

The league hired former player Joe Birch as the league's director of recruitment and educational services. Part of his job is to meet with and provide information to promising American players.

Still, the kids in the U.S. aren't told anything about the OHL. For a long time, they had to do their own research.

"When they see what we're able to do for them as a team and a league, it's an eye-opener," Millar said. "Education packages are important, but there are a lot of different factors -- franchise, city, coaching -- they want to know about."

No league or federation likes to have its young players raided. The OHL has created a battleground.

The Russians stalled on a couple of releases, forcing appeals to the International Ice Hockey Federation. The United States Hockey League, North American Hockey League and National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., would prefer its own talent blossom at home.

Just this week, the USHL hired Skip Prince, the former CEO of the Montreal Alouettes who was there during the Als' resurgence.

He's there to strengthen the USHL, a pretty good circuit believed to have much potential -- maybe enough one day to compete with the OHL for players.

But Millar thinks it's possible for teams to get around it. A larger international footprint is the only answer.

"Four years ago, the London Knights and Guelph Storm played in the Western Conference final," Millar said, "and London didn't have a 19-year-old Rick Nash and Guelph didn't have a 19-year-old Dustin Brown -- both were in the NHL.

"That was impressive."

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