Trades mock junior goals

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

The next time you hear an Ontario Hockey League executive or owner talk about how their concern is always about the player first, say two words to them: Trade deadline.

The annual meatfest, when players are swapped like commodities at an auction, makes a mockery of the mission statement major junior hockey professes to hold so dear. As the January trade cutoff approaches, concern about what is best for a player - his schooling, living situation, family connections - are forgotten. That changes to what's best for the team or more to the point, the ownership.

To the OHL's credit, it has recognized the annual deadline has become a hot button issue. Its competitors are using the swap meet as a way of enticing players to go another route, whether university hockey or elsewhere. Players and parents are growing alarmed at the ongoing movement from team to team.

The OHL isn't ignoring it.

"I believe we trade too many players," OHL commissioner David Branch said. "It's the No. 1 challenge facing us as a league.

"Over the last number of years, we have done an admirable job addressing on-ice issues as it relates to players and their environment, for the off-ice development of players, for the best of coaching, training and facilities and most important for the student-athlete. Our scholarship program is second to none.

"That stated, the one remaining chink in our armour is the fact we trade too many players."

The trade deadline has become a ridiculous time of year.

Teams that are struggling reward the fans who come to their games by trading their best players to good teams, ensuring the gap in the level of competition widens even further.

The good teams load up on the best players, forcing them to get rid of some of the players who allowed them to get near the top of the league.

Junior hockey operators have the opportunity to draft players as 15-year-olds. They do whatever they can to entice the top players, offering lucrative, ahem, "education packages" to play in their leagues.

Part of the big sell is how much junior hockey operators care about the player as a young man. They sell their city as the place to play. They tell the parent and the player that the team cares about schooling (leaving out the part about the possibility of being traded in the middle of a semester.) In most cases, junior hockey players make the decision to play junior hockey based on those promises and the expectation they will continue to play in that city.

Loyalty is an interesting word in junior hockey. Junior hockey coaches and operators demand it of their players. But wave a potential championship banner in front of a hockey operator and the word loyalty jumps from player and team to pocketbook and win column.

Branch said owners and managers understand the need for changes to be made so the league is taking a lead role.

"Our owners and managers will respond to what many feel is a need in this area," Branch said. "At a meeting (Monday) of our league executive council, we have struck a blue-ribbon panel to bring forward recommendations to our league, ideally by no later than June."

There is a January trade deadline for all three junior leagues. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League adheres to a trading period rather than all year long.

Compared to previous deadline days, the OHL trade deadline was relatively calm. In the 11 days of January, OHL teams traded 38 players, some of them twice.

QMJHL teams moved 33 players on deadline day alone with another 17 moving before that in January.

WHL teams traded 32 players on trade deadline day.

Move the trade deadline back to the first of December. That's early enough so that teams hesitate on whether they are buyers or sellers. Limit the number of trades a team can make. With only a specific number of team-to-team transactions, teams will be forced to be selective about what they do.

"We've discussed it before. We've made some adjustments over the years. We've put some caution bumps along the way," Branch said. "But I've never sensed such a collective agreement among our teams that we must now turn our energies toward this particular subject."

It's the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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