NCAA poised to steal WHL prospects

By Kevin Rothbauer

The Canadian Hockey League has traditionally been a goldmine of talent for Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union teams, but some proposed changes to NCAA eligibility rules could hurt the CIAU’s recruiting process.

Currently, the NCAA won’t permit anyone with professional sports experience to play in their leagues. The Canadian Hockey League–the umbrella organization that includes the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Québec Major Junior Hockey League–is considered by the NCAA to be a professional league. Thus, former CHL players can’t pursue a higher education in the US. If the proposed changes pass, it will be possible for players with CHL experience to join NCAA teams.

"There are inequities as to who are considered professionals from sport to sport," said Dr. Bob Corran, the athletic director at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Those inequities mean that athletes with eight years of experience on the Lithuanian national volleyball team could join an NCAA team and be competing against 19-year-olds fresh out of high school.

"Eligibility will be determined by when an athlete enrolls in college and the number of years of competition after high school," Corran explained. "After an athlete graduates from high school, they must take the next available opportunity to enroll in college, or run the risk of losing eligibility."

If the legislation passes, each year of amateur competition an athlete partakes of will count against a year of NCAA eligibility. Professional competition during high school will have no effect on NCAA eligibility. Therefore, if an athlete plays in the NBA during his last year of high school, he can still play in the NCAA, as long as he doesn’t play any more in the NBA after high school.

How does this affect the Dinos?

The Dinos hockey team has recruited a number of their best players from the WHL. Career scoring leader Jason Krywulak, all-star defenceman Evan Marble, last year’s scoring leader Eric Schneider and current stars Ron Grimard and Scott Rideout are just some prominent players who have joined the Dinos out of the Western League. This year’s CIAU hockey MVP, the University of Alberta’s Russ Hewson, is another WHL veteran. Though the WHL is still recognized as a professional league, as long as players jump directly from the WHL to the NCAA, their eligibility remains intact.

Grimard, the Dinos’ scoring leader this season, joined the Dinos after stops with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, Edmonton Ice and Spokane Chiefs. He opted to play out his whole WHL career (junior hockey eligibility continues until a player turns 20), but admitted that jumping to the NCAA would have been an attractive prospect.

"I’d probably do that if I had the chance," Grimard said.

He noted that such a rule could do damage to the CIAU

"It would probably hurt our league," he said. "If the opportunity is there for a full-ride scholarship, a lot of guys would go that way."

According to Grimard, the one thing that would prevent players from going to the NCAA after graduating would be their commitment to the team. Players usually sign four-year contracts with WHL teams, and the teams would be wary of anyone who might leave before their contract is up.

Aside from the exceptions made for recognized professionals, the legislation will take one year of eligibility away from athletes who play top-level amateur sports after high school. The only leagues which will not be affected are Tier Two leagues in Canada and the United States Hockey League south of the border. If not for that exception, players might go into those leagues during high school instead of after graduation, effectively killing high school hockey.

"The hockey community was pretty upset until that exception was made," said Corran. "The NCAA didn’t want to be part of a movement to damage domestic hockey."

According to Corran, the legislation is almost certain to pass when it goes before the NCAA’s executive committee in October, after which it will take immediate effect.

"I’m confident it will go through," he stated.

The Dinos and their NCAA counterpart’s WHL-recruiting spree hasn’t started yet. NCAA coaches are unfamiliar with the rule changes.

"There’s a lot of legislation going on," said Dean Talafous, the head coach of the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves. "It’s a year away at best. There are so many different proposals. There are probably a lot of rumours going on up there."

As far as the legislation’s effect on the WHL, the league is unconcerned. The question only serves to bring up the WHL’s "profession-alism."

"We don’t consider ourselves a professional league," said WHL Director of Public Relations Lloyd Hamshaw. "The NCAA are the only people who consider us professional."

According to Corran and Hamshaw, the WHL is considered professional both because players receive a monthly stipend and because some players have already signed pro contracts.

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