Kelly wants juniors to show more class
Had things remained as planned, Jarred Tinordi would have started fall classes at Notre Dame last week, extending the summer sessions in which the 18-year-old already had enrolled.
But Tinordi is long gone from South Bend. On Aug. 11, Tinordi signed with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, said goodbye to Notre Dame, and gave up his NCAA eligibility. By doing so, Tinordi, drafted 22d overall by the Canadiens this year, became the second highly touted defenseman to withdraw his Notre Dame commitment in the last two years. Cam Fowler, Anaheim’s first pick in June, would have been a Fighting Irish freshman in 2009-10. Fowler opted for Windsor of the OHL.
Naturally, Paul Kelly, executive director of College Hockey, Inc., is disturbed by the departures.
“We have to stop the continuing relentless recruiting that goes on after a kid enrolls or commits to a college program,’’ said Kelly, head of the 9-month-old program. “If Jarred Tinordi enrolls at Notre Dame, starts taking college classes, intends to stay with the program, and physically moves to campus, once that happens there shouldn’t be any continued recruiting until the end of the season. They’ll go back at them in the summer months and convince them to change their chosen path. You see it happening more and more — this constant unending effort to lure kids away even after they’ve signed a letter of intent, enrolled, and have been on campus. It’s not a two-way street.’’
The bulk of the NHL’s talent arrives via the OHL, Western Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Mostly because of its pro-style schedule, NHL front office personnel consider major junior to be the preferred training ground for big league hopefuls.
But the NCAA has healthy representation in the NHL. Tim Thomas (Vermont) and Matt Hunwick (Michigan) are two Bruins with four-year college careers. Mark Stuart was the Colorado College captain his junior season. Blake Wheeler played three years of college hockey at Minnesota. Martin St. Louis, Thomas’s UVM running mate, was the No. 6 scorer in the NHL last season.
But now, like at no other time, college hockey is under siege. As top-flight American players, with the maturation of the Ann Arbor-based National Team Development Program being a leading factor, have become more competitive with their Canadian counterparts, they are drawing more interest from major junior. At the other end, NHL clubs are targeting collegians and their cap-friendly entry-level contracts to replace expensive veterans.
So with the tugs coming hard and fast from both ends, all college programs, not just the traditional powerhouses, are taking the hit. This summer, Rensselaer, hardly considered among the NCAA’s elite teams, lost two players. Jerry D’Amigo (Toronto) and Brandon Pirri (Chicago), who both played one year for coach Seth Appert, signed with their respective clubs. According to Kelly, Paul Kariya (Maine) is the only one-year collegian who eventually earned his degree.
“They’re being squeezed at the front end of recruiting by the [Canadian Hockey League], and at the back end by the NHL,’’ Kelly said. “They’re grabbing more and more kids, earlier and earlier. It’s cheap labor. They want to fill those spots. It’s good for the kids to be wanted. But the colleges are in the worst position. The CBA works against them and the NCAA works against them. So we’re trying to help sort this stuff out and bring some order. They’re not easy fixes.’’
To that end, Kelly recently completed two prospect forums for the top 15-year-old players in Michigan and upstate New York, two NCAA vs. CHL battlegrounds. Kelly and director of education and recruitment Jeff Dwyer led the forums, which included on-ice work under the watch of college coaches such as Appert, Jeff Jackson (Notre Dame), Red Berenson (Michigan), Rick Comley (Michigan State), and Kevin Sneddon (Vermont).
In Kelly’s estimation, the off-ice sessions were just as valuable. In one forum, current NHLers and former collegians Jack Johnson (Michigan) and Nathan Gerbe (Boston College) related stories of their NCAA careers to the prospects. During another segment, Kelly and Dwyer educated players and their parents on topics such as earning scholarships, dealing with family advisers, and examining graduation rates. Per NCAA rules, college coaches are not allowed to contact prospects until June 15 following their sophomore seasons of high school. College Hockey, Inc., however, can serve as a resource for players at any age.
Education is just one tool Kelly and other college hockey proponents have to promote the game. One change the NCAA could consider is its hard-and-fast eligibility rule. Currently, once a player signs with a major junior team or even appears in one game, he is not eligible for college hockey. Like other college advocates, Kelly supports a grace period. If a player appears in 10 or fewer junior games and decides it’s not the right fit, he could still play NCAA hockey.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing the NCAA move in that direction,’’ Kelly said. “You hear a lot of horror stories about a kid who played eight games, left his CHL team, and now he’s lost. He can’t go to college, but he’s still a talented kid. But right now, I don’t think there’s a big appetite for that. The overwhelming majority of college coaches agree with the current NCAA rule that all major junior hockey is like a pro league.’’
Kelly acknowledges there is no one-size-fits-all path. He uses Patrick Kane, the Buffalo-born, USA Hockey-nurtured sharpshooter who chose London over Boston University, as a player for whom major junior was the better fit. But for those seeking a blend of hockey development, study, and social interaction, Kelly views college hockey as the preferred route. Not many kids regret being big men on campus.
But given his experience as NHLPA executive director, Kelly doesn’t think the league will pull the carpet out from under Savard and the Bruins in the Ilya Kovalchuk aftermath. The still-ringing uppercut of arbitrator Richard Bloch’s Kovalchuk decision, Kelly believes, is enough of a deterrent to any players, agents, and general managers considering similar cap-circumventing deals in the future, even if contracts like Savard’s have already been registered.
“Say you challenge Savard and the next arbitrator says, ‘This is perfectly legal.’ Well, now you’ve just thrown everything back into pandemonium and into a gray area,’’ Kelly said. “Right now, the NHL’s got a good, strong decision. There’s nothing to counteract it. They can wave it in front of the faces of GMs and say, ‘We’re not going to register your contract unless you cut it back.’ There’s a practical reason why the NHL should be content and sit tight.’’
If the NHL red-flagged Savard’s contract, the players’ union would appeal. The mechanism would then be the same as what took place with Kovalchuk. The sides would agree on an independent arbitrator, who would then hear the case and make a decision independent of Bloch’s ruling. As such, there’s no guarantee the next arbitrator would side with the league once more.
“I don’t think the Kovalchuk case creates a precedent that would cause another arbitrator to pause very much if he found the facts of a second circumstance warrant a different result,’’ said Kelly. “You have to be careful what you wish for. The NHL is smart enough to know that even if they’ve won this one, it doesn’t mean you’ll roll over and prevail in every other one that comes down the pike.’’
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.