Hockey Notes

Kelly wants juniors to show more class

By Fluto Shinzawa
August 29, 2010

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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.

Savard deal should be safe
According to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the investigation into Marc Savard’s contract, like those regarding the deals of Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo, and Chris Pronger, is ongoing. There remains a possibility that Savard’s contract, because of the drop-off in Years 6 and 7 ($525,000 annually vs. the $7 million payday he’ll receive in each of the next two seasons), could be deregistered.

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.’’

Wild ready to contribute
Consider the Bruins’ 2-1 road win over Toronto last April as a worst-case scenario. Stuart and Andrew Ference are unavailable because of injuries. Dennis Seidenberg goes out in the first period after slicing a tendon in his left arm. That’s why teams require defensive depth, and that’s why the Bruins have targeted players such as Cody Wild. The former Providence College defenseman, acquired from Edmonton for Matt Marquardt at last year’s trade deadline, doesn’t project to be on the big league roster when the puck drops on the 2010-11 season in Prague (Adam McQuaid looks like the strongest candidate to be the No. 7 blue liner). But the 23-year-old Wild should be prominent for Providence coach Rob Murray. In 18 games last season, the North Providence native recorded three assists for the P-Bruins. Pending his AHL performance, Wild could be in the mix for a promotion if and when injuries strike. “He’s certainly got a great deal of talent,’’ said Tim Army, Wild’s college coach. “As he continues to progress as a pro, the conditioning piece, along with the diligence necessary of any player to play without the puck, are still evolving. If he can progress in those areas, that will allow him to continue to find his way as a pro defenseman. That would certainly put him in consideration of ultimately playing at the NHL level.’’

Asham right man for job
Upon the opening of free agency, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero threw down his corporate credit card and committed $45 million to two defensemen: Paul Martin (five years, $25 million) and Zbynek Michalek (five years, $20 million). On Aug. 20, nearly two months later, Shero made a thriftier investment by committing a mere $700,000 to ex-Philadelphia bruiser Arron Asham. The latter may prove to be just as shrewd a bang-for-the-buck signing as the two blue-line deals. In Asham, the Penguins have employed a right wing who had four goals and three assists in 23 postseason games for the Flyers last season. While he’s known as a grinder who plays rough and drops the gloves (126 penalty minutes last season), in the series against the Bruins Asham skated alongside Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk and created regular scoring chances. The Penguins, who were surprised that Asham was available, plan to use the 32-year-old in a bottom-six role. But they also believe that Asham is skilled enough to take occasional shifts alongside Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal when coach Dan Bylsma mixes up his lines.

Loose pucks
Like any good Jamaica Plain boy would do upon winning hockey’s ultimate prize, former Blackhawks assistant coach John Torchetti brought the Cup to Doyle’s Cafe last Monday. JP has altered dramatically since Torchetti’s time — even from when this native loitered on the No. 39 bus some years ago — but little has changed inside Doyle’s, one of Boston’s signature locations to hoist a cold beverage, to say nothing of the Cup . . . After five seasons of turning to Andrew Peters to thump enemy combatants, the Sabres were without a tough guy last season. That could change this year, as Cody McCormick, a late postseason addition to the Buffalo lineup after Johnny Boychuk laid out Matt Ellis, could push for a roster spot. The 27-year-old racked up 168 penalty minutes for Portland last season. The Sabres would be wise to surround smaller skilled players such as Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Tyler Ennis with some muscle like McCormick . . . Versus has the national rights to air the Bruins’ season opener against Phoenix in Prague Oct. 9. However, NESN retains local rights in New England, so local viewers can tune into Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley calling the game. Like the other crews (Versus, Fox Sports Arizona), Jack and Brick will be stationed Stateside instead of rinkside at O2 Arena for their broadcast because of the prohibitive cost of shuttling personnel and equipment to the Czech Republic . . . Congratulations to Teddy Doherty (Hopkinton), Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading), and Brian Morgan (Windham, N.H.), the three New Englanders on USA Hockey’s U-17 select team that won the Five Nations Tournament in Huttwil, Switzerland. The Americans beat Germany in the final last Sunday, 14-2 . . . Shrewd stuff from Thrashers GM Rick Dudley, who told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’d like to see ex-Blackhawks right wing Dustin Byfuglien (11 goals, five assists in 22 playoff games) move back to defense. Byfuglien is a widebody who can skate, play tough, and blast a heavy shot from the point. Also, Byfuglien will get top-notch tutoring from new coach Craig Ramsay . . . Stick salute to ex-Bruin Aaron Ward, who announced his retirement last Tuesday. Part of Ward’s next career will include serving as a part-time studio analyst for Versus, where he’ll be sharing space with Mike Milbury, who will continue his NESN duties as well. During Ward’s Bruins career, there were times the defenseman didn’t think too much of Milbury’s critiques. We’re hoping the two can settle their issues. Preferably on camera . . . College Hockey, Inc., will hold its first golf tournament tomorrow at Hopkinton Country Club. Participants will include Mike Grier, Matt Gilroy, Brickley, Brad Park, and Ken Hodge . . . The Blackhawks wiped $5.625 million annually from their books by loaning Cristobal Huet to Fribourg of the Swiss League. The netminder will still collect his NHL salary, while Chicago rids itself of Huet’s cap number. It could soon be that Switzerland, renowned for its banks, watches, and chocolate, becomes better known as a haven for NHL cap relief. Will bet my Swatch against your Patek Philippe.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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