New Leagues Are The Solution For Junior Hockey Expansion

How to make hockey grow in North America, particularly in the United States? For the most part, Canada has worked out an excellent solution, the CHL which binds together the three main branches of junior hockey in Canada, the WHL, the OHL, and QMJHL and provides a national championship, the Memorial Cup each year. The only awkward part is Northern Ontario which has cities like Thunder Bay and Timmins which might be able to successfully support junior teams but are too far away to compete feasibly with other areas of Canada. Unless airfare is significantly reduced or a dramatic new way of traveling is invented, these isolated areas will have to be ignored for some time in the future.

Given the precarious state of owning and operating junior teams in North America, travel is a serious issue. For that reason there is no inter-league play except for the Memorial Cup tournament itself. It’s a fanciful concept but until improvements in travel are invented, it will have to remain an unrealized dream.

Growth of hockey starts with growth in the levels of play before a player reaches the NHL level. Of the three branches in junior Canadian hockey, the OHL has the best chance to expand. There are still lots of smaller Canadian towns in southern Ontario to plant new teams and northern New York State, Michigan, and Ohio offer lots more possibilities for expansion.

The QMJHL offers good chances for expansion but the league has too many weak sister franchises in terms of attendance and small arenas to do much. Right now the league wants to strengthen its existing franchises instead of expanding.

That leaves the WHL which is the biggest league in the CHL with 22 teams including an American branch. But here the problem of travel is most manifest. Areas of growth like Montana, Idaho, and southern Oregon are too far away from the existing WHL franchises to be feasible. So the best solution is to form new American junior leagues and affiliate them and existing American ones with the CHL.

Why join American junior leagues to Canada? Simply put, there is a drop in quality of play between Canadian and American junior hockey. Most of the best American players come from the CHL or from American university hockey. Alongside expanding the markets for junior hockey in the United States, raising the standard of play has to be a priority.

Forget the nationalism argument. The United States and Europe are quite content to send many of their top junior prospects into the CHL for development. In fact the Europeans want in so badly that the CHL has put a limit on how many their teams can have. Doing well in the CHL is almost a certain ticket to becoming a high draft choice in the NHL draft, no matter if the player comes from Canada, Europe, or the United States.

Where to start? There is only one Tier 1 junior level league in the United States, in the United States Hockey League, with most of the teams located in the northern, central United States. Becoming a branch under the CHL umbrella would raise the standard of play in the league and open opportunities for more American, Canadian, and European boys. Organizing a new league in the Montana-Idaho area and maybe other states within reasonable traveling distance would be a good idea. And sorting out and organizing another American hotbed of hockey, New England would help.

That would make the Memorial Cup a six team tournament (unless the CHL had any other ideas to make the tournament 8 teams; a host city and the best wild card team of the 6 branches of the league). As for the nationalist argument of American teams and leagues being under the Canadian umbrella: Well the Memorial Cup is probably the most prestigious trophy for junior hockey in the world. The existing American franchises in the CHL do not mind competing for it and more American leagues and franchises would be competing for it at a higher standard of play.

Reorganizing junior hockey, particularly in the United States is essential for growth. At a recent summit of the “big 4″ North American major league commissioners, Gary Bettman commented on the growth of hockey at the junior level of the United States. But the present growth is nothing compared to what could be accomplished if the existing leagues were better organized, new leagues founded, and the standard of play significantly raised.

 

Make The Memorial Cup An International Trophy

During the recent World Cup, one ominous fact became apparent: Canada is pulling away from the rest of the world in quality and quantity of player. It has won 16 straight significant international matches dating back to the Vancouver Olympics. That is not a fluke. It can be truly said that during the Sidney Crosby era, hockey is a Canadian game.

This is great for Canada but bad for international hockey as a whole. There is no real competition for Canada any more. Before there was only one significant gap in hockey; between the traditional “big 7″ countries and the rest of the world. Now there are two gaps; Canada and the rest of the “big 7″ and the gap between them and the rest of the world.

After the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, there were boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But in the 44 years since 1972 there has been no expansion of quality of play from a “big 7″ to even so much as a “big 10″ or ideally a “big 16″ or better. There have been a few coaches from “big 7″ countries sent abroad to coach teams in other countries and occasionally the NHL hosts a few “clinics” like Los Angeles and Boston recently did for players from China. It is obviously not enough.

It is not that the problem is unrecognized. When Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr decided to set up “Team Europe” and “Team North America” instead of inviting more national teams to participate in the World Cup, it was an open admission that there was a significant gap in quality between the “big 7″ and the rest of the world. Hockey is still confined to the same narrow base that existed in 1972. If Bettman and Fehr want hockey’s World Cup to approach the prestige and stature of soccer’s World Cup, the gap in quality of play has to be rectified by raising the standard play in the rest of the world to that of Canada. Quality of play is probably the main problem in international hockey right now. On the women’s side, it is horrendous with only Canada and the United States icing quality teams. If the quality of hockey is not significantly improved outside of North America, women’s hockey could be expelled from the Olympics.

The results of the World Cup were alarming about the quality of play internationally. Team Europe and Team North America were supposed to be credible 7th and 8th place opposition teams, not the second and third best teams in the tournament. Bettman will be happy to accept congratulations for his idea but he can hardly be happy that the national teams that were supposed to be Canada’s toughest opposition played so poorly. Team USA became the whipping boy of the tournament when they could not win a game. Russia gave up 47 shots in its semi-final loss to Canada and the score would have been higher if not for the heroic goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky. Sweden could not beat either Europe or North America. The Czechs could only beat horrible USA. Finland also failed to win a game. Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team and its members became the core of underdog Europe. There is a huge gap between Canada and the rest of the world.

What accounts for this gap in player development? It does not come about at the adult professional level but at the junior level and younger. Canada simply has the finest system for developing hockey talent in the world, most notably its CHL junior league system, a group of approximately 60 teams located mostly in Canada with a few American franchises, in three leagues, based in Western Canada, Ontario, and Quebec and the Maritimes. Every year, the winners of the three leagues plus a host team play for the Memorial Cup, the trophy symbolizing Canada’s junior championship.

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The CHL is the foundation of Canada’s current vast superiority over the rest of world. Almost every American and European boy wants to play for one of its teams, so much so that the CHL has had to put a limit on how many Europeans a team can have. These boys want to come to Canada because they know that the training and development they receive will be the best in the world and if they distinguish themselves against Canada’s best young players, there is a good chance they will become high NHL draft picks. And occasionally, a European country will send an all star junior, national team to tour and play against all star teams from all three CHL branches. There is no better way to measure their players or test how their own system is developing its young talent than to play against Canada’s best young, junior players.

But if young Europeans and Americans have to come to Canada to get proper development, what does that say about their own national junior systems? They are obviously not doing the job that the CHL is doing. The result is 16 straight Canadian victories, two Olympic gold medals, and now a World Cup triumph. Total domination. Everybody else is playing for second place.

The obvious truth is that at least the junior systems of the rest of the world need a severe overhaul. Unless a better system is discovered, the best thing to do is to set up junior leagues in every country modeled on the CHL. It is a vast undertaking but unless someone else has a better idea, for now it seems to be the only way of dealing with the quality of play problem that is holding back the development of international hockey.

And the best person to head such a tough undertaking is CHL Commissioner Dave Branch. Under Branch, the CHL keeps churning out top junior talent, Canadian, American, and European every year. There is no one else better equipped for such a task.

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First, the countries that want to take part and have the ability and resources to implement such systems have to be identified. Then people who know how to own, operate, manage, and coach junior league franchises have to come forward and the new leagues set up. These new leagues would be directly affiliated with the CHL. Branch would become the overall Commissioner of all these leagues, probably with Deputy Commissioners for each country to handle routine matters.

At the end of every season, the winners of every country’s national junior championship would play in a tournament for the Memorial Cup. It would no longer symbolize the championship of Canada but become the trophy that is presented yearly to the junior team champion of the world. There is no need for inter-country junior play during the regular season but it could occur if travel and expenses permit.

Hopefully this will standardize development of junior hockey players around the world and bring all players up to the level of Canadian players. It will close the gap in quality not only between Canada and the rest of the “big 7″ but at least between the dozen “B level” countries who have been stuck at that level of play since 1972 and before. Then the World Cup that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr idealized about in September could become a reality.