An Issue of Commitment

(Ed. note: I’m well aware that this isn’t directly related to the Red Wings, but you’ll just have to deal with it. Also, I’m back from my self-imposed blogging hiatus. Buckle up. -C)

There’s a good chance that a fair number of you out there reading this right now probably don’t really have a strong opinion going one way or another on NCAA hockey. Frankly, that’s not surprising. College hockey has always been one of those sports that’s seen as “niche” and “regionalized,” much in the way the NHL was viewed coming out of the disastrous lockout that cost fans and players alike a full season of hockey. Contributing to the misunderstanding is the fact that “major” conference names like “Big 10” or “Big East” don’t exist in the ranks of the college game. Monikers like “CCHA” and “WCHA” may mean something to those who regularly follow their squads, but winning a Central Collegiate Hockey Championship doesn’t hold weight on paper when the other major sports find themselves competing for Big Ten Championships with mega-rivalries in the vein of Michigan and Ohio State. UM vs. OSU hockey is just another Saturday night in December, while Michigan and Miami (OH) is the series that has all of the meaning. It’s like being transported to a strange galaxy where nobody cares about conventional tradition and the meaningless becomes meaningful.

Over the past few years, though, it’s seemed as if college hockey was beginning to inch itself more towards the limelight of relevancy, finally emerging from the dark cave of indifference. The first step came all the way back in 2001 when Michigan and Michigan State took to the ice for an outdoor hockey game, eventually throwing the doors open for ideas like the NHL’s Winter Classic and Canada’s Heritage Classic. Nine years later, the largest football stadium in America hosted a hockey game and it looked like college hockey was ready and poised to take yet another step forward. With momentum moving in the right direction, a number of traditional power programs in the game decided to finally come together under the Big Ten banner, forming a six team conference that would finally share the name and rivalries of their football and basketball counterparts, as well as a lucrative network contract and shared branding. While not everyone was pleased with this outcome, it was inevitable for the game once Penn State was granted a Division 1 program and it was needed in raising awareness of college hockey as a whole. Branding is key, and the Big Ten is a brand that almost everyone college sports fan across the country understands. I’m sure that there are plenty of folks out there that don’t agree with this assessment, and their reasons are probably pretty valid. I’m not here to debate those opinions, though.

I’m writing because college hockey has a problem. In the midst of all kinds of excitement and progress across the game, there’s a new trend that is quickly becoming disturbing and troublesome for programs across the entire college hockey landscape: the CHL and the idea of honoring a commitment.

Before you get all ‘OH NO YOU DIDN’T” on me here, let me be clear and say that this is no kind of indictment against the CHL and the product they offer. Personally, I enjoy watching a number of teams from the leagues they are attached too, and I think the hockey is exciting and entertaining. There’s a place for the CHL just like there’s a place for the NCAA. The problem is that these kids don’t seem to understand what a commitment to a team means when it comes to their NCAA allegiances, and the trend of committing to a university just to backtrack and speed off to the CHL is becoming a growing problem for NCAA institutions across the country. This week alone, three top prospects who were “solid” commitments to Universities decided to flip the script and head off to the CHL. Do they have the right to do that? Sure. But for the teams that now find themselves down a player with only a couple of months before the start of a season, what recompense is in store for them? What are they entitled to after a prospect decides that the CHL is a better fit?

Right now, it doesn’t really matter. The NCAA has a game on it’s hands that just isn’t equipped to stack up to the premier junior league in North America, and they know it. When top prospects hit the draft board every spring, major junior players dominate the proceedings. Sure, there’s plenty of talent in the NCAA pool, but the network is nowhere near as vast and well-connected as what the CHL puts out. More teams, more fans, more talent: the CHL experience appears to be the better tool to future NHL success both on paper and in practice. Yet there’s still so much talent and competition within the college ranks, but more and more players are walking away from it, simply because they can.

That must change. Yes, there are all kinds of issues with amateurism and contracts and what-not, but without a formal and binding signing policy (similar to college football), NCAA hockey will continue to watch recruits commit and de-commit in an effort to get to the NHL as fast as possible. Without attaching some measure of gravity to these commitments, they’ll be nothing more than a loose agreement that can be broken at any time, as opposed to an iron-clad guarantee of attendance and participation. I understand that you can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to do, but why not make it clear from the beginning that the moment you commit to a University, you are bound to be a part of that organization just as you would if you signed a contract with any other team. If you want to break that commitment? OK, but you’re going to sit out a year of juniors in order to do it. Will this ever happen? Doubt it. Would it steer some kids away from college hockey? It’s likely. But in the interests of preserving the roster sanctity of the teams within the NCAA, something must be done to firm up the gooey mess that is currently the commitment process and that could potentially cost the NCAA some higher-level talent. That’s the cost of doing business in a market that is all about getting kids to the next level. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and you can’t guarantee stability with a slew of 18-20 year old kids making decisions on a whim. If you want stability for your clubs, it’s time to take a stand NCAA. With change imminent across the college hockey landscape, now is the time to raise the issue and now is the time to do something about it. Otherwise, college hockey runs the risk of being the eggs in the CHL omelet.

Hold the Canadian Bacon, please.