Commentary: Now mired in controversy, CHLPA had ideas for NCAA

For the last few months, the Canadian Hockey League Players Association, an organization attempting to be certified as an official union for the Canadian Hockey League players, has been nothing more than a comical distraction for college hockey fans. Kind of like a “Hey, look at that. What a mess,” kind of thing.

Now it has become more like, “Hey, look at that. What a disaster.” The fledgling organization is beginning to crumble under allegations that Derek Clarke, the chief spokesperson and as many believe, a driving force behind the union, is not who he says he is. In the wake of the accusations, former NHLer Georges Laraque has stepped down as the organization’s executive director.

However, before the identity confusion and subsequent fall out, Clarke spoke to Guy Flaming of the Coming Down the Pipe blog. Among the goals the CHLPA hopes, or maybe had hoped, to reach according to Clarke is finding a way to make CHL players eligible to receive NCAA scholarships.

Given the current state of the organization, the idea seems laughable. However, according to Flaming, the CHLPA has had direct conversations with the NCAA.

Given the current circumstances, it would be difficult to believe the CHLPA could affect sweeping alterations to NCAA rules that seem quite difficult to change. However, some NCAA coaches have gone on record in recent years as being receptive to opening up college hockey to CHL players. This is not a new idea.

Per NCAA rules, specifically,, teams and leagues classified as “major junior” are considered professional. As such, players within those leagues lose their amateur status and therefore their college eligibility.

While the NCAA makes a specific designation for major junior, there are other elements of the CHL that make it a professional league.

The professional designation is due in large part to the fact that the CHL allows players under NHL contract to return to the league. Those players have also received a signing bonus from their NHL teams.

Additionally, the NCAA designates any league that calls itself professional as professional. It seems logical enough, but up until this week, it was widely believed that the CHL had not designated itself a pro league.

According to Flaming, earlier this year Hockey Canada changed wording in its rules to specifically designate the CHL as an amateur league. The previous wording of that rule said: “It is agreed that CHL Teams are considered and treated by third parties as being professional. Therefore, the signing of a contract with a CHL Team is the equivalent of signing a professional contract.”

Anyone remotely connected to college hockey has been operating with the understanding that the stipend players receive from their teams in the CHL, typically $50 a week, had no bearing on a player’s eligibility. However, Flaming’s report seemed to contradict that.

Clarke provided Flaming with an email apparently from Natasha Oakes, assistant director of academic and membership affairs for the NCAA. Oakes surmised that if the stipend was removed and Hockey Canada’s designation of the CHL as professional was to be lifted — which it apparently now is — players would be eligible.

However, based on what Clarke provided, Oakes left out a key factor in what makes the CHL pro. The fact that there are professional players, as defined by the NCAA’s rules, playing in the CHL negatively impacts the amateur status of everyone on their team. There are dozens of players in each of the CHL’s three leagues under NHL contract who have also received signing bonuses.

Read more on the CHLPA and how it relates to college hockey at The United States of Hockey and Coming Down the Pipe

As the NCAA states in rule, “an individual may participate with a professional on a team, provided the professional is not being paid by a professional team or league to play as a member of that team.”

The NHL teams are paying players that signing bonus regardless of what league the player ends up in, which could easily be construed as paying the player to play as a member of his CHL team.

One of the ideas the CHLPA raised in order to reach its goal of NCAA eligibility for CHL players is getting the CHL to stop accepting players under NHL contract, and that’s something that appears impossible to accomplish.

The CHL and NHL have a close working relationship, with the latter providing grant money for development purposes. The NHL likely has as much say in something like this as the CHL, which is why such a change seems unlikely.

As it turns out, the window of opportunity for making any change is right now, when the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is in flux. That said, among the many things the NHL and NHLPA need to work out this issue appears to fall quite low on the priority list.

The ongoing recruiting battle between the CHL and college hockey has left many to wonder what the alternatives are. Some coaches have been vocal about making a change like this, but opinions on the matter have been fairly split.

Perhaps one day an exception will be made by the NCAA to open up to CHL players, but the ramifications could be severe and not just for college hockey. Junior A leagues in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Canadian colleges would be directly affected if the NCAA were to loosen its amateurism rules.

The NCAA and college hockey’s power brokers may be faced with a decision to make a change, but it won’t be at the behest of the CHLPA. If or when the time comes to make that choice, they’ll have to think long and hard if the benefit is worth the potential widespread cost.

UPDATE: Through a spokesperson, the NCAA responded to CHLPA talks:

The NCAA is discussing with the CHLPA the topic of classification of the major junior Canadian Hockey League. Current NCAA bylaws stipulate that ice hockey teams in the US and Canada classified as major junior by the Canadian Hockey Association are considered professional teams (specific bylaws copied below). There are currently no proposals to remove or change the legislation as it is currently written. Major Junior Ice Hockey — Ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada, classified by the Canadian Hockey Association as major junior teams, are considered professional teams under NCAA legislation. Limitation on Restoration of Eligibility — An appeal for restoration of eligibility may be submitted on behalf of an individual who has participated on a major junior ice hockey team; however, such individual shall be denied at least the first year of intercollegiate athletics competition in ice hockey at the certifying institution and shall be charged with the loss of at least one season of eligibility in ice hockey.