Winnipeg’s WHL Dilemma

The rumors about the Kootenay Ice leaving for Winnipeg have been around for a majority of the year, while also getting louder and louder as the days go onward. So, much so that there was a press conference set for Monday that never went off. The fact Kootenay’s future in Cranbrook, BC has been in question for the past few years may show that it’s almost time to fish or cut bait with the Southeastern BC city. With the latest owners of the Ice being from Winnipeg, naturally there’s going to be questions on how much longer it’d be until they picked up and moved east. 

Of course, when the team was sold to Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell, the idea was for the team to remain in Cranbrook. However, the allure of the big city and being back home seem to be too much for Fettes and Cockell to pass up on. While the attendance in Kootenay has bumped back up from seasons previous, it is still a half-filled arena and towards the bottom of the league. With Winnipeg being a hot market for hockey, why wouldn’t the hometown boys come home with a junior hockey team?? 

For one, the biggest debate that is coming up is if three teams– the Winnipeg Jets, Manitoba Moose, and this WHL team– could coexist and be successful. While the Toronto Maple Leafs, Marlies, and Mississauga Steelheads seem to coexist, Winnipeg is not the Greater Toronto Area. While the NHL and WHL work in Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver– the added AHL could make it a little rough for the WHL to work and be successful in Winnipeg. 

Just with the NHL and AHL in the same town, the Moose have taken a hit at the box office since they came back, steadily declining over the last four years. When you consider that this WHL team won’t be under the True North Sports and Entertainment banner either– they’d be fighting a very uphill battle trying to get people out to the arena, especially with playing at the University of Manitoba until a proposed new arena on the edge of the city is built. 

Winnipeg is just under 750,000 people in the city and plenty to do– three hockey teams could be a breaking point for even the staunchest of hockey fans. Coupled with the lack of True North involvement, the WHL team would be destined to fail from the onset. Some would suggest that the team would be better off staying where they are than trying to make it in Winnipeg. 

Even though a team in Winnipeg would help Manitoba and give an even closer rival for the Brandon Wheat Kings; the ends may not justify the means. The odds seem against them from the start with the rewards not justifying the risks. The idea of the big city over the small town may be great, but you’d not only be letting those small town fans lose their identity, but you’d also be going into hostile territory without any affiliation to the big fish in the city already.

If the owners were smart enough, they’d find a way to sell the team to local interests or maybe see if some alumni who were/are in the NHL would want to buy the team. Because trying to go back and face those fans in Cranbrook and trying to get forgiveness would not go over entirely well. 

On the Topic Of Training Camp and Prospects

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Training Camps are when hope springs eternal for some teams. Other teams it’s just a chance to see how good a team will be two or three or more years down the line. However, the idea that there are people who are actually “fighting” for a spot on the team is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, there’s going to be pressure on some guys, but by in large, the depth charts are pretty set.

Not only that, but it’s very odd hockey where it’s much like spring training where there’s split squads and some fans go overboard with the results– both positively and negatively. It often gets annoying and makes me want to speed up to opening night to make the idea of “position battles” go away for another year.

The thing that irks me the most is keeping the kids who have junior eligibility in the camp far longer than they should be. In all honesty, the only time a player with junior eligibility should be at an NHL camp is when it’s the prospects camp early in the summer. The NHL really should look at an “exceptional player” rule to allow some of these junior players the chance to make the team out of camp, but it would also allow the other ones who really don’t have a chance the ability to train and then play for their junior team because their seasons start earlier than the NHL’s.

It just seems a bit silly to have over sixty players in a camp when they’re going to send 15-20 home on their first few days, a majority of them going back to their junior team. I understand that technically those players are the property of the NHL teams, but does it really do them any good to have that short of an experience and miss some time with the team they’re going to spend the majority of the season with?? It’s almost the same as my disdain for keeping players up for nine games when they know they aren’t going to play there for the entirety of the season.

The idea of raising the draft age is a smart one. Even if it’s just a year, it’ll allow the player to mature more in juniors, which would do them a world of good. When you look at the amount of players who are going the NCAA route, it just shows that if you raise the age or not, those players aren’t going to be jumping into The Show right away; which is maybe what teams want with some of the contracts that they give to players being a placeholder for the prospects spot.

Maybe I’m just not into the training camp hype. One player does amazing against junior or AAAA-level talent and then people wonder why he’s a bust during the year when playing against actual pro level talent. Let the kids be kids in the junior area or the NCAA area. They don’t need to be jumped into the league when you not only lack the room for them, but also could destroy their confidence down the rode for being pushed ahead too early.

On the Topic Of Changing the Draft Rules

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On this week’s Face Off Hockey Show, we debuted our new Patreon Pick segment where contributors of our Patreon who hit the donation tier picked a subject we would go long-form on. This week, one of the selections was the return to Major Juniors to two big names in the start of the season for their teams.

Kailer Yamamoto was sent from the Oilers back to Spokane, while Owen Tippett was moved from the Panthers to Mississauga. These two made enough of an impression to make the team out of camp, but due to their youth, inexperience, and the loopholes of an entry-level contract, they were allowed the ability to go back to Major Junior and grow more there.

This sparked a questions from our own Marc “with a ‘C'” who wondered if there was a way for players to lose their eligibility once they declare for the draft, which would also lead to the building of a new minor league system in that aspect. While I think this is something that could be an interesting test, I don’t know how much it could work in practice.

By in large, the NHL (and hockey in general) is very odd when it comes to the set-up of their draft, in that the rights of the player is held even if he’s not in their organization– like Junior and College players. For Major Junior players, they have two years to get signed or else they go back into the draft, however– if they sign a deal– they can play up to nine games before their first year is burnt up in their contract. For college players, they have all four years to decide if they want to stay or go. Yet we have seen in situations like Will Butcher, Jimmy Vesey, and Corban Knight where the college guys pick their poison once they get out of college and don’t have to sign with the team that drafted them– which is almost a waste of a spot for those teams that did pick them.

In other drafts, players have to declare and then lose their amateur rights when they sign a professional deal. Also, the NBA makes players aren’t eligible until a full year after their last high school year (though that may change), NFL is three years after your last high school year, while MLB is odd in that they draft players— but if the player steps into a college classroom, their rights are immediate withdrawn (see point 5 on that link). However, MLB has such a deep area of minor leagues that it’s not something hockey as a whole could take on unless they wanted to really, really shrink the size of each minor league. My belief is that minor league hockey “heads of state” are too bull-headed into doing something like that because for some reason they feel that a league has to have a 31-31-31 situations rather than what baseball has where the minor leagues are spread out.

Not only that, but it’s not as if hockey has the development situations the other sports have, since high school kids are in Major Juniors at 16 and don’t develop through an actual school team, but by a team within a leagues that is pulling in multi-million dollars a year. Those Major Junior leagues are run like a pro league, without having to pay the pro prices for players– but that’s another story for another time and another writer who has better knowledge on the inner workings of that kind of hockey.

So, what do you do to help the development so that 18-year-olds aren’t rushed in when they are not ready to do so?? The one thing people keep coming back to is raising the draft age to 19 or 20 years old, which is what the NBA did a couple years back.

It only makes sense to raise the age. The maturity of the player will be able to show through more, the player would get even more time in their development, and the teams won’t be playing roulette all that much because you’d be able to see a kid three-years into his playing cycle and maybe get some trends on how he plays. Of course, this is only for Major Juniors.

The college side is a little different. Players can get drafted by NHL teams and still play college because they have “advisors” which, according to the NCAA, aren’t agents and still allows the student-athlete to keep their amateur status and NCAA eligibility. It goes with the weird NHL thing where the kid isn’t property of the team until they sign a pro contract, but their rights are held for “x” amount of time until they decide to sign or wait it out to be a free agent. A great cheat sheet about the CBA and NCAA and Draft Rules is right here.

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair for a kid to have to lose their eligibility to play in college or major junior if they get drafted in the NHL, I also think the system is broken in that the whole “rights” ideal is something that is really antiquated. When you look at it, raising the draft age would fall in line with the age limits that the AHL has, where a player who is drafted out of Major Junior and still has eligibility has to be 20-years-old to play in the league– which would mean that they would be done with their Major Junior eligibility just as they’re ready to go to the next level. That makes sense.

However, if you actually want to put stock into the player and have their lose eligibility if they declare early– the need would be to totally revamp the minor league hockey system as we see it. How do you do that?? I’ll bring about that idea tomorrow.

On the Topic Of Marylanders in College, Junior, and Pro Hockey

If you have followed along in my life, Maryland is a huge part of it. After living in Glen Burnie for 21 years, obviously there’s a sort of pride there. But recently, I’ve seen an influx of Marylanders getting into the pro hockey ranks, as well as Division I NCAA and Major Juniors. With it being a dormant landscape for hockey, it’s always a fine sight to see a kid from Maryland get noticed on a big stage.

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One of the bigger ones recently has been Nick Ellis of the Bakersfield Condors. The Millersville native was signed by the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent after three years at Providence College where he posted a 30-9-5 record with a 1.90 GAA. Earlier this year, Ellis got AHL Player of the Week honors and has been put into a bigger role for the Edmonton affiliate.

Another player to possible get buzz this year or next is 16-year-old Adam Varga. After playing for the Washington Little Capitals U15 team, Varga took an unorthodox step by jumping to Major Juniors and signing with the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL. While there are territorial disputes of who’s a Marylander and who’s not (more on that in a second), but my count he is the fifth Maryland-born player to play in Major Junior after Jeff Brubaker (Hagerstown), Jeremy Duchense (Silver Spring), Charlie Pens (Perryville), and Campbell Elynuik (Silver Spring) to be stated as Marylanders in Major Junior. It’s a big step for hockey in Maryland and how the development is, as most Maryland kids go the NCAA route or even the Division III route for their higher-level hockey.

However, there is a bit of a conflict when dealing with player bios because some players will put somewhere else outside of Maryland, while other sites will post Maryland as their hometown. Elynuik is a perfect example as he is listed on HockeyDB as being from Silver Spring, but Elite Prospects will have him listed as being from Calgary, Alberta. Jarred Tinordi is another example, as he was born in Burnsville, Minnesota; but made his hay in Severna Park, Maryland– playing for Severna Park High School in his first year before going to join the US National Developmental Team. A guy like Michigan State’s Jared Rosburg is a whole other can of worms. Rosburg is listed as being from Clarksville, Maryland, but grew up in Strongsville, Ohio. Since he played for River Hill in Howard County, I’ll chalk Rosburg up to one of Maryland’s own.

(Elynuik, Tinordi, and Duchense bring about another example of guys listed as being from Maryland thanks to their father’s playing with the Washington Capitals when they were born. While Tinordi did play within the area, the others didn’t make that big an impact, especially with Duchense living in Quebec City for the majority of his youth.)

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Rosburg is one of many players who have touched NCAA Division I ice while being listed as a Marylander. The Michigan State defenseman has dealt with injuries, but has been a big presence on the blue-line and has come up with some big goals in his short career. Rosburg is following in the footsteps of Sam Anas, who is recently the most successful Maryland player, as he’s been in the Minnesota Wild organization for two years after a successful NCAA career at Quinnipiac after a solid high school career at the Landon School in Bethesda. Of course, Anas goes in that disputed Maryland/Washington DC zone where both sides want to claim him. Colgate’s Bruce Racine is in the disputed zone of Maryland/DC, as he was born in DC, but went to school in Bethesda at Georgetown Prep. Other NCAA players for the 2017-18 season are Matt McArdle (Annapolis/Lake Superior State), Colin O’Neill (Odenton/UMass-Lowell), Jason O’Neill (Odenton/Providence), and Graham McPhee (Bethesda/Boston College).

In the minor leagues, outside of Ellis and Anas; there are several others playing in the lower minor league ranks. Jack Burton was born in Reisterstown and went to Baltimore-area St. Paul’s school before heading to Colby College and then joining the Indy Fuel last season, where he is today. Another Maryland ECHLer is Nick Sorkin of the Wheeling Nailers, who played for Team Maryland and the Washington Little Caps before going to University of New Hampshire, then to the Nailers. Former Glenelg High School player and Woodbine native Eric Sweetman is in the ECHL, as well, playing in Idaho after four years at St. Lawrence University. Mike Chen played for Team Maryland growing up before heading to Division III at Salem State and is currently rostered on the Knoxville Ice Bears of the SPHL.

Women’s hockey has also grown in Maryland, especially with the likes of Haley Skarupa being from Rockville and playing on the US Women’s National team, as well as in the NWHL with the Connecticut Whale and Boston Pride after four successful seasons at Boston College. Beth Hanrahan of Poolesville played four years at Providence College for four years, being the team’s MVP in her junior and senior season, then playing for the New York Riveters before being name associate coach of Lindenwood University. Finally, Lindsay Berman of Odenton starts her third season as head coach of UMass-Boston’s Women’s team after her years in the CWHL with the Boston Blades, including a Clarkson Cup championship to her resume. Berman went to Arundel High School and played for the Washington Pride to garner attention leading her career at Northeastern University.

I’ve said before about how Maryland and the mid-Atlantic has been underserved as a market, especially with no NCAA program in the state. However, there’s a new wave coming through, especially with Varga in the OHL and young Patrick Giles (Chevy Chase) joining the US National Program; there’s a lot of shoot for in the youth programs in the Maryland (and sure, DC) area, though the high school systems does have a variety of teams. Also, the club hockey scene does have a lot of talent, but still not the top-tier talent other areas have. The area is still in need of more success stories, but I know I didn’t think in a million years there would be this much Maryland content across the NCAA and minor pro landscape as there is today.