Nonsense to freeze out U.S. players

Originally Published: January 6, 2005
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- It was symbolic, perhaps, that the Palace on the Prairie served as such a hospitable home to Canada's perfect junior team this week.

The spectacular Ralph Englestad Arena on the grounds of the University of North Dakota, the site of Canada's gold medal victory against Russia on Tuesday and the home away from home for thousands of boisterous Canadian hockey fans during the 10-country tournament, is a monument to the commitment and passion the school has long held for the sport on both sides of the border.

Specifically, North Dakota has long opened its arms to young hockey players from Canada's 10 provinces, offering university educations in exchange for being part of the Fighting Sioux shinny tradition.

The list of Canadians who have played for North Dakota is long and distinguished, from former pros like Dennis Hextall, Dave Tippett and Troy Murray to current NHLers like Ed Belfour, James Patrick and Greg Johnson.

How strange, then, that in the background to this year's junior tournament was a controversial proposal by Canadian hockey authorities to severely restrict the numbers of American-born players permitted to play in the top major junior leagues north of the border.

Canada, by adding the world junior title to its gold medal triumphs at the 2004 World Cup, 2004 World Championship and 2002 Winter Olympics, has soared convincingly to the top of the international hockey pyramid. At the same time, however, there are clearly xenophobic, exclusionary sentiments simmering in the country of 30 million, rather inexplicable concerns that the national game is under some kind of serious threat by the Europeans and Americans that are recruited to play in the high, successful junior leagues.

The Canadian Hockey League is divided into three leagues, the Western Hockey League (20 teams), the Ontario Hockey League (20 teams) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (16 teams).

Of those 53 clubs, nine are located in the United States. Currently, each major junior team is permitted two non-North American players and an unlimited number of Americans and Canadians.

Under a new proposal from Hockey Canada, the governing body of the sport in Canada, each major junior team would in the future be restricted to one non-North American player and one U.S.-born player.

Doug Palazzari, the executive director of USA Hockey, seemed to find the entire notion preposterous, and justifiably so.

"First of all, we feel junior hockey is really progressing in the U.S. and that there is no reason that a player should have to leave the U.S. to become a good hockey player," he said. "But I'd be very amazed if (the CHL) did this. Our American players are there because they are recruited there and they are wanted there."

The CHL is widely regarded as the top teenage developmental league in the world. Of the 110 players who skated in the World Junior Championship during the past 10 days, 53 belong to CHL teams, including 11 players off the roster of the bronze-medal winning Czech Republic, five members of Team USA, nine players who skated for the Slovak national junior squad and three Finnish players.

The number of American-born players per major junior team varies widely, but there are an estimated 340 Americans playing junior hockey in Canada, which includes major junior, Tier II, Jr. B, Jr. C and Jr. D clubs.

Marcel Redekop, chairman of the Hockey Canada committee that has recommended the new restrictions, said those U.S. players are taking roster positions away from Canadians.

"The status quo is not an option," he said.

Hundreds of Canadians, of course, dot the hockey rosters of Division I colleges in the United States, and there are no official NCAA limits on those numbers. The United States Hockey League, roughly the U.S. equivalent of the CHL, allows for two Canadian players per team, but some Canadian officials worry that if the USHL expands more Canadians will be lured south.

None of this shinny nationalism, it seems, is good for the sport on either side of the border.

In Canada, the vast majority of players in the CHL are Canadian-born under current eligibility rules, and for those who can't make the cut, there are hundreds of positions available at various levels of junior hockey.

One of the reasons the CHL is so highly regarded by professional recruiters is the level of competition, a level that could be severely compromised by the proposed restrictions.

Instead of a more open hockey world, Canada seems to be looking to close its developmental league off from the rest of the international hockey community, despite the fact Canadian teams are dominating the world scene.

Don Cherry, a commentator for "Hockey Night in Canada," said he favors the notion of limiting Europeans, but not Americans.

"It's sad they can't say no to the Europeans and not the Americans," he told The Toronto Star.

Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson emphasized that the proposals have not yet been formally adopted.

"We are trying to challenge ourselves," said Nicholson. "We are the top hockey playing nation and are doing a lot of things right. We are trying to see what we can do better."

For a time in the mid-90s, when Canada was not faring well in international tournaments, there was widespread feeling within the country that by exporting so much of its hockey knowledge, Canada had in effect helped other countries learn to defeat it in major competitions.

Clearly, that is no longer the case. Yet the exclusionary attitudes, sadly, still exist.

The reality is that, because of the presence of nine U.S. teams in the CHL, in cities like Seattle, Portland, Ore., Saginaw, Mich., and Lewiston, Maine, it might be legally impossible for Hockey Canada to force this new proposal on the major junior leagues.

"I'd be surprised if there weren't some legalities there," Palazzari said.

In Canada, there is some sports precedent to all of this. The Canadian Football League, which mandates that roughly half of the players on each of its teams be Canadian-born, expanded to U.S. markets like Sacramento, Calif., Las Vegas, Shreveport, La., Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., and Baltimore, Md., in the mid-90s and had to drop their Canadian content rule for those teams.

Unless the CHL is to have different eligibility rules for different teams, it's hard to see how they could enforce a rule allowing only one American player on U.S.-based clubs.

Details aside, however, it's the philosophy that stinks. Canada, particularly now, should not fear the presence of players from other countries within its borders.

It should welcome them, making the entire elite junior system better by bringing the best athletes together in competition. Last week, for example, goaltender Mike Brown of the Owen Sound Attack, a native of Baldwinsville, N.Y., was named the top player in the OHL. In the WHL, Prince George Cougars defenseman Dustin Byfuglien of Roseau, Minn., was named that league's player of the month.

These aren't players "taking jobs away" from Canadians. They are elite skaters raising the quality of competition for all.

As well, in recent years Canadian-born players like Brendan Morrison and Paul Kariya have won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, emblematic of the top hockey player in U.S. college hockey.

For years, the Canada-United States hockey pipeline has flowed both ways, feeding the hockey systems of both countries. Why change now?

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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