TORONTO – While Slavomir Lener portrayed a serious trouble with junior hockey in Europe, the various representatives of junior hockey in North America were far more optimistic during the afternoon session of the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit at the Air Canada in Toronto today.
Jim Johannson, a former player and now senior executive at USA Hockey, explained how his organization is structured. “We consider junior hockey to be for all kids between 16 and 20 years of age, even though it’s a very broad range of quality players. We have three distinct levels of play, and even below that we have prep schools, which are hugely successful in some part of the country like Minnesota and Massachusetts. And we have the National Team Development Program, a two-year program based in Ann Arbour, Michigan.”
He followed his overview with some impressive details. “We do five things differently with NTDP,” he explained. “One, we play against older and stronger players. Two, we train first and worry about game results second. Third, it’s best on best in practice. We try to have the best 23 players in that program, so they learn better and faster. Four, the kids are in school full-time, and our off-ice training is as important as what we do on ice. Finally, every kid is the same age and is treated equally in game situations.”
The program, however, does not operate in a bubble. “Of course, we measure our success based on on-ice results in top international events,” Johannson said. “We also judge using the NHL draft where we are getting a lot of first-round draft choices. Also, the growth of the NHL throughout the United States has inspired kids in non-traditional hockey cities to play the game.”
Tom Anastas, CCAA commissioner, echoed Johannson’s rosy picture of junior development in the U.S. “College hockey is part of a larger collaboration with USA Hockey,” he began. “A decade ago and more, we weren’t a major route for players to get to the NHL, but now we have more NCAA players in the NHL than ever before. We now invest $30 million a year in scholarships. More amazing, when I played many years ago, most of the NCAA players were Canadian, but today 70% of players are American, which is a big shift in representation.”
North of the border, the Canadian Hockey League took the microphone to do some explaining, starting with Kelly McCrimmon, owner, general manager, and coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
“I’ve lived in Brandon for the last 22 years, so I’ve been fortunate to experience player development for a long time,” he said. “The CHL provides the NHL with more than 50% of the NHL’s drafted players, and we also feel part of Hockey Canada and the success of that national organization.
“We have a competitive edge over any other league. Our game is very similar to the NHL, so players know they are getting as close an experience as possible to what they want. We have travel, the same rules, the same size rink. And for me, the biggest improvement in the CHL in the last several years has been the improvement of the coaching, training facilities, life skills. Most of these players won’t make the NHL, so we are very proud and realize we have to prepare these players for life, not just hockey. We offer a scholarship program for players to attend a Canadian university after they finish junior if they don’t go on to turn pro.”
Darcy Regier, GM of the Buffalo Sabres, offered an NHL perspective to the junior programs, since that is the end result of all that development. “I don’t have an answer to the problems with European players. We don’t want to kill the geese who lay the golden eggs. But there are some reasons why we at the NHL level want players to come over and play in the CHL. If they are in the CHL or AHL, we can really watch the players carefully and determine when they can play with us. The problem is that players now have choices, and they can say that at 18, they have rights to go where they want and play where they want. If we are going to make changes to the rules, it has to be beneficial to the league.”