All’s fair in love, war, and major junior hockey

It’s something that has always been accused or rumoured to be taking place over the last few seasons.
But over the past couple of days, the ever-increasing recruiting war between NCAA and CHL hockey teams, and the way that CHL teams are able to bring players to their clubs, has taken an interesting twist.
Late Monday night, a report in The Michigan Daily (a student newspaper at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) reported that incoming recruit (and recent Winnipeg Jets first-round pick) Jacob Trouba was weighing his options about playing for the Wolverines, or the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers (who own his junior hockey rights) come this fall.
While this news wasn’t really a shock to most junior and college hockey followers, the biggest item of note from the articles was that according to a unnamed source, the Rangers had reportedly offered $200,000 to the American blueliner to play in the OHL.
Although this is only a rumour, which Rangers president Craig Campbell described on Twitter as “utterly false,” and one that the Trouba family denied in a statement through the University of Michigan, for the first time in recent history an actual dollar amount has been floated around in the race to bring a highly-touted player to their league.
In recent years, many top college bound prospects have elected to go into the junior hockey ranks, with top-notch American goaltending prospect Jack Campbell joining the Windsor Spitfires instead of going to Michigan in 2010, and most recently, blueliner Seth Jones (who may be the first overall draft pick in next year’s NHL draft) electing to play for the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks instead of going to ply his trade in the NCAA.
While there have been a handful who have made their choice before making any commitments, many players have elected to play junior hockey after signing a letter of intent, which has left some fuming.
On one hand, you have those involved in college hockey who are upset that players have backed out on their commitments prior to the start of a new season, with former College Hockey Inc. executive director Paul Kelly saying that CHL teams used money to bring players over.
While that view by Kelly is perhaps a bit brash, as someone who enjoys the college hockey game as a great alternative to the pros, I can feel the pain of those programs that are effected.
However, the loss of one player can mean the gain for that particular school, as a pro prospect who probably would have been gone to the NHL after one or two seasons, can be replaced by someone who can attend the school for four seasons and become a school hero.
For every player that doesn’t attend college like a Cam Fowler, and for every player that leaves for the pro ranks after only a season like Phil Kessel, there are those who end up staying the four years that help a program reach greater heights, such as graduating Minnesota-Duluth star Jack Connolly.
On the other hand, there are those fans of those non-major market junior hockey clubs who cry foul over the fact that many of the top college-bound teams end up going to more highly-regarded teams in the league, which many consider an unfair advantage.
And as a massive junior hockey fan, I say, so what?
To paraphrase a quote that drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein once said about the difference between drivers, “You show me a program that enjoys losing, and I’ll show you a program that’s never won before. It’s that simple.”
While some may still want it to be the cleanly-run image that it may of had back in the day, the fact of the matter is, major junior hockey is a business where everyone is gunning to hoist the Memorial Cup, along with their own league titles.
This is the closest thing that this country is going to have to the world of NCAA athletics, and those top programs can use their strong history and whatever else to find success.
Plus, it’s not like getting a top player or recruit to come your team is going to guarantee you any success anyway.
For instance, during mid to late part of the last decade, the Miami Hurricanes were consistently bringing in the top recruiting classes in all of college football, but at the end of those players’ time at the school, they were nowhere close to being in the final mix for a national championship.
At the same time, the Boise State Broncos brought in many unheralded players and have shook up the establishment overnight by being a dark-horse threat for the national title seemingly every year.
Those kind of surprises have happened in junior hockey as well, as the Owen Sound Attack, who no one had pencilled in as a title threat last year, took home the Ontario Hockey League title last spring.
Sure, more often that not the big teams will end up winning the championship, but it’s not as much of a lost cause than many in the smaller markets would want you to believe.
It might be viewed an unfair game, but so is life, and in both cases you have to work your way through those obstacles that stand in your way to achieve your goals.