Mid-way through the first full day of sessions at the World Hockey Summit, the IIHF and European national federations got their first shots in. With IIHF President Rene Fasel getting a chance to address the summit, and a panel on Junior Development in the World heavy on European representation following up, the opportunity to air long standing grievances on Canadian soil was there for the taking, and the other side of the Atlantic didn't hesitate to do so. After a very candid question and answer period with Fasel, a series of presentations by Slava Lener of the Czech Ice Hockey Association and Murray Costello (a Canadian) of the IIHF painted a dark picture of European development going forward if things don't change in Canadian junior hockey. It was a lot for people to take in, but it's not an unfamiliar refrain.
Czech hockey is on the decline, of that there is no doubt. James Mirtle of The Globe & Mail was able to get some great quotes from Lener on the issue:
"We’ve lost a lot of players," Lener said. "Ten years ago, we had 80,000 [junior] players, now we’ve got only 30,000."
I don't have the full numbers to map the decline at this point, but the numbers appear reflective of what has been reported in the IIHF Survey of Players as of 2009, which points to the Czech Republic having the 3rd highest amount of registered hockey players in the world, but of their 97,000+ players, 62,000 are listed as senior males. The Czech Republic are today producing fewer new players than Russia, Sweden, and Finland. You wouldn't know it at the CHL Import Draft however, as Czechs continue to lead the charge in players being selected to come and play for Canadian and American major junior teams, with 167 players being selected over the past 7 years, double that of Russia who placed second. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has slipped to a distant sixth in terms of junior hockey success at IIHF tournaments, narrowly ahead of the much smaller Slovakia and Switzerland.
The Czechs cause was backed up by Costello, who argued largely in favour of keeping national identity strong in international hockey. Costello's presentation isn't being well quoted, but from a series of tweets @wldhockeysummit, it could be gathered that he believed that the differing styles of player produced by different nations is one of the reasons that makes international competition so compelling. In his estimation, the CHL tries to teach these imports to play a Canadian style of game, and dilutes the overall appeal of international competition in the process. It was a more an appeal to the romantic side of the game, while Lener and his fellow national federation heads (Tommy Boustedt for Sweden and Jan Filc of Slovakia) went with a more brutal approach.
Tommy Boustedt isn't facing the same crisis of identity with Sweden as the Czechs and Slovaks are. Sweden ranks a distant fourth on the CHL's preference chart, and they maintain most of their top talents by offering a high level of competition in their J20 SuperElit circuit and potential advancement to the 3rd most competitive professional league in the world as teenagers, the Elitserien. All of the top Swedish draft choices in recent years, players like Victor Hedman, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson or Mattias Tedenby, were drafted out of Swedish leagues. Boustedt's position is more defending a model that can work, but he still sees problems with it. Transfer fees to the teams that develop the players is the way to fund these development models, and the CHL Import system doesn't allow that. That's why Karlovy Vary is fighting so hard to keep Martin Frk from going to Halifax of the QMJHL. Such a move would leave the club without any compensation for helping to develop a top talent until the age of 16. Meanwhile, if Halifax were to be the team that Frk was drafted from as of 2012, the Mooseheads would get development money from the NHL for having produced a top draft choice. It's a very flawed system, and the European federations have had enough of it.
Boustedt's proposals were this:
- No Import Players below the age of 18 should be allowed to play in the CHL.
- Allow NHL teams to hold the rights to a drafted European trained player for four years, rather than the current two years as per the CBA.
- Limit the amount of CHL Imports on a roster from 2 to 1.
The proposals, while they would restrict player movement, make a lot of sense. The first one allows players to finish their basic secondary schooling in their home country. Going to the CHL at 16 or 17 isn't the result of a cultural exchange program, or at least not in hockey terms. It also gives club teams in Europe incentive to fund their development programs, since often the top players will already see time in the top league by the time they hit 18. The second proposal takes the pressure out of signing players at an early age out of the equation. The CHL is often viewed as a quickest way to make players NHL ready. If there is reduced pressure to be NHL ready by age 20, maintaining players should be more realistic. The third proposal might be a less necessary one if the first two are implemented, and it is simply there to further insulate losses that European clubs may face. If a player leaves at age 18 or 19 for the CHL, the club will again not be compensated for the loss, so this further reduces the potential losses while giving some players the opportunity to play Canadian major junior.
The CHL took a hammering in this one, but in reality it's simply the nature of the business of junior hockey. The business of players 16-18 years old in particular is bound to be an emotional one. This topic didn't come up last night in the hot stove session about the role agents can play in the development of young players, and the European panelists made sure to put some of the blame on them as well. By no means will these measures proposed save Czech hockey, but it could stop some of the bleeding.
Expect to hear back from David Branch, commissioner of the CHL, and even their partners in the NHL at some point. According to Neate Seager of Buzzing the Net, that 3rd proposal might actually be music to the CHL's ears.