CALGARY, CANADA - JANUARY 5: Johan Gustafsson #30 of Team Sweden stops the puck in front of Nail Yakupov #10 of Team Russia during the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship Gold Medal game at the Scotiabank Saddledome on January 5, 2012 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
The CHL's Top Prospects game is one of the more curious affairs of the hockey season. It's not an All-Star Game so much as a showcase, where the top players eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft playing in the league have a chance to impress scouts while playing with and against their peers. There is serious body contact, fights, and actual defence is encouraged. The end result isn't as important as what a player shows. And for the CHL, it's a chance to show their product on a national stage in the lead up to the playoffs. Players give interviews, chum around with sponsors, hockey celebrities make appearances, and a lot of money (at least in terms of junior hockey) is made.
Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting, the consensus number one ranked player for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, sat out the game. You may recall the injury Yakupov suffered in the gold medal game of the World Junior Championship. It was a knee injury, and he only recently attempted to make a return for his club team. In the lead up to the Top Prospects game, Yakupov dressed in the three previous Sting games, but did not play the second or third period of the third game. Seeking an expert opinion, Yakupov went to Dr. Bob Giffin, an orthopedic surgeon at the Fowler Kennedy Clinic in London, Ontario, who had been overseeing his treatment (and was not affiliated with the Sting). Giffin recommended Yakupov not participate in the showcase, providing the young star the famous "doctor's note".
The CHL wanted Yakupov to still come to Kelowna and be assessed by one of the doctors they had hired. Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Ramparts, similarly recovering from an ankle injury suffered at the WJCs, was asked to do the same. Grigorenko's coach and GM, Patrick Roy, was furious and lashed out at the league for making Grigorenko go when he was considered at "80% health". Roy was fined by the QMJHL for his outburst at league officials. Grigorenko was cleared to play in the game by league doctors in Kelowna, and was held scoreless and was a -1.
Yakupov didn't make the trip, and the CHL/OHL Commissioner David Branch's response was to suspend him for two OHL games.
Yakupov's ability to play in the next two OHL games could be in doubt anyways, but the suspension sends a chill throughout the hockey world. It shows the constant battle between players and clubs when it comes to seeking opinions on a player's health, and in this case, a complete disregard of any opinion by the CHL for any doctor that isn't on their payroll. The case of Dave Babych and the Philadelphia Flyers has to be considered here, and the ongoing saga of Sidney Crosby also brought this issue to the forefront. Here's Dr. Giffin, speaking to the Sarnia Observer:
"I don't know how anyone can feel that it would be better for Nail to fly to the West Coast, get off a plane and be seen by someone who doesn't know his history or the treatment he's received," Giffin said. "In a five-minute examination, a doctor who has never seen Nail before is supposed to have a better idea of what to do than someone who has treated him for a month? It's ridiculous."
Giffin said he has never been contacted by Branch to learn what the situation is first-hand.
The second problematic issue this brings up is the overemphasis the CHL places on showcase events. An argument is being made that the CHL is putting business concerns over the health and well-being of teenagers. That may be a harsh accusation, but there are a lot of things about junior hockey that, quite frankly, stink to high heaven when it comes to their usage of the young players. Players names, likeness, and numbers are sold to EA Sports for use in the "NHL" game series without any monetary compensation going to the players themselves. College scholarship options expire if the player does not go to college within 18 months of the conclusion of the player's final CHL season, and the scholarship program is itself fairly inflexible in terms of the money available to the player.
Almost all the money raised by the leagues and teams never makes it down to the players directly (we'll leave the under the table payment accusations aside), although it does obviously help improve the conditions in which they compete (rink upgrades, trainers, etc.). When Yakupov gets an opinion from his doctor that he isn't healthy enough to participate in the event, it must be taken more seriously than how the CHL handled it. Suspending Yakupov seems to be more about not having the biggest star at the showcase, whether on the ice or off it, for no benefit to the player himself.
There must be a different way to handle these situations, and its absolutely disgusting that CHL Commissioner David Branch did not try and seek an alternative means of handling this one. It was Branch who caused damage to the league here, not an 18 year old kid from Tatarstan. David Branch has been one of the most pro-active people in the sport when it comes to taking the issue of head injuries seriously, but his conclusions here show that when it comes to issues of money vs. safety, his judgement is lacking. The CHL needs to re-examine its priorities, and its stated goal must be a place that puts the health and well-being of young athletes before its business interests, whenever they conflict.