It’s called the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, but in its current form, it can be more akin to an auction. And the highest bidder usually wins.
The people who oversee the CHL’s three member leagues want to change that. Gilles Courteau, the commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, told La Nouvelliste in late January that the league wants to level the playing field when it comes to bringing European players to the CHL. Courteau said teams are currently paying exorbitant fees to bring players across the ocean.
"Some junior teams will pay more than the NHL does to get a player released. This is illogical,” said Courteau. “It has an impact on other releases, in the U.S. or in Ontario. We had to do something about it.”
According to CHL sources, the three commissioners – Dave Branch (OHL), Ron Robison (WHL) and Courteau (QMJHL) - met in January at the Top Prospects Game in Halifax to discuss changes to the current import draft. Under the new rules, teams will be prevented from trading import draft picks and there will be a year-long moratorium on the trading of imports once they have been selected. All 60 CHL clubs will still be allowed to carry a maximum of two imports. These changes are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
The new rules are intended to keep smaller-market clubs – which might not have the money to bring top players to North America – from trading away picks to the larger-revenue teams.
“I think the purpose of the changes to the rules is to make things more equal for everybody,” said Andre Tourigny, the head coach and GM of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. “It’s to make sure the richer teams can’t take advantage of the situation.”
But these rules could actually make things worse for small-market clubs. If an import player refuses to report, a team would essentially be left without any tradable assets and the poor will only get poorer. It could also prevent small-market teams from gambling on top-end European talent, settling instead for players who will report, leaving the best players for the richer teams.
Two years ago, the small-market Huskies had the second overall pick in the CHL import draft. They were looking at a few elite players but, according to Tourigny, his team “could not afford those guys.” Instead, they traded the pick to the Quebec Remparts for the 11th overall pick along with a second- and third-round pick in the QMJHL draft. The Remparts selected Russian sniper Mikhail Grigorenko, now with the Buffalo Sabres, and the Huskies chose Swiss star Sven Andrighetto to go along with their other picks acquired in the deal.
“For me, both teams win in that situation,” said Tourigny, who was on a QMJHL committee which discussed the import rule in late January. “Now if we go back to that moment (at the 2011 import draft) and I can’t trade my pick, I would take Andrighetto as the second overall because we really like him. But it’s not the same as Andrighetto and a second and a third (draft pick) and another player.
“For a small market like us, I think it was an advantage to be able to use that (top import pick) to get more assets and build up.”
Preventing the trading of import picks will also stop teams which have filled their import quotas from obtaining additional assets in the leagues’ regular draft. A team that already has two Europeans and holds a top pick in the next import draft, will be forced to make a tough decision.
“Do they release one of the players? Or do they pass? You have the second overall pick and you pass? It’ll be very interesting,” said Tourigny. “I’m eager to see how it works.”
The CHL introduced the import draft in 1992, where teams were first allowed to hold two spots for European players. Since then a number of import players like Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, and most recently, Edmonton Oilers first overall pick Nail Yakupov, have used the CHL as a stepping stone to the NHL.
On paper, the import draft is a fair process with the teams taking the best player available. All 60 CHL teams are ranked for the draft in reverse order based on their regular-season finish and the draft order alternates between all three leagues.
In reality, though, the import draft is anything but fair. Deals between players and teams are brokered long before the draft ever takes place in many cases.
“The agents, in my mind, run the import draft,” said Steve Spott, the head coach and GM of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. “They are the ones that know the connections, they are the ones that will dictate whether a player will play for you or not play for you. That’s what makes it such a difficult draft is the fact that you are relying on a lot of different people (scouts, agent) for an asset that’s very valuable.”
NHL agent Darren Ferris, who has a number of clients playing in the CHL, said that many agents will have associates in Europe or Russia who will try to place their clients on CHL teams. There are also times when NHL teams will dictate whether they want their draft picks - or players they’re interested in drafting - playing for CHL clubs.
“Even as early as the (under-17 tournament) or U-18s,” said Ferris of talks with CHL teams. “Sometimes some of the (CHL) teams will go watch either (tournaments in Europe or North America) wherever they are and see some of the players. Some of them, they’ll just take on the word of the agent. Some of the … smaller-market teams, they won’t even send anybody, they’ll just rely on the agent who tells them, ‘Hey, this is a good player.’ Or they’ll phone around to some NHL teams and ask some of the NHL scouts if they’ve seen them.”
Ferris said most agents simply want to place their clients on teams where they’ll be taken good care of and have their skills developed. Often teams aren’t taking the best player available in the draft, but rather the player who will play for their team.
“As far as the agents placing guys, it’s not always the top guy that’s there,” said Ferris of the draft selection.
Outside of the top-end known commodities, selecting a player in the import draft can be a crapshoot. Teams that can afford to send scouts to see potential prospects do so, but it comes at a cost. Even once a player is selected, there are more bills to pay for incidentals like plane tickets home at Christmas.
“It really has become a costly draft,” said Spott. “You are now getting extra scouting involved and extra travel. But we feel that’s the price of doing business if you’re going to have good players.”
Despite the climbing costs and other headaches associated with signing Europeans, CHL teams continue doing it. As Spott mentioned, it’s the cost of doing business. And as much as the league wants to talk about its player development, the bottom line for coaches and GMs is still winning.
“Yes, there are costs involved, but if you want to make your team better, you have to,” said Windsor Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel. “It is tough at times – to find billets, the language barrier, the travel. But when you get them settled and they’re playing for you, you’re sure glad you have them.”
Rychel has had success with imports in Windsor, winning a pair of Memorial Cups and sending players such as Andrei Loktionov (New Jersey) and Richard Panik (Tampa Bay) to the pros. But there are still hockey observers – apart from Don Cherry - who believe imports are taking spots from North Americans, particularly Canadians. They believe those players should get first crack at the opportunity to play junior hockey in the CHL.
“It’s two out of 20,” said Rychel. “That’s not killing the Canadian development model. It might be two spots that you’re taking away from a Canadian boy, but those two spots would be at the end of your lineup. They wouldn’t be high-end Canadian boys, so those two kids would be better served developing in Junior B. They’re going to be your fourth-line winger or your sixth or seventh defenceman. That’s not a slight – that’s just the way it is.”
In the Quebec league the use of imports is more of a necessity considering Quebec and the Maritimes have a smaller talent pool to draw from than the OHL or WHL.
“We have a different reality,” said Tourigny. “We have 100,000 (total males registered) for 18 teams (in the QMJHL). At the end of the day we need those players to play as a top-six forward or as a top-three defenceman. That’s the difference. If we had the same ratio (as the other leagues) maybe I would have a different answer. But for now, for our league, it’s mandatory that we draft those (imports).”
In 2010, the WHL’s Kootenay Ice put out a press release stating that they were not taking part in the import draft because it had become too difficult to “attract the top European players.” Ice general manager Jeff Chynoweth went two seasons without drafting imports before adding a pair of players from the Czech Republic. One of those players, Petr Vesely, has since returned home.
Chynoweth said as the draft has progressed over the years it’s been more difficult to add those high-impact Europeans to the lineup, even though his franchise has had success in the past.
“It’s always the unknown,” said Chynoweth. “What are you going to get as a player? We didn’t take any (in 2010-11) and we won a WHL championship and Don Cherry made a big thing of it, but I’m not anti-import draft at all. That was just the makeup of our team at the time.
“I don’t like the import draft, but when I say I don’t like it, I mean that I just don’t feel it’s a level playing field.”
He’s hoping the new rules will change that.
“It has to help,” said Chynoweth. “There are certain teams that break the rules and don’t hide the fact that they do it, and that’s fine, but that’s not the way (we) run our business. I think it will make it a more level playing field for some of the other smaller markets in the CHL.”
And while there have often been rumblings in the past about doing away with the import spots altogether in the CHL – talk is cheap. It’s clear if there was truly an appetite to either do so or decrease the number to one per team, it should have happened by now.
“They make our league better,” said Tourigny of the Europeans. “They help us to be the best development league in the world. So do we want to change that? I don’t think so.
“If you want to have the best league in the world, you need the best players in the world.”
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