NCAA Hockey 101: Eligibility blunder may open Canada’s doors
NCAA rules are a baffling labyrinth of nauseating red tape, labor restrictions and unfair treatment. And the NCAA grips onto every rule, no matter how insipid, with the kind of tenacity you really only see in the opening scene of “Cliffhanger.”
So it’s a little bit of a surprise that when someone points out the NCAA made a mistake in enforcing one of those rules, the NCAA’s answer was, “Oh well?”
Brayden Gelsinger played 14 games for the Kamloops Blazers in 2012 and 2013, failing to record a single point. After that, he moved into the BCHL, where he was nearly a point-a-game player over three seasons. Last winter, he accepted a scholarship offer to play at Lake Superior State.
This issue was first noted by Gregg Drinnan, a junior hockey reporter out of Canada. And it’s an issue because if you play in the WHL or any other CHL league you’re generally not eligible to play NCAA hockey. The reason why is a bit dumb: Because most teams feature players on professional contracts — despite not actually being paid by their professional teams — the CHL is considered a professional league. Even if you sign a WHL contract but don’t play a game for that team, you can have your NCAA eligibility completely wiped out.
So why did Gelsinger get a pass here? Lake State says he and his family worked with the NCAA Eligibility Center to get him compliant before he even showed up on campus. And when Lake State went back to the NCAA saying, “Hey, you saw this kid played in the WHL, right?” the strangest thing happened: The NCAA said, “No, we didn’t.”
And then the NCAA said, “Guess he can play anyway.”
Yeah, weird as it may be to hear, the NCAA made a mistake and isn’t going to enforce its own stringent eligibility rules as a result.
Now sure, normally you might say, “Who cares, this is good isn’t it?” Sure, it’s nice for kids to have options if they don’t hack it in the WHL four years ago. And in the meantime, Lake State — a program which can frankly use all the help it can get — gets a hell of a lot of help.
The Lakers have been awful for years, with one season above .500 since 2007-08. That year, they were one game above .500. In addition, they had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, scoring just 1.8 goals per game, ahead of only brand-new Arizona State.
So hey, who does it hurt, right? Well, the answer seems to be: Everyone they’ve played so far.
The Lakers are currently 5-1-0, and Gelsinger is helping to lead the way with eight points in six games, tied for second on the team with four other players, and behind Mitch Hults, who is now already nine points away from the 20 he put up last year. The Lakers are currently fourth in the WCHA, with at least games in hand on everyone in front of them. They had only 10 wins in the conference last year, but have three in four games so far.
So it seems this is very much a difference-making player for them. Will they shoot 15.3 percent all year? Obviously not, but if the offense is even remotely as good as it’s shown so far, we have a player with CHL experience driving a decent performance by a previously not-great team.
The NCAA’s excuse of having simply missed it makes no material difference for the teams that have dropped games to Lake State, nor indeed for coach Damon Whitten. They would have a right to feel hard done by, because it’s not like they can recruit former CHL players for themselves. And also, yeah the NCAA messed up, but it was a pretty monumental mistake in that it was so easy to not-make, and it could have future implications
Figuring out that a kid played FOURTEEN games for a WHL team really is as simple as typing the kid’s name into any search engine you like (please pick Yahoo! for all your search needs) and clicking on the links to Elite Prospects or Hockey DB. Both of them say pretty clearly “Kamloops Blazers – WHL.”
You really can’t blame Whitten for taking the opportunity given to him here. He took on a player he thought was pretty good and, apparently like the NCAA, didn’t initially know about his WHL days four or five years ago. Once he did, he asked the NCAA what the deal was, and the NCAA admitted it made a mistake. A coach shouldn’t sit a player in those cases. You use him, even if it’s not fair to everyone else. Get literally any edge you can.
But again, this should open the door to letting former CHLers into the NCAA ranks. The thing is, most won’t make a difference. A lot of the former CHL players who come down with CIS teams for exhibition games demonstrably cannot play at this level, and one has to imagine that a guy like Gelsinger is a bit of a freak in the first place, insofar as he’s a 21-year-old freshman with three years of Junior A between his WHL and NCAA days.
Now, if I’m a coach, particularly of a lower-level college that doesn’t exactly attract top recruits, I’m scouring the Canadian Junior A ranks looking for kids with CHL experience who can put the puck in the net. Because if you try to push him through the clearinghouse and the NCAA says, “No way,” well now you have precedent. This isn’t a childish “Why do they get to do it?” thing either, because we’ve seen kids ruled ineligible for much dumber stuff than this.
You have to at least give it a try, because it is extremely dumb that this was allowed to happen in the first place. If one team benefits from a CHL player, regardless of any other context, all should be able to. Make a rule about it if you want: “Fewer than x number of games played, more than y years ago.” Whatever you like. now that this happened once, it really ought to happen forever.
But Gelsinger probably isn’t likely to shatter any sort of glass ceiling here. Because if there’s one thing the NCAA is good at, it’s doubling down on dumb mistakes everyone hates.
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Now, a somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)
Minnesota Duluth (swept North Dakota)
Denver (swept Western Michigan)
Boston University (idle)
UMass Lowell (split at Nebraska Omaha)
North Dakota (got swept at Minnesota Duluth)
Quinnipiac (beat UMass)
Boston College (beat Providence, won at UMass)
Notre Dame (split with UConn)
Minnesota (won at Clarkson, tied St. Lawrence)
St. Cloud State (swept Alabama-Huntsville)
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.