Last weekend's NHL draft signalled the ascendancy of the United States Hockey League, which might be obscure to most Canadians, but did have four former players taken in the first round and 26 overall. Marc Foster of Junior Hockey Blog, who knows the USHL as well as anyone, looks at its efforts to compete alongside the three Canadian-based leagues.
During the NHL draft coverage Friday night one of the TSN commentators -- I think it was Bob McKenzie -- referred to the USHL as a Tier 1 league. Neate and I have talked privately from time to time on where the USHL is today and where it might be going.
After four former USHLers were taken in the first round and 26 overall, he's asked me to gaze into my crystal ball at the USHL's future and whip up a few words.
First, a little background. Tier 1 is a political designation given to the USHL by USA Hockey. Several years ago the league started to put some distance between itself and the North American Hockey League on and off the ice, and the de facto difference became a de jure designation. It's not really Major Junior, at least not yet -- but it's going in that direction.
The 12-team USHL still has room to grow, but I don't see it getting above 16. Still, that does put them in the ballpark of the three Canadian Hockey League circuits who share 60 franchises between them. The USHL ownerships are stronger than ever, and are reflecting the same sort of demographics as the CHL, with more and more NHL players getting involved.
This brings us to the CCM Junior Classic this fall, where the Indiana Ice and Omaha Lancers will take on the Quebec Remparts and Rimouski Océanic. How did this come about? It goes back to those NHL player relationships -- former NHL all-star Luc Robitaille is owner/president of Omaha, and his good friend Patrick Roy runs Quebec. In addition, Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles just bought into his hometown Indiana Ice. As more NHL players buy into the USHL, the differences in ownership between the league and the CHL will decrease.
THE TALENT'S THERE
These are just a couple of factors I believe indicate a shift towards Major Junior status. What else is needed? I think the biggest boost the USHL could receive on the talent side would be for USA Hockey to shut down the National Team Development Program (NTDP). They spend $2 million to $3 million each year developing 40 players that would be better served (not to mention more efficiently developed) on USHL rosters. That's nearly two full rosters, or about three players per existing team. The NTDP plays a hodgepodge schedule against the NAHL and U.S. college teams. One of the last things U.S. hockey icon Herb Brooks said before his death in 2003 was that the NTDP should be disbanded and the money spent elsewhere in development.
The USA accounted for a record 30% (63) of the drafted players this year, but onlya third of them had USHL ties. A lot of Americans -- cough-cough-Patrick-Kane-cough-cough -- are still going north of the border fordevelopment, but I think that will decrease over time. There's plenty of American talent available for the USHL to tap into and itwill have to do a better job of it in order to make a serious run at becoming the fourth Major Junior league.
And hey, if the NHL is going to pick up so many USHL players, the teams should be compensated for having their player selected, just like the CHL teams from the Ontario, Quebec and Western leagues. I think we'll see this onehappen in the next few years. The CHL gets about $6 million per year from the NHL. Toss another $2M into the pot for the USHL and you're talking about a 15% boost to any given team's budget. Those are dollars that would further support the growth and development of the league.
MEMORIAL CUP GOING SOUTH?
Like it or not, the NHL needs the USHL the same way they need the U.S. in general. I hope the draft results of this weekend don't get shouted down bythe media screaming that the American/Sunbelt expansion is a total failure. We're seeing success stories on the talent base side of things. These are seeds that take awhile to develop into something tangible, and even longer to have an impact on the NHL franchises.
So the bottom line becomes, when will the USHL attain Major Junior status and all that implies? I believe inside of 10 years, easy, maybe 50-50 they get it done inside of five. Don't ask me how the Memorial Cup will behandled, four teams, five teams -- but it will happen nonetheless. Regularly rotating the Cup into the U.S. should bring some good media attention south of the border. Yes, American-based WHL teams have hosted the Cup four times, but none since Spokane, Wash., in 1998. The exposure will do them good, especially if it can rotate into a larger market like Chicago or Indianapolis.
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