WHL may be thinned by adding Canadians to NCAA

The NCAA may be coming to a Canadian province near you.

And it could have a profound effect on the Western Hockey League, impacting players past, present and future.

Last week the NCAA voted to allow Canadian members to apply for membership in the United States’ primary collegiate athletic organization. Should any western Canadian colleges eventually join the NCAA, it will surely have an influence on which development path potential WHL players choose.

Currently there are two primary paths a developing young hockey player can choose: the major junior route (which includes the WHL) or the college route (NCAA). Once a player chooses the major junior route, the college route is closed off because the weekly stipend major junior players receive constitutes being a professional in the eyes of the NCAA, thus making them ineligible. As a result, there’s a constant tug between the major junior leagues and the NCAA over prospective players.

One factor the major junior leagues, particularly the WHL, have on their side is geography. Approximately 90 percent of the players in the WHL come from western Canada, and there are few NCAA schools with hockey programs in the U.S. that are within reasonable distance of western Canada. Therefore there are few emotional ties to NCAA schools, the travel is more difficult, etc.

The NCAA’s vote will likely change that. The University of British Columbia in Vancouver is already manuevering to apply for membership. The University of Alberta in Edmonton is also said to be interested. Once there are NCAA institutions available to the players that are more local, it seems likely more players will choose the college route.

But the ruling doesn’t just affect future players. Past and current players may also be affected.

Most Canadian colleges are part of the CIS, the Canadian version of the NCAA. Unlike the NCAA, the CIS doesn’t consider major junior players to be professional, therefore major junior players retain their CIS eligibility. As a result, CIS hockey teams are made up predominantly of former major junior players. The University of British Columbia (UBC) currently has 16 former major junior players on its roster, including former Everett Silvertips Curtis Billsten, Marc Desloges and Jovan Matic. Should UBC join the NCAA, those players will become ineligible to play for the school, and future major junior players who don’t move on to the professional ranks will be unable to continue their careers at UBC.

So stay tuned. This story’s just beginning.

Around the WHL: The Canadian Hockey League’s Top Prospects Game takes place Wednesday in Edmonton. The game features the top 40 prospects for this year’s NHL draft from the Canadian Hockey League. A skills competition takes place today. A total of 14 WHL players will take part. Everett’s lone selection, winger Kyle Beach, is not participating because of a concussion. … Edmonton sniper Robin Figren was one of the prime targets at the trade deadline, and a deal with the Regina Pats was all but complete. However, the Edmonton Sun revealed that one of the conditions on Figren reporting to the expansion Oil Kings this season was the right to veto any trade, and he decided to veto the trade to the Pats, despite the fact Regina appears to be a contender while Edmonton seems destined to miss the playoffs. … Kelowna left wing Jamie Benn was named the WHL Player of the Week. Benn had three goals and six assists in three games, helping the Rockets go 2-1.

League leaders: Points — Colin Long (Kelowna) 74; goals — Colton Yellow Horn (Tri-City) 34; assists — Long 51; penalty minutes — Scott Gabriel (Portland) 164; wins — Tyson Sexsmith (Vancouver) 30; goals against average — Sexsmith 1.95; save percentage — Jacob DeSerres (Seattle) .925.

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