There are many people who feel the 22-team Western Hockey League is too big and as a result, has become watered down because the talent pool isn’t large enough to sustain it. For years I have argued against that notion and, in fact, have made the case that there is more than enough talent to sustain the WHL as it is and more.
A couple of summers ago on The Pipeline Show, I proposed the creation of a fourth CHL league – basically splitting the current WHL into two separate leagues then slowly expanding both of them south. The idea is contingent on clearing a few major obstacles – the current lack of WHL calibre facilities and the need to find future deep-pocketed ownership that would be willing to take on short term losses – for instance.
But lack of players, in my opinion, would not be a problem. I believe strongly that there are a ton of players out there right now but not enough of them are coming to the WHL. My proposal for the fourth CHL league would be largely to address that issue based on this driving idea: If the players aren’t coming to you, then go to the players.
And that brings us to the United States.
Hockey’s growth stateside has been tremendous over the last 30 years and is now to the point that there are more registered hockey players in the U.S. than there are in Canada. Of course, due to the massive population difference, it was just a matter of time for that to happen but we’re at that point now. Furthermore, the states that are seeing the strongest hockey growth are almost all in WHL territory.
As the NHL moved into markets like San Jose, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas and now Las Vegas, one of the side effects has been the rise in youth hockey in those areas and now, after 20 years, those kids are making it to Major Junior and on to the NHL. Washington already has a strong grass roots hockey community but the impending arrival of the NHL is bound to take that to a completely new level.
California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota and Montana. The players are there but you have to find a way to reach them.
“If the players aren’t coming to you, then go to the players.”
There are always going to be American players that choose the NCAA path; it’s understandable as that is the environment that they grow up in. Hockey is unique though as there are relatively few Division 1 hockey programs west of Minnesota. There are three in Colorado, two way up in Alaska and the arrival of Arizona State makes the Sun Devils the other western program. Meanwhile, the WHL’s chief competition in the States, the United States Hockey League, doesn’t have a franchise based west of Nebraska.
What this means is that any serious hockey player in the western United States has no “home team” to play for and eventually is going to have to move to a league far from home. Why not the WHL?
So what can the WHL do to reach those players and their families? To its credit, the league has already made considerable efforts over the years with combines in California, Minnesota and Texas but more can be done.
More is going to be done.
I first got wind that something was in play during training camp season and have since been able to get confirmation from half a dozen GMs around the league. I have learned of two major initiatives that are in the final planning stages that are completely designed to attract more American talent to the Western Hockey League.
Seattle Bantam Tournament
The first is a new WHL organized and operated tournament that will be based in the Seattle area that will spotlight players for the 2020 Bantam Draft. My understanding is that the tournament will be held in February and feature a dozen or so teams coming from both sides of the border. One source told me the plan would be for six American and six Canadian based teams while another indicated the desire was for eight U.S. teams and four Canadian. The American clubs listed to me included squads from Los Angeles, San Jose, Dallas, Phoenix, Washington State and eventually prep schools like Shattuck St. Mary’s (although they were unlikely for this year).
A similar tournament is the John Reid Memorial in St. Albert, AB. The 2019 tournament featured 16 teams, two of them from the United States (the Los Angeles Jr. Kings and the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes). WHL General Managers and scouts flock to these types of events in advance of the bantam draft because they offer the chance to see a massive amount of eligible players in a condensed time period with little travel.
The proposed Seattle tournament will be similar but with so many more American teams involved, it will generate much more exposure to the league for U.S. players while providing more exposure of the WHL to American players and their families. It’s hoped that having the players participate in an event run by the WHL will lessen the idea of the Canadian Hockey League being “foreign”.
Having the U.S. based tournament providing the opportunity and exposure for american players leads quite naturally into the second WHL initiative that is in the works.
WHL / American Draft
I have been told that beginning in the spring of 2020, the Western Hockey League will implement a two-round American Draft which will take place before the traditional WHL Bantam Draft held in early May.
The concept isn’t new. The QMJHL created their own US draft in 2018 as a means to try and draw further from their american talent pool. Has it produced the desired result? One media contact I have in the QMJHL said he hadn’t noticed any change in the amount of Americans coming to the league. I’d consider the small sample size and argue it’s probably too early to tell what long term success the QMJHL will have.
I wondered if this would mean that WHL teams wouldn’t be allowed to draft Americans during the regular bantam draft but I’m told that will not be the case. However, with 44-players being selected in the American Draft, the U.S. pickings will certainly be slimmer during the Bantam Draft.
Will it work? Maybe. I mean, american players are already drafted in the regular bantam draft so what changes in this new scenario?
I asked one WHL General Manager that question and as he pointed out to me, it’s about the optics and the prestige aspect.
“A player who a team may have taken a flyer on in the 9th round of the Bantam Draft, well now you’re taking him in the 1st round of the American Draft. Now that same kid feels more wanted and important because he’s a 1st round pick.”
Would that really be enough on its own to sway a kid from California who is weighing his options between Sioux City and Saskatoon?
It’s hard to say but at least it’s a serious attempt and really, that’s all we can ask for. The Seattle Bantam tournament and the American Draft mark two significant and positive strategies to reach a largely untapped market.
And I, for one, applaud the effort.