An 18 year-old is an adult that should have the right to make adult decisions.
One of those decisions should include the right to step outside of the amateur developmental process and go to work as a professional. The now adult could be training to become an heavy equipment operator, a baker, or even join the military.
The National Hockey League, in conjunction with the Canadian Hockey League (WHL, OHL, QMJHL), have purposely blocked such adults from being able to play professional hockey at the minor league level. That agreement, dubbed the NHL-CHL Transfer Agreement, should be considered illegal. I believe that the policy should be simply tossed out with the trash.
Before 1979, players had to be 20 years-old to enter the National Hockey League Draft or to play in the league. The old World Hockey Association signed a number of junior players, one was then 17 year-old Wayne Gretzky. When the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, the league changed its policy and began drafting 18 and 19 year-olds. Under the terms of the agreement, if a drafted player under 20 year-old does not win a roster spot on an NHL team, he must be returned to the junior team. Going to the American Hockey League, the ECHL or other to one of the other pro leagues that honor the practice is not an option.
The agreement should have been legally challenged long ago regardless of the benefits to the NHL and CHL. Why is the game so hell-bent on the elimination of player options? Why are CHL players the only ones suffering? College players that turn professional before their 20th birthday can play right away. How does the agreement make any legal sense?
Many NHL general managers and owners are calling for the league to make changes to any new agreement that allow drafted players to join the AHL, but even that proposal requires that the player must have spent three years in the CHL before being eligible for an AHL assignment.
The CHL is in a very interesting position. Should they try to hold onto what they have and fight change or does an open system make a lot more sense?
How could such a system work?
First of all, the game needs to change the point at which a prospect has to choose a developmental route. It is not fair to push the family of a 15 year-old into a decision that forces him into one path or the other. The CHL needs to make adjustments to ensure full compliance with NCAA requirements to give prospects better additional options. Doing this would provide major junior hockey with a serious shot in the arm when it comes to talent, while lowering the cost of operation. The most talented prospects would be in the CHL, the next step down would be the CJHL and USHL and so on. Such an adjustment would bring the entire system into balance.
The NCAA would also do themselves a favor by forcing players into four year commitments with a financial penalty for early departure. That commitment also has to go both ways. If a college player wants to leave early for professional hockey, he is going to get a bill to cover the educational and developmental costs accumulated to that point. At the same time, once a player enters into such an agreement with a school, his educational expenses should be guaranteed regardless of an injury, coaching change, or if his athletic talent was over estimated. College should be about getting an education and developing into a productive adult, not preparing for professional hockey.
Who are the biggest losers in such a system? The 30 year-old career minor-league player. We would see the ECHL and even the Southern Pro Hockey League get a lot younger. College hockey would get a bit older and I have to believe that we would also see a lot less junior programs at the pay-to-play level. Balancing the entire system simply makes sense for the game, now let us see if the NHL is willing to force the CHL into change or if some bright attorney is going to have to do it for them.