Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014
 
Turning Pro in Hockey

For the sports of basketball and football, the draft entry rules and the NCAA eligibility rules are simple--once someone submits their name to the draft, and they don't pull out prior to the draft, they become ineligible to play in college regardless of whether they are selected or not. Baseball allows a player to be drafted, and so long as they don't sign with the team, they may attend college but the drafting team loses the player's rights.

However, for the sport of hockey, the way in which the NHL draft eligibility rules and the NCAA rules intersect are quite unique. For a variety of reasons, the NHL draft rules permit players to be drafted once they turn 19 (or 18 under certain circumstances). However, the NCAA has determined that so long as the player doesn't sign a professional contract, or sign with an agent, he may retain his collegiate eligibility. The player even may spend time at the team's "development camp" during the summer, competing against pro players. In fact, during the summer of 2014 over 300 players with college eligibility competed in prospect "Development Camps."

These rules produce nuances distinct to hockey:
  1. The NCAA allows hockey (and baseball) players to have an advisor, but not an agent, to provide advice to the player and his family as they navigate the often confusing process of decisions that arise. [Don't get me started on the distinction or purpose of this NCAA rule.] The decisions faced include the debate of playing in CHL Major Junior Hockey or going to college. There's a great article that discusses the differences here.
  2. If a drafted player attends college, the NHL team owns their rights until August 15th following their senior year. Thus, depending upon the skill of the player and the team's needs, after each college season there is a discussion about the player joining the NHL team or returning for another year of college.
  3. As a result, there are literally hundreds of NHL drafted players competing in NCAA hockey--with many teams having a significant percentage of their roster already drafted. Here's a full list of NHL draft picks who played college hockey during the 2013-14 season.
Why am I writing this now, during the dog days of August? Because two events at Boston College highlighted this "twilight zone" recently. First, Kevin Hayes navigated this process masterfully. A first round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2010 entry draft, Kevin followed his older brother Jimmy and decided to embark on a college career. 

While his brother Jimmy, a second round pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs, left college after his junior year (and a national championship), despite interest from the Blackhawks, Kevin passed on signing an NHL deal at the end of each college season. After playing four years at Boston College (and winning a championship himself), he became a free agent on August 15th--free to shop himself to the highest bidder.

Why was this masterful? 1) Kevin earned a college degree; 2) he won two national championships and improved himself by competing at the highest level (finishing third in the Hobey Baker Award this past season); and 3) has the luxury his contemporaries do not--he's an NHL free agent, in demand, at the age of 22.

This other side of the question is the saga of Sonny Milano. Milano, who committed to Boston College, was the 16th selection in the 2014 NHL draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The plan was to play at Boston College for a few years, honing his skills while the Blue Jackets still owned his rights. He dominated in international competition all summer, posted a video that went viral on YouTube highlighting his stick skills, and announced last week that he would forgo college and head straight to the Ontario Hockey League to begin his pro career.





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