The NCAA and European Hockey

Where does the NCAA fit in with European hockey?

For the second time in as many years, four NCAA Division 1 teams will arrive in Belfast, Northern Ireland to compete in the Friendship Four tournament this weekend. Just a few days ago, it was revealed that junior players from the Swedish club Frölunda were suspended or removed from the club. The players refused to play with the club’s men’s team that competes in the Swedish Hockey League – Sweden’s top professional league. The reason the players refused to play: they wanted to keep their NCAA eligibility.

Just some clarity for those that don’t know that players cannot play NCAA hockey once they have competed in a professional league. Typically, one game (among many other decisions) is a violation and that player must sit out one season of NCAA hockey. The reason for this partially relates to the NCAA vs Canadian Major Junior argument and the fact that the NCAA wishes to keep it’s players as amateurs – or ‘student-athletes.’ However, some players have slipped through the NCAA Clearinghouse; see Brayden Gelsinger of Lake Superior State University who played in the Western Hockey League.

But some get caught like the curious case of Swedish forward Leon Bristedt that is currently with the University of Minnesota. Bristedt had to sit out two games of his freshmen season as the NCAA ruled him ineligible. The reason was that during his junior-U20 season with his Swedish club, Linköping, a player with a professional contract was sent down from the men’s team to play a couple of games. So Bristedt had to sit out two games for the two games that the player played with him.

What was Bristedt to do? Refuse to play in those games to keep his eligibility? It wasn’t his choice that the player was sent down. It’s part of the club’s development model. And this isn’t unique to Sweden – this happens all over Europe. European clubs operate teams at tiered age levels – usually from first-to-skate all the way to a professional team. The clubs invest money and time to develop the players so that one day that can join the top club and help them win championships and prestige. There is no American Hockey League or ECHL to pull up players in case of injuries or illnesses to the top club. The farm team is usually the club’s U20 or even U18 team.

Frustrated with this current situation and others, the SHL sporting director is now reportedly heading to the USA to meet with NCAA officials (in Swedish) to explain the Swedish Hockey League development model and how youth contracts work. But will that be enough?

During the 2014-15 season, 2% of players at the NCAA Division 1 level were non-North American. There is no denying college hockey’s popularity is growing as more players are finding their way to the NHL after being student-athletes on NCAA campuses. But will the NCAA continue to punish European players or scare NCAA coaches away from recruiting European players at the prospect of having to fight to get them through the NCAA Clearinghouse?

With the “Frölunda four” refusing or delaying the choice to play in the SHL, it’s apparent that players want to keep the NCAA option open. And this weekend, four NCAA teams – Vermont, Massachusetts, St.Lawrence, and Quinnipiac – travel across the Atlantic to compete in Belfast. Now, Northern Ireland isn’t exactly a ripe market of NHL or even college hockey recruits, but the NCAA hockey brand is now being featured outside of North America during the regular season (note: NCAA teams sometimes play pre-season games around Europe for a cultural experience).

Hopefully, the meeting with the SHL sporting director and NCAA creates some awareness around European hockey and it’s very different development model compared to North America. Because, after all, it’s about the development of players.