Kukla's Korner

Tasca's Take

The Road Not Taken

It’s always fun for hockey fans to keep track of a hot prospect.  It’s even more enjoyable when the prospect is being compared to Sidney Crosby.

Almost everyone will agree it’s unfair to compare a 16-year-old teenager to an established NHL superstar.  But it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Nathan MacKinnon is from the same hometown as Crosby (Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia), played at the same Minnesota prep school (Shattuck St. Mary’s), and is projected to be the number one pick in the 2013 NHL draft, as Crosby was in ‘05. 

Now playing junior hockey for the Halifax Mooseheads, MacKinnon is a tremendous talent.  Scouts rave about how quickly he reaches top speed.  At 5-foot-11, 179 pounds, MacKinnon isn’t afraid to go into the corners and play in the trenches, and he’s only going to get bigger.

I had the pleasure of watching MacKinnon earlier this year during a trip to the Canadian maritimes.  He’s got all the makings of a skilled power forward.  I’m not one for comparisons, but the numbers speak for themselves.  MacKinnon has scored 27 points in his first 17 games as a Moosehead.  While not quite Crosby-esque, it’s still an impressive total for a youngster who just turned 16.   

Even more important than his statistics, Nathan MacKinnon seems like a very nice young man.  Having grown up a Mooseheads fan, MacKinnon must be thrilled to be able to play for the junior team he watched as a boy.  Considering all the pressure he’s under, I’d like nothing more than to see him live up to his lofty expectations.  But with that said, I do have a bit of a bone to pick with the young phenom. 

MacKinnon had several options this past summer.  Like all teenage Canadian studs, he was clearly most interested in playing major junior hockey.  Eligible for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft in June, MacKinnon was the consensus number one pick.  Once drafted, he would’ve had the choice of playing in the Q or skating for a USHL team until he became eligible to play NCAA college hockey. 

The Baie Comeau Drakkar had the first pick in this year’s QMJHL draft.  For those of you who don’t know, Baie Comeau is a remote northern outpost on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.  A major forestry center for the pulp and paper industry, Baie Comeau is about 260 miles north of Quebec City.  It’s a tiny community, and there’s not much to do in town besides play hockey (and drink). 

The Drakkar have fallen on very hard times as of late.  After a failed run for the league title in 07-08, the team has bottomed out, having not made the playoffs for the past two seasons.  Attendance has declined as a result, fueling speculation that the club is on the verge of relocation. 

Prior to the June draft, Baie Comeau general manager Steve Ahern tried to re-energize his fan base by announcing his intention to draft Nathan MacKinnon, the best professional prospect to come out of Atlantic Canada in years.  Knowing the youngster could be the cornerstone of a major junior team, Ahern promised to build a stable nucleus around MacKinnon over the next two years in hopes of bringing a championship to the north shore.

Unfortunately, Ahern’s master plan never materialized.  MacKinnon refused to report to Baie Comeau after being drafted, saying he was strongly considering staying in the United States to pursue an NCAA career.  In reality, MacKinnon had every intention of playing in the Q.  He just didn’t want to be stuck playing hockey in a small French city for two years.

MacKinnon would never say that on the record.  But a highly-regarded QMJHL coach told me earlier this year that MacKinnon basically pulled an Eric Lindros, holding out until the team that drafted him dealt his rights to another club.  Conveniently enough, that club just happened to be MacKinnon’s hometown team.

As reporter Patrick King notes, Baie Comeau was able to acquire some skilled players and a slew of draft picks in exchange for MacKinnon.  Consequently, the Drakkar is having a resurgent season, and local fans are starting to come back to the rink.  But the fact of the matter is that MacKinnon spurned the team that drafted him, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

As an American, I can appreciate how intimidating the prospect of playing junior hockey in an isolated French community must be for a teenage Anglophone.  Having said that, there’s absolutely no excuse for a young player and his family to strong-arm a junior team into trading him to a more desirable destination, be it a bigger market or simply closer to home.

This is something that happens quite often in junior hockey, and quite frankly, I don’t like it.  If a player is going to pursue a hockey career by competing in the CHL, that player should have to report to the team that drafts him.  Parents of teenage hockey players aren’t doing their children any favors by allowing them to dictate where they want to play.  It spoils them, and in a way, it teaches them to believe they deserve to play in a preferred city as if it’s a right of passage.

Needless to say, that’s not the kind of lesson a teenage boy should be taught.  Baie Comeau may not be the prettiest city in Canada, and the locals may speak a different language, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great place to play hockey.  On the contrary, the QMJHL broadcasters and players I’ve spoken to over the years always talk about how much they love visiting and playing in small northern Quebec cities, mostly because of how well they’re treated by members of those organizations.

And let’s not forget the fans.  Anyone who supports a small market NHL team can appreciate the many challenges facing his club, financial and otherwise.  Not surprisingly, the same challenges exist at the junior level.  Many teams in the Q are suffering from dwindling attendance, and several are playing in deficient buildings.  How are these teams supposed to improve and eventually compete for a league championship if star players are allowed to scoff at their existence?

What’s worse is that the QMJHL actually encourages this type of behavior.  League Commissioner Gilles Courteau would never admit it, but he clearly has no problem with players orchestrating their own trades.  It’s been happening for years, and it’s usually the small French cities that get left in the dust.  Courteau knows he’d rather have Nathan MacKinnon playing in his league than in the NCAA, so he’s going to bend over backwards to satisfy the young man’s desires. 

Some people would argue that perhaps MacKinnon wants to play in a high-profile market like Halifax because he’d get more exposure.  But believe me, if a player’s that good, the scouts will find him with very little difficulty.  It should be known that Sidney Crosby played in Rimouski, which is ironically just across the river from Baie Comeau. 

Others will say the Drakkar is a fledgling franchise with no future.  Funny enough, that’s what many folks were saying about the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to the lockout.  If I remember correctly, the Pens were supposed to be playing in Quebec City by now.  It’s amazing how a superstar can help transform an organization.

In the end, nothing’s going to change.  The QMJHL, more so than the other junior leagues, is clearly a league with defining lines separating the haves and the have-nots.  Top prospects routinely play the NCAA card, using it as leverage to get the best deal possible in a high profile city.  It’s absolute hogwash, and if the league had any standards whatsoever, such nonsense wouldn’t be permitted.

Being drafted to play hockey is privilege.  It’s also a form of flattery.  When a player is drafted, it shows the team thinks highly of that player as a person and an athlete.  The organization clearly believes the player has the ability to step into the lineup and make the hockey club better.  At the junior level, the young man is being given a chance to pursue his dream of becoming a professional hockey player.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

To me, a player who refuses to report to the team that drafted him is being selfish and self-centered.  Playing junior hockey isn’t a right, and neither is choosing where to play.  MacKinnon’s decision reeks of the silver-spoon syndrome, and it saddens me that his family didn’t encourage him to do the right thing and play for a team that considered him the savior of the franchise. 

As a teenager, I would’ve jumped at the chance to play junior hockey in Baie Comeau, or anywhere else for that matter.  The opportunity to meet new people, learn a new language, and become immersed in a different culture is a unique and memorable experience for any youngster.  Indeed, it would’ve been daunting at first, but it’s something I would’ve relished for the rest of my life. 

It’s a shame Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t feel the same way.

Filed in: | Tasca's Take | Permalink
  Tags: baie+comeau+drakkar, halifax+mooseheads, junior+hockey, nathan+mackinnon, qmjhl

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“Being drafted to play hockey is a privilege. It’s also a form of flattery.”

There’s more to it than that. It’s also a restraint of trade. A form of indentured servitude, if you will. It’s a case of a multimillion-dollar organization—and a monopoly, at that—dictating where a player may offer his services. And in the Western Hockey League, with its bantam-age draft, these players’ rights are locked up when they are as young as 14.

If basketball, football or baseball had a system like this, Americans would view it as a national disgrace. Hell, there’s already a lot about collegiate sports that is disgraceful, but at least the athlete still has a choice of where he goes to school.

In junior hockey, the player with designs on a pro career doesn’t hold much leverage. The options are Provincial (or Tier II) Junior A, but the best players at that level are using it as a stepping stone to a U.S. college or—here we go again—major junior. Then there’s the NCAA, which is supplying an increasing number of players to the NHL but is still not a major source. Essentially, for a Canadian kid, major junior is still the primary route to the pro ranks.

(And if you’re being compared to Crosby, it’s hard to deny that the NHL entry-level salary at 18 is more compelling than a college scholarship.)

The Drakkar are a small-market franchise. Last year, their average crowd (1,631) was third from the bottom in the Q. The league average was nearly twice as big, at 3,216, and at the top of the table you’ve got Quebec pulling in nearly 11,000, while Halifax is second at about 5,000. The arena in Baie-Comeau seats about 2,800 and can hold about 500 standees.

Obviously, when the Drakkar won the draft lottery, they envisioned that MacKinnon would fill those empty seats. That improves the team’s finances. But the players don’t participate in those revenues; indeed, they’re barely compensated. When Frank Mahovlich was paid $80 a week plus room and board to play Junior B at St. Michael’s College in Toronto (a team he chose to sign with after entertaining other offers, because in those days there was no junior draft), it was equivalent to $700 a week in today’s dollars. I would estimate that today’s major junior player gets a stipend between $100 and $200 a week.

So the star player is supposed to provide his labour for pretty close to free, enriching a team (or making a marginal franchise like Baie Comeau temporarily viable) and increasing the value of the Canadian Hockey League’s TV deals with Sportsnet and RĂ©seau des Sports and its merchandising revenues through the sale of jerseys. And he’s supposed to feel “flattered” and “privileged” to do it.

As Don Cherry might say, poppycock.

MacKinnon recognized that his presence in a QMJHL uniform added value to the league—not just whatever team he played for, but those he would play against, because star players affect road attendance, too. And he wasn’t going to participate in that financial bonanza, so if he had to agree to be part of the system, he might as well use what little leverage he had in order to gain some advantage for himself.

So what is the end result? The Drakkar got players who are helping them play better than they have done in years, and I see that they are averaging about 2,100 a game this year—a bump of 31 percent in attendance over last year. The QMJHL has MacKinnon, who is exciting crowds in all 17 arenas. The Halifax Mooseheads get a superstar to help sell a few seats in their arena—because as good as their attendance has been, there’s room for more at the Metro Centre. And MacKinnon plays at home. Everybody wins.

Joe, you may be American, but you seem hard-wired into the Canadian hockey ethos that dictates that players should shut the hell up, do as their told and let the system grind them into dust. That’s the same kind of thinking that allowed players to be cheated out of thousands of dollars in salaries in the days of the six-team NHL, and that subsequently led to the rise of R. Alan Eagleson, who did a more effective job of screwing players over than the Norrises, Smythes and Molsons could ever have done.

You say that playing junior hockey is not a right. I agree. But nowhere is it written that Baie Comeau has a right to have a hockey team at the major junior level. And if teams like the Drakkar are struggling, and the QMJHL and CHL truly believe it is important to be represented in those centres, then they should find a way to get that done that does not include profiting off the sale of players’ talents at pennies on the dollar.

Posted by Lloyd Davis on 11/04/11 at 01:20 PM ET

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.