The State of CIS, Part IV: The decision between CIS and pro

By Guy Flaming

Every year there are major junior players entering their final year of eligibility as 20-year-olds knowing that soon they’ll have to make a career-altering choice.

If an NHL team had previously drafted the player, the organization might end up making that decision for him. Because NHL teams must either sign or release a major junior draft pick within two years of drafting him, the 20-year-old will either find himself with a new three-year entry level contract or the complete opposite, unrestricted free agency and a search for a new team and job. Obviously the NHL teams keep those drafted players that excel during their CHL careers but the ones who struggle are often cast aside before their development turns the corner.

Drafted Europeans or NCAA players do not face the same issues because NHL teams can keep the rights to players overseas for many more years, and are not required to sign a collegian until after graduation. The obvious difference is that average or slow developing Europeans or NCAA players retain their NHL prospect status far longer than they would if they were a major junior player. If a late blooming OHL winger breaks out at 21 years of age, he’s likely doing so in the ECHL or CIS (Canadian Inter-University Sport) whereas the same player in NCAA would still be property of a NHL club.

There are also those major junior players who were passed over during their draft years for an array of possible reasons, usually size, who then must shop around for the best place to continue their hockey careers once they reach the magic age of 20.

Inevitably, the 20-year-old free agent will have to decide between four main choices: to retire from the game completely, to sign with a European club in one of the various leagues, sign a minor pro deal somewhere in North America or to continue playing hockey while earning a degree at a CIS school.

The Player

A perfect example of such a player is Ty Morris of the Red Deer Rebels. Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the fourth round in 2003, Morris entered the past WHL season knowing it would be his last. Beginning the year as a member of the Vancouver Giants, Morris knew that his very future in the game depended on him having a statistically successful year.

“It was really important for me,” Morris told Hockey’s Future in March. “I knew as a 20-year-old I would need to put up some numbers and play the best hockey I could and I thought I did that pretty well this year.”

Not only did he have to play well, but in order to find a job for next year, Morris felt he’d practically have to lead his team in scoring. After an early season trade to Red Deer, he accomplished that goal by totaling 72 points on the year. Why so important when he’s already been drafted? The Canucks were forced to make a decision on Morris last summer and decided not to sign the winger to an entry-level deal.

“I think they were expecting me to go the college route because when they first drafted me I was planning on going to Denver University,” explained Morris who spent two years in the AJHL with the St. Albert Saints. “I think they wanted me in the long-term developmental mode rather than a WHL way.”

So with the season and playoffs ended for Red Deer, Morris is weighing his options and CIS is definitely in the running.

“We’re going to wait and see if this NHL thing (CBA) gets figured out, but if not we’re going to wait and explore my options and see what happens,” said the Millet, Alberta native. “Hopefully a pro team steps up and shows some interest in me but if not, you have to look at the school (route).”

Morris says that NHL teams have contacted his agent, but that so far the interest is more in the tire-kicking department. One source indicated to HF that the Edmonton Oilers might extend a camp invitation to the local product whose uncle is working for the organization as a therapist.

“There have been a couple teams interested but like I said, we don’t know what to do yet with the lockout and stuff so the only pro leagues you can look at are Europe and the ECHL,” he said.

Morris, who had originally planned on joining the Denver Pioneers before opting for the WHL, has always considered the scholastic route a good choice because of the educational fallback it provides. That’s why a CIS program makes perfect sense for him now.

“It’s a very realistic scenario; you never know what’s going to happen with the NHL so you have to pay attention to the schools and what you need to do to get into the school,” Morris said. “I’m always going to be prepared for that and the great education program the WHL puts up for you is definitely an option you have to look at and consider.”

The WHL program Morris eluded too is basically that a veteran of that league will receive complete scholarship funds to cover the cost at any post secondary school of his choice for every year he played. Morris played two years in the WHL and is therefore eligible to receive two years worth of education paid for by the league. Morris has lived in the greater Edmonton area his entire life and so the natural choices for him were the two closest to home.

“I’ve looked into the University of Alberta and Calgary; I’ve always been a fan of the UofA having grown up there so it’s always been my first choice,” said the winger who turned 21 this past February. “I’d rather play pro hockey, but if that opportunity doesn’t arise then hopefully I can find a place in CIS.”

A player in Morris’ shoes must look at all the possible outcomes of the choice they make and that’s something he has done with input from his agent and on the advice of other players.

“Your options are always open to go pro, pro’s not going anywhere, so it’s a smart idea to consider school and make sure that you make the right decision before you just jump straight to pro,” said Morris. “If you play pro first you can go back to CIS but you lose your scholarship so that’s something you have to consider right off the bat.”

On the pro side of the options, a player has to consider location as well as depth of various organizations in order to make a sensible decision.

“You have to look where you’re going to play, what your future is going to look like and if you feel like you’ll have a future in the game with the team you sign with,” agreed Morris. “But sometimes you have to look at school and take that first because it’s important to have that for life after hockey.”

“Honestly right now I’m looking to go the pro way but I have to look and really consider the school way too.”

Does the typical overage WHL player consider CIS hockey as the end to their career or a viable developmental league?

“I know a lot of people who are in CIS trying to pursue hockey careers but I also know some that are there mainly for their schooling,” said Morris. “That’s up to the person whether you’re going to take the hockey seriously enough to try and have a future in it or if you’re just seeing that as your end road but definitely you can have a future from there.”

Asked whether or not his discussions with his agent about CIS have included a list of pros and cons, Morris was quick to point out that there was no downside to a school program.

“They’re all positives, there’s nothing negative about CIS. You just have to make sure that you’re going to make the right decision,” he said finally. “Obviously you don’t want to give up your schooling for nothing so when you decide, you have to be wise and use your head and not your heart. It’s a decision that you have to look ahead to and obviously my agent has brought it to my attention.”

The Agents

Pete Semonick, a NHLPA certified player agent since 1996 with the firm Lovatt Olsen, says that he recognizes the value of CIS for many players and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a viable option to a client facing the same decision as Morris.

“I regularly advise young guys now that CIS is just as viable an alternative as NCAA,” Semonick told Hockey’s Future recently, describing the traditional scholastic path to pro hockey. “You can do it the classic way which is to hope for a NCAA scholarship and then maybe play pro after that, or do it the other way and play major junior and gain the scholarship money and play in the CIS. Either way, you get a shot at it because if you play junior and play CIS after that, you get your education paid for and you’ve had three or four years of exposure in junior to the pro scouts.”

“CIS isn’t really the end of the road because you’ve got all kinds of guys that come out and at least start pro careers in the minors,” added Semonick. “There’s not many that go directly to a NHL or AHL team but it’s very normal for a CIS player to come out and play in the ECHL and move up.”

American-based player agent Peter Baptista from Nexstar Sports concurs with that statement enough to have recently broadened their growing client base to include CIS players.

“We do take a look at CIS players, especially this year,” confirmed Baptista. “Last year we had five or six rookie free agents that ended up signing in the ECHL and in speaking with all of these ECHL coaches I would estimate 40-50 percent of them questioned me about CIS; if I had any Canadian University players, did I know anybody that’s decent from CIS? We’ve started to add some people to our scouting network who will spend considerable time scouring the CIS for pro talent, it’s certainly there.”

As demand for CIS talent rises from the various minor pro leagues in North America, the league has become somewhat of a secret fishing hole for some clubs.

“Agents who have had nothing to do with CIS hockey are starting to say that we need to start looking at those players up in the Canadian University leagues because everybody is now looking at CIS players as somewhat of the sleeper pick,” Baptista insisted. “Based on what I’ve learned, CIS is now being looked at as the sleeper league that Division III was once considered.”

“An ECHL team used to try and pluck a player out of DIII NCAA, but the trend is starting to shift a little bit to CIS players for a multitude of reasons,” he continued. “The talent level is higher, they’re often more mature after going through the grueling major junior leagues and, more often than not, a physically better player. In the past few weeks I have received numerous calls from ECHL coaches as NCAA seasons wound down asking about NCAA players and then they follow that up immediately with ‘do you have any CIS guys?’ Last year they were asking if I had any DIII players and I’m not asked that at all this year.”

Semonick believes that it only makes sense for a WHL player to enlist at a CIS school once their major junior eligibility has expired if they find themselves as a free agent.

“Finish your WHL and then go to school, get your degree and then give pro hockey a shot because it’s unlikely they’d be better off as a 23-year-old,” said the Edmonton-based agent. “(CIS) is a great training ground and coming out as a pro at 22 or 24 is not a big deal, in fact you’re more mature and you can handle things better at that point.”

However, if a junior player does opt to follow the education path through a Canadian university, the relationship with his agent can quickly evaporate and then the player is on his own.

“What happens sometimes is when a player goes to CIS, if it was a major agency that recruited him, they often feel that it is not in their best interest to maintain the relationship with the player,” explained Baptista. “The odds of a player in that situation being able to call a big firm to get representation would be very difficult.”

“The majority of junior players who go to CIS have agents but a lot of times that relationship breaks down just based on the fact that the agent business is a business,” he further explained. “Too often, agents will write a player off when they feel they have misjudged his pro potential and leave the player high and dry which in today’s world of hockey being a big business, could seriously impair a player’s career potential to advance after completing University.”

“The player’s best chance at a pro career after University would be with an agent who stands by him whether he is playing major junior or University hockey. By no means is a player’s professional career over just because he is a Canadian University player.”

Are there some agents who would steer their clients away from CIS simply because it would affect their income? Semonick says that possibility might exist but certainly not with him.

“If a young man is coming out of the WHL as a free agent, I think since he’s got scholarship money built up, go do it and get the education because after that you’re going to be in the same place anyway,” he said. “I don’t look at it as ‘how soon can I put money in my pocket’, for me it’s an ongoing thing. As a lawyer I have to advise clients when they don’t need me, that doesn’t make me any money but it’s the right advice for the client. That’s the same way I look at hockey players, I have to give them the right advice for their circumstances.”

Unlike some agents at major firms, Semonick says he would maintain the business relationship with any of his junior players if they headed to CIS.

“Absolutely; relationships don’t die just because they don’t put money in your pocket.”

Testimony

Perhaps the best people to ask what the 20-year-old free agent should do are players who have been in that position before. HF asked several University of Alberta Golden Bears to comment on the subject and relate a bit of their experience since making the decision to turn to CIS hockey before seeking a professional contract.

Ben Kilgour just capped off his rookie season with the Golden Bears and was a major factor in their successful quest to capture the national championship in March. The Leduc, Alberta product had a terrific junior career with the Tri-City Americans of the WHL where he had three consecutive over 60-point seasons including a career-high 82 points in 2001-02. Kilgour, who initially accepted a pro contract with the Louisiana IceGators of the ECHL, was badly injured during the 2003-04 schedule and returned home to Edmonton after speaking with UofA head coach Rob Daum.

“Things were going really well, I was getting about a point a game, and then I got hurt and it wasn’t worth it anymore so I came back to go to school,” Kilgour said. “I had some good seasons in Tri-City but my body has had problems holding up; I’m not a really big guy and I play bigger than I probably should. If my body holds up then hopefully I’ll get a shot at the AHL, but right now I’m trying to get a degree to pay the bills every month and ultimately I want to win a championship.”

Harlan Anderson played four successful seasons with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Although never drafted, Anderson received plenty of pro offers that he declined in favor of CIS.

“I think if you’re just going to the ECHL without an AHL or NHL contract you might get lost down there so I thought I could come to the CIS, get more mature, use my scholarship and it’s turned out great so far,” said the blueliner who is an example of a player who lost his agent. “I used to have an agent but when I came to school…I don’t really talk to him anymore.”

After the University Cup held at Clare Drake and Rexall Place at the end of March, both Kilgour and Anderson were singled out by Scott Zerr in The Edmonton Sun as apparently catching the eye of the Oilers and both players may receive invites to their next training camp.

Former member of the Northern Michigan in the NCAA, Brent Robertson left the US college system to come to Alberta and play for Daum and the Bears. Robertson says that everybody asks him the differences between CIS and NCAA but according to the forward, the biggest disparities are found off the ice and away from the rink.

“I get asked that question a lot,” said Robertson. “Definitely the money and one of the other differences from NCAA; school here is a lot more challenging. It’s just more competitive here with the students because everything is graded on the curve.”

“The style of play is a little more controlled down there, at least with the team I was on,” added Robertson. “On the forecheck we would either do a strong set lock or left wing lock the whole game so if you were the left winger, like I was, you’re locking all game. I don’t know if it’s the league or just the way Rob Daum coaches but we have a lot more freedom here.”

The Florida Panthers drafted Chris Ovington in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft but elected not to sign the gangly 6’4 190lb defenseman in the two-year time frame making him a free agent. After attending a couple of Florida training camps Ovington returned to the WHL and ended his major junior career with the Spokane Chiefs.

“When I was done, my 20-year-old year I was looking at my options and this is the best school for hockey to go to,” said Ovington. “There are some great teams out east too but I just wanted to stay west and this was the best place; Alberta wanted me and it was a great opportunity because they were losing three defensemen the year I came.”

Perhaps the classic example of the typical CIS player comes in the form of 5’7 180 lbs Benny Thomson who was a standout with the Medicine Hat Tigers amidst names like Joffrey Lupul, Jay Bouwmeester, Chris St. Jacques, Vern Fiddler, Stefan Meyer and Clarke MacArthur. Not only did he play alongside these players but he often outscored many of them while stringing together seasons of 63, 73, 78 and 75 points including three over 30-goal campaigns and scoring 40 in his final year.

Even with such stats to his credit, because of his size he was passed over by every NHL team and minor pro team but when asked, amazingly says he holds no ill feelings to the process at all.

“You play the cards you’re given; I was 5’7 for a reason and I’m not going to complain about it, I’m just going to make the best of the situation,” said Thomson. “I think it would be easy to have sour grapes but I think I can be proud because I know a few of the guys are playing really well in the NHL and going on to bigger and better things and I can take some satisfaction in knowing that I had a hand in helping them get to where they are. There’s no such thing as sour grapes when I’m looking at players when I compare my stats to them or what not, I just control the things that I can and try to make the players around me better.”

2004-05 was Thomson’s first with the Bears as well and all he did was rack up 43 points in 36 games and also scored the two biggest markers of the season. Thomson scored the tying goal with just 23 seconds remaining in the championship game and then potted the winner in overtime giving Alberta their record 11th national title. New York Rangers assistant coach Perry Pearn was in attendance for the final game and described the diminutive Bears’ effort by saying “that was a NHL move that Benny Thompson made to score the tying goal.”

While all of these players were passed over during their days in the WHL, all of them could still have long-lasting professional careers thanks to the development properties on CIS hockey.

“There are lots of options out there after CIS,” offered Anderson. “When you’re 25 and you have all this experience people are going to be looking at you.”

“I would consider myself a late bloomer, especially physically,” admitted Ovington. “I never was the biggest or strongest although I always had the height so that was always my thing and weight has always been a struggle for me.

Ovington feels that once his CIS days are done, he’d like to explore option in Europe as opposed to the ECHL.

“I’d much rather try overseas; just from what I’ve heard from guys and just to go see what the culture is like and stuff, do some traveling while I’m young,” said the 24-year-old. “It would be a good opportunity, it’s good hockey and you can make some money over there so why not?”

Ovington isn’t the only Bear considering Europe ahead of a lower minor league in North American should an AHL offer not come their way.

“That a few years away now but I’d like to maybe go to Europe, I don’t know if I would go play in the ECHL,” said Kilgour who still has four years of CIS eligibility ahead of him. “I would like to go the Europe for the experience; if I can go there and play hockey and have a place to stay for six months then that’s an opportunity that I’ll never have again. I have a few connections there, some guys I know are there and they like it a lot so I don’t know if I’ll go play for $400 a week in the (ECHL). The money in Europe is better, probably not much, but you get to go to Europe and live in a foreign country for a year and if you have a degree then it’s not a waste of time.”

The oldest player on the Alberta roster this past year was 28-year-old Perry Johnson who had already played semi-professionally in Europe as well as internationally for Canada before his CIS days. According to the veteran, there are many players throughout the Canadian University circuit who would excel at the pro level in North America.

“I think there are quite a few guys that could play in the AHL and even more that could play in the ECHL that’s for sure,” said the former Regina Pat who played with Jeff Friesen, Brad Stuart and Josh Holden.

All in all, there didn’t appear to be anyone in the Alberta dressing room who was second-guessing their decision to postpone their professional aspirations for a few years while they earned a degree. For most of them, they do still plan on turning pro once they’ve played out their eligibility and they recognize that entering the ECHL as a 21-year-old often makes less sense than developing against equally talented competition in the University environment.

The only downside that can be found is that once a player chooses CIS, they are labeled with the unjustifiable stigma of being a CHL failure when in reality, many of these players simply needed an extra couple of years or another opportunity to show their skills at a higher level to prove their worth. Unfortunately it has taken a decade or more for CIS doubters to finally begin to recognize the worth of the league. Perhaps the time has come to make some changes to the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement to further include CIS as a viable option for player development by creating a loophole that would allow NHL teams to retain the rights to their drafted players who commit to CIS schools once their CHL careers are over.

Such an argument will be the subject of the next chapter in the Hockey’s Future five-part examination of CIS hockey.

Part I of the series offered a brief overview of CIS, its contributions to professional hockey and weighed the importance of NHL teams scouting the league. Part 2 focused on the recent CBC TV series Making the Cut and its possible role in giving the CIS player far greater exposure than ever before and the ramifications of the concept production. Part 3 drew comparisons between CIS and its American counterpart, the NCAA, both on and off the ice from a present and historical perspective.

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