Comrie/Van Ryn Rule Haunting the CHL

By Jeff Bromley
The continual posturing and infighting that goes on between the NHL and the player’s union, the NHLPA, has now spilled over and is directly affecting the CHL and the three leagues under its umbrella; the WHL, OHL and QMJHL. A press release was issued recently by the National Hockey League Player’s Association that the union had filed suit in court to stop the Ontario Hockey League from restricting overage players from playing in that league unless they had signed a USA Hockey or a Canadian Hockey Association playing card. In essence, the rule restricts players making the jump from the NCAA to the CHL because American College players don’t sign USA Hockey playing cards, as only players in American junior leagues are required to do so.

The rule put in place by the OHL and the subsequent litigation filed by the NHLPA is the recent fallout over a decision last year by former NHL arbitrator Lawrence Holden who ruled that Michigan Wolverine rearguard Mike Van Ryn would be eligible for free agency if the New Jersey Devils who drafted him and held his rights didn’t sign him by the NHL Draft deadline, two years past the day they were drafted, as is the rule for all drafted junior players. Van Ryn left college to join the Sarnia Sting of the OHL as a twenty-yr-old and argued that now that he was a junior hockey player, the signing deadline/free agency rules should also apply to him. The NHL arbitrator agreed with Van Ryn and when the New Jersey Devils didn’t sign him, he signed with the St. Louis Blues as an unrestricted free agent last summer. Similarly, Mike Comrie also made the move from Michigan to the Kootenay ICE of the WHL at the beginning of this season but avoided becoming an unrestricted free agent by signing with the Edmonton Oilers over Christmas.

The suit filed by the NHLPA against the OHL had to be expected. High profile NCAA players who had been drafted found a loophole you could drive a Mack truck through in the NHL/NHLPA Collective Agreement and argued that they should be subject to the same rules and regulations should they decide to leave school and play CHL junior hockey. The NHL looked to close that loophole by having the OHL establish a rule that is not only unfair, it’s discrimination. Any court in the land will tell you that. Just because an athlete chooses to go the route of American college and then jumps to Major Junior, for whatever reason, doesn’t mean that the league can arbitrarily decide that those players are no longer eligible.

The OHL, WHL and QMJHL have the dubious position of being caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They are developmental leagues for the NHL and for the most part, do as the NHL wishes. On the other hand CHL/OHL President David Branch has to realize that the league is vulnerable from a litigation standpoint as the NHLPA suit will most likely dictate. So what does Branch do? He has to placate the NHL’s wishes for obvious reasons but losing the case in court could prove just as costly, if not more. The NHL is clearly shucking its responsibility onto the CHL by not dealing with the loophole properly. Where this issue should be dealt with is at the bargaining table in 2004 when the collective agreement expires, not in the courts with a defacto defendant. Let’s hope that the NHL is as generous with its checkbook as it is with dishing off its problems because if the OHL goes to court on this one, they’ll lose. And it could get costly.