A K.O. Blow

Okposo's mid-season departure raises concerns around college hockey

Dec. 20, 2007

By Elliot Olshansky




Elliot is CSTV.com's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on CSTV.com.
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Kyle Okposo won't play his first professional hockey game for the New York Islanders organization until next month, when he returns from the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic, but the sophomore's mid-season departure from the University of Minnesota has already put college hockey on the defensive.


"I can't remember another player that's left in the middle of the season to sign with a National Hockey League Team," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.




Okposo is hardly the first college hockey player to leave a team in mid-season.  However, in those cases, the destination is generally the major junior ranks, and the last such high-profile departure - not counting former Boston College defenseman Brett Motherwell, who had been indefinitely suspended at the time of his signing - was former Denver defenseman T.J. Fast, who left in January for the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League. In that situation, Denver coach George Gwozdecky was very complimentary of the Los Angeles Kings, who hold Fast's draft rights, and there was no suggestion that the Kings had meddled in any way.


By contrast, in a statement Wednesday, Minnesota coach Don Lucia said, "It is unfortunate that the Islanders put [Okposo] in a very difficult position." While the nature of the discussions between Okposo and the Islanders is unknown at this time - and the relationship between Okposo and Lucia has already been the subject of rumor and innuendo - the implicit allegations of mid-season meddling by an NHL team are certainly a cause for concern.


While Okposo is the first player Lucia's lost to the pros in this kind of situation, this isn't the first time that he's had to contend with an NHL team trying to convince a player to leave school during the season. When former Gopher forward Kris Chucko signed with the Calgary Flames following the 2005-06 season, Lucia spoke of the Flames as an organization that "doesn't have a lot of respect for college hockey," and spoke of that team's efforts during the season to convince Chucko to leave school. 


That same season, former Michigan defenseman Jack Johnson was the object of similar overtures by the Carolina Hurricanes, before, during and after his freshman season with the Wolverines. While Johnson rebuffed those offers, and Carolina eventually dealt Johnson's draft rights to Los Angeles in frustration, it was well known after that summer, that NHL teams were willing to make offers to college-players in mid-season.


Now, a contract offer has been accepted in mid-season, and while the most tantalizing question is what exactly happened between Okposo, the Islanders and the Golden Gophers, the more important question is what this means for college hockey as a whole.


One thing that can be said with some certainty is that this is not a problem that is specific to the Islanders. "I happen to know [Islanders general manager] Garth Snow," said Tim Whitehead, head coach at Snow's alma mater, the University of Maine. "He's a great man. I think this must have been a very unique situation. Garth was fabulous with us last year with [the pursuit of undrafted free agent] Teddy Purcell, so I think this is a very unique case. I think every case is unique, each player's situation."


While every player's situation is unique, one thing that ties every early signing together - be it before, during or after the college season - is the collective bargaining agreement formed between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association that ended the 2004-05 NHL lockout.


"As college coaches," Whitehead said, "we've seen the writing on the wall, ever since the new collective bargaining agreement, that NHL teams are going to pursue our players more aggressively, and this is more evidence of that."


"We're finding more and more disadvantages with the new collective bargaining agreement," Jackson said, "to the point where it's becoming an unfortunate situation.


"The National Hockey League has changed a lot with the new collective bargaining agreement. It doesn't take as much risk financially or from a scouting perspective to sign college kids. It used to cost a lot of money to sign a kid before he graduated, and that would preclude them from signing them early, but that time has changed."


One change likely requires another in the eyes of the coaches. Okposo's departure leaves the Gophers to deal with his absence on the ice - and most likely, distractions off of it - and these are things that no college hockey coach wants his team to have to contend with.


"We're going to need to look for some kind of protection from the National Hockey League to be able to deal with this issue," Jackson said, "because it's only going to get worse. Once precedents are set, something like this, it's not the last time it happens."


To that end, there is hope that some sort of arrangement between the NHL and college hockey can negate the precedent, and this is something that the conference commissioners had already been working on before the thought of Okposo departing midseason had even formed.


"As college coaches," Whitehead said, "one of the things that we'd like to do - and I know the conference commissioners are working on this - is we'd like to establish some protocol between NHL teams and college hockey teams, where there's some accepted protocol that needs to be followed, and hopefully, we can get that established for next season. It might help some of the communications, and in some of these scenarios, it might be helpful."


Michigan head coach Red Berenson, however, is skeptical that such an agreement can be reached.


"You'd like to have some unwritten rules," Berenson said, "but I don't think the general managers could agree between each other on something like that, but it would be nice if they would."


Whether the conference commissioners will be able to make headway in their dealings with the NHL remains to be seen. However, for the coaches, Okposo's signing is another indicator of a situation in college hockey that needs to be addressed somehow.


"We boast about how well we're doing in developing players for the National Hockey League," Jackson said, "but the problem is that it looks like it's becoming more of a burden than it is a benefit. Everybody's trying to build a championship program, and it's almost impossible to do that when you're not sure from one day to the next who's going to be there."


In the meantime, the coaches will have to go on working with the players they have, Lucia included, albeit with a certain degree of caution.


"We're trying to do the best we can for our kids and our team. Hopefully, the last thing we have to worry about is players leaving in the middle of the year."


"It's just another reminder that you've got to be keeping your ear open for developments with your players," Whitehead said of Okposo's signing.


"You hope to have a good honest relationship with the team," Jackson said. "You need to have that. It works both ways. We're trying to develop players for them, and hopefully, they're encouraging kids to stay in school. That's what you hope happens."


"We're trying to do the best we can for our kids and our team," Berenson said. "Hopefully, the last thing we have to worry about is players leaving in the middle of the year."


That doesn't seem to have happened in the case of Okposo and the Islanders, but what exactly did happen is uncertain at this time.


"The only people that have the answers to that are the Islanders and Kyle Okposo," Whitehead said. "They're the only ones who know how this transpired."


Right now, however, one thing is certain.


"It's too bad the business of hockey emerges and raises its ugly head in the middle of the season for a college player," Berenson said.