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It says something about the many problems within the business of Canadian hockey that this country’s most successful Junior A league, which graduates more players to U.S. college scholarships than all other Canadian leagues combined, is no longer part of Hockey Canada.

I wrote earlier this week that changing the culture of Canadian hockey means changing the business model. That’s what the British Columbia Hockey League is doing. Quite successfully.

The league was always an anomaly within the Hockey Canada ecosystem. It now looks more like an alternative.

“We’re a recruiting league,” BCHL chairman and Penticton Vees owner Graham Fraser told me on Wednesday. “We don’t have a draft. In our league, you do have a choice.”

The BCHL’s focus is on developing players who can win scholarships to NCAA Division 1 colleges in the United States. In 2022-2023, its 17 teams had a remarkable 411 alumni playing NCAA D1 hockey. And at last year’s National Hockey League draft, nine BCHL players were selected, including two in the first round.

The Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League – one of three leagues in top-tier major-junior – had zero first-round draft choices in 2023.

The NHL would like us to believe hockey culture is just fine

As I wrote last week, until the 1980s, nearly every player in the NHL came from the major-junior Canadian Hockey League. Europe and the U.S. produced very little of what the NHL wanted. Hockey Canada’s structure is still anchored in that vanished reality. As part of that, it assumes that leagues like the BCHL are just feeders for the CHL.

CHL teams choose kids in a draft; kids and parents don’t choose teams. And while CHL teams can sell those players to a franchise two provinces away, players don’t have the same right of movement.

Under Hockey Canada’s rules, parents and kids from outside B.C. were not allowed to choose a BCHL team. As the BCHL argued in a white paper published in 2022, a kid from Ontario who wanted to train with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet had that option, but a kid from outside B.C. who wanted to train with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL did not. Meanwhile, just down the road in Kelowna, the major-junior Rockets have been given the right to draft players from across Western Canada.

Mr. Fraser calls the model “a lot of protectionism.” That’s putting it politely.

Players and parents looking for choice are finding it in American junior leagues such as the USHL, which has become a growing path to both U.S. college and professional hockey. An example is Toronto-native Adam Fantilli, the third pick in last year’s NHL draft. He chose the Chicago Steel of the USHL at age 15, the University of Michigan at 17 and is today a star with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now that the BCHL is out of Hockey Canada, it’s out from under Hockey Canada’s rules, including assumptions about where and how the game should be played. It leaves the BCHL free to focus on being a feeder to U.S. colleges.

“The NCAA doesn’t fight. The NCAA is speed and skill,” says Mr. Fraser. “And the NHL is that game now.” The BCHL is designed so graduates “land at college ready to play that kind of hockey.”

After the BCHL left Hockey Canada, it was basically blacklisted. Players who choose the BCHL can’t easily return to the BC Hockey system. Ditto for officials who referee a BCHL game. And BCHL players are no longer eligible for national teams such as those in the World Juniors tournament.

Falling out of the world juniors should focus minds in the hockey establishment

So far, it seems to have made the BCHL stronger. Five of the best teams from the Alberta Junior Hockey League recently jumped ship to the BCHL. Among them are the Brooks Bandits, last year’s Centennial Cup winners as Canada’s top Jr. A team.

BCHL teams are now at liberty to recruit players from across Canada and the U.S. The league has a self-imposed limit of at least five B.C.-born players and no more than two Europeans per team, but beyond that, teams are in a position to offer young Canadians who don’t want to play major-junior an alternative to a U.S. development league.

Is the BCHL perfect? No. It’s still a business. Players aren’t drafted, but they can be traded. And it is shocking that the fastest growing road at the top level of our national game involves sending Canadians to U.S. colleges. Then again, that’s how things work in women’s hockey. Nearly every top-tier Canadian woman player did finishing school in the NCAA.

The BCHL says its evolution means it’s no longer a Jr. A league. It’s something else, something new. Good. The more alternatives there are to Hockey Canada’s sclerosis, the better it is for players, parents and the game. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the Western Hockey League team based in Kelowna. They are the Rockets. This version has been updated.

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