Arguably, all competitive hockey leagues have rules governing “unfair advantages.” Take “over aged” players in major junior leagues for instance. Those three valuable spots on the roster must go to the best of best (well, the best or the rest that haven’t been promoted to the NHL or AHL by age 20) in order to help get some points in the win column, as well as take on the leadership roles with the up and coming rookie and sophomore players to help them develop their physical presence on the ice. Unfortunately, the rest of the fourth season graduates and former junior hockey stars are sent to rot away in the Canadian university circuit. While it’s easy to see how age and experience can be an unfair advantage in U-20 leagues (it’s really no different than a child being assigned a peewee team based solely upon a December versus a January month of birth), but what about the rules governing import players? Upcoming changes to the current order of things, as far as imports are concerned, is proving to be a hot button issue in the Asia League (ALH) right now.
Whenever the NHL isn’t a buzz with CBA violations or the Phoenix situation, “growing the game” seems to be their shared mandate with all righteous hockey fans. There are “ICE” (shudders) hockey leagues all over the world ranging from nameless house leagues to leagues that are giving the NHL a run for their money, like the KHL in Russia. The Asia League produces a surprisingly high quality game on the ice. Players skate like energetic Canadian juniors, and the fans have embraced the team in the style of a booster club in Hershey… or Charlestown.
The quality of the sport in the Asia League is likely the influence of a steady history of players imported from professional leagues in countries where hockey reigns supreme. Although hockey is probably the most expensive sport to play anywhere in the world, in Asia, hockey is very much a rich man’s game. For example, hockey skates run at three of four times the price as the exact same model in North America. Most locals cannot afford to learn to skate, let alone play hockey. So, it is only logical that the future of hockey in Asia would need more than a little assistance from the West.
Currently, each of the seven active clubs in the ALH (with teams in China, South Korea, and Japan) has an allowance of a maximum of four import players on their roster per season. A player is considered an import if that player is not of Asian descent; meaning a Japanese player is not considered an import on a Chinese or South Korean team, for example. I was surprised to learn that Asian-Americans, Asian-Canadians, or Asian-Etcs were, in fact, not regarded as imports when their knowledge and practice of the game would obviously fall into that “unfair advantage” category no more or less than a Caucasian-Canadian would. Nevertheless, these are the current laws governing imports in the ALH – until next season that is.
Asia League officials announced that they are making a bold move to reduce the number of imports permitted on each roster to a maximum of three in the 2011-12 season, and finally a meager two by 2012-13. The reasoning behind this rule change is to give Asian hockey players a better platform to showcase their talent to the likes of the National Hockey League. With the exception of New York Islanders owner, Charles Wang, and his efforts to spread hockey goodness in China, I, personally, haven’t heard of too many NHL endorsed hockey ventures in the East. Who knows if they even have Asia based scouts on the payroll?!
The whole nationalist or, rather, continentalist approach to the sudden reduction in import allowances is reminiscent of the NCAA’s controversial decision to allow Canadian hockey players to flood the talent pools in college clubs across the United States. At that time, both sides of the border were up in arms over the decision. Canadian teams felt that the US was depleting the talent level on Canadian soil, and, quite literally, stealing their national treasures. The American stance was that Canadian hockey players, who were often in their thirties with wife and children in tow, were cheating young, talented American men out of scholarships, and depriving them of their education. The issue became one of patriotism, and took on a strong “us versus them” tone, which caused many in-team conflicts for one side or the other, that would later need to be controlled with an entirely new set of rules. The business side of things only seemed relevant to the head honchos at the NCAA.
It is interesting that in the case of the ALH, the powers that be were not considering the bottom line in making this decision. Upper management at the club level is, naturally, raising Hell over the announcement because foreign talent translates to success both on and off the ice, and at some level the League must understand this. Import players are paid nearly double what the Asian players are banking, and more than the average player in the American Hockey League, I might add. Furthermore, the fans that are paying to fill the small arenas every night are overwhelmingly Canadian born. It is almost like the ALH is jumping the gun, or suffering from delusions of grandeur. How can a league that has only existed in its current form since 2003, suddenly just be ready to cut ties with Western talent in hopes of attracting NHL attention? Especially when some teams rely on importing coaches and trainers from Canadian universities to assist them in training camp.
The game of hockey changed forever when the NCAA made their controversial decision. At the time, the American style of play was almost entirely centred on finesse. With the introduction of the more physical Canadian style in the NCAA, American players were able to change their game to meet the standards that we are used to seeing today. One could argue that this historical decision by the NCAA is one of the biggest factors in the uprising of American born success within professional circles like the NHL.
Like with these American college students of old, physical play is somewhat frowned upon in the ALH, and so these players, even if they were at the NHL level skill wise (which they aren’t), would simply not be able to adjust to the Western style of hockey. When it comes down to it, in South Korea, home to two of the seven ALH franchises (Anyang Halla, Chuncheon High1), “ICE” (cold sweat) hockey is not even a sport acknowledged by the government. All Korean men must perform a mandatory two years of military service, however, athletes are exempt from this duty if they are champions. Unfortunately, being an “ICE” (vomits) hockey champion doesn’t get you out of the army. Here are a couple of the more “interesting” sports that will get the free pass, FIELD hockey, and badminton, yes, badminton. That should put things in perspective. So, until the time that hockey is considered a legitimate sport in Asia, and the League both embraces and learns from their imports, only then should they start planning the ball for the NHL brass, or even begin to consider cutting their Western tutors from their rosters. I can tell you right now, the fans are dreading the quality of the on ice product come September 2012. Hopefully, for the sake of the growth of hockey on the other side of the world, the fans don’t decide to abandon the Asia League altogether.