CHL has no intentions on changing underage rules, AHL exemptions

The Red Deer Rebels secured a semi-final berth at the MasterCard Memorial Cup and exacted some revenge on Wednesday, eliminating the Brandon Wheat Kings 2-1 in overtime.

RED DEER, Alta. — The Canadian Hockey League says it has no intentions of changing its rules when it comes to underage players being allowed to join the American Hockey League.

The NHL and CHL have an agreement in place that stipulates if a player drafted from one of the three leagues that make up the CHL doesn’t join his NHL club at the beginning of a season, that he must return to the major junior team he was selected from. The AHL is not an option for CHL players until they turn 20.

CHL commissioner David Branch said the agreement was put in place for a reason and has benefits for everyone involved, including the players.

“My view of it is when hockey people get together in an unemotional environment, without specific examples, they say the best thing to do is play in the CHL or NHL,” Branch said in a recent interview. “That’s not something we push at (NHL clubs), that’s what hockey people have collectively agreed to.

“I still feel that the best place to play as a teenager is the Canadian Hockey League,” he added. “You’re playing with largely players your own age, you’re still allowed to be a young guy and once that’s gone, it’s gone. You don’t get it back. There’s a lot of social values, completing high school and maybe getting their university.”

London Knights forward Mitch Marner was drafted fourth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015 and returned to the Ontario Hockey League to play the 2015-’16 season. He went on to record 116 points in 57 regular-season games as an 18-year-old, then produced 44 points in 18 post-season games to earn OHL playoff MVP honours.

Against the CHL’s best teams, the Thornhill, Ont., native has produced 13 points in just three Memorial Cup games. His performance in junior this season has raised some debate regarding the CHL/NHL agreement because if Marner doesn’t crack the Maple Leafs’ roster next season, he would have to return to the Knights rather than join the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Branch said that NHL clubs have not approached him for special exemptions for players in Marner’s situation — where they may be too good for junior but not ready for the top league.

“So far the National Hockey League has not expressed any viewer opinion that it should be changed,” said Branch. “Now we know time to time when there’s an NHL team that thinks, ‘Gee I’d like to place him in our AHL franchise setting,’ that always comes back into this discussion. It’s only driven in a few isolated situations.”

Players drafted from the NCAA or Europe do not fall under the agreement, which is why Toronto was able to add William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen to the Marlies as 19-year-olds.

The Maple Leafs weren’t the only organization to add teenagers to their AHL affiliate at the beginning of the season. Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, Nashville’s Kevin Fiala and Columbus’ Sonny Milano also spent this past year in the minors.

When a player’s CHL season ends, they are allowed to join an AHL club on an amateur tryout contract for the remainder of that AHL season. But when the next season begins, the player’s options fall back to the NHL or CHL if he’s under 20.

Marner and the Knights have already locked up a berth in Sunday’s final at the Memorial Cup. They will play the winner of Friday’s semifinal between the host Red Deer Rebels and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.

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