Open the door
NHL would be wise to admit superkid Tavares early
Posted: Tuesday September 4, 2007 1:51PM; Updated: Tuesday September 4, 2007 3:11PM
Brittney Exline's name probably doesn't mean anything to the average hockey fan, and there's no reason why it should. Ms. Exline's not a player. She's just one of the tens of thousands of youngsters who are entering the challenging world of post-secondary education. She starts classes today at the University of Pennsylvania.
Well, she's not exactly just another student. Ms. Exline is 15.
The story of this precocious academic caught my eye this weekend while pondering the future of John Tavares. If that name isn't familiar yet, it will be soon. Tavares is the 16-year-old scoring sensation who last season broke Wayne Gretzky's Ontario Hockey League goal-scoring record (70) and was named the Canadian League's Player of the Year. This week he's playing on the second line for Team Canada in the under-20 Super Series against Russia. And, like Ms. Exline, he's trying to get to the next level ahead of the rest of his class.
Unfortunately, pro sports aren't as welcoming of prodigies as is academia. Despite having gained as much from the junior experience as Tavares can, the NHL's rules prevent him from being drafted for another two years. So instead of making headlines and selling tickets across North America, there's a very real chance that Tavares could look to a European option to advance his game.
Tavares's agent, Bryan Deasley, is pushing the NHL and NHLPA to create an "exceptional player" clause that would allow his client to be drafted a year early (Tavares misses next summer's cut-off date by just five days). His confidence in the approach is understandable. The fear of losing Tavares to a rival circuit caused the OHL to rewrite its rules to allow him early entry into that league as a 15-year-old.
Deasley's clear in that he's not looking for an overriding change in the draft age, but that's exactly what the NHL and PA should consider. Creating exceptions, no matter how noble the intent, only sets a precedent that opens the door to future demands and forces a problematic debate about how exactly one defines an exceptional talent.
While there will always be critics who deplore pushing kids too far, too soon, the truly special deserve to have their day. And there's only one way to do it: Abolish the minimum draft age entirely for the first round and allow a team to take any player they feel is worthy of the selection.
Crazy? Not at all, especially when you consider the bottom line. At the moment, a player has to turn 18 by Sept. 15 of any given draft year to be eligible. For the vast majority, that works out just fine (and for some late bloomers, it's still four or five years too early). But pro sports are defined by the exceptional, not the average. And when a few days on either side of an arbitrary date keep a major gate attraction out of a league, who exactly benefits? Not the sport. And certainly not the player, whose skills atrophy against lesser competition at $65 a week, instead of the $3 million a year he'd be making in the pros.
A rule change wouldn't just be about what's good for Tavares. It's what's good for hockey. The draft, as currently formulated, is flawed. It rewards the incompetent by giving the highest choices to the worst teams and punishes well-built, successful squads by forcing them to pick through the scraps. Maybe there's some value to simply shuffling the deck, but big picture, I'm not convinced that it improves the overall product. And since the basic premise of the draft isn't likely to change, this approach would not only address the issue of exceptions, but also reward the teams that do the best job of talent evaluation.