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Chynoweth: CHL must level import draft playing field

Kootenay Ice GM Jeff Chynoweth says wild Western Hockey League polices itself while OHL, QMJHL ignore backdoor deals at import draft
Highly-touted Russian prospect Klim Kostin (left) is not expected in Cranbrook for Kootenay Ice training camp. Jeff Chynoweth

When the Kootenay Ice open up WHL training camp in Cranbrook, there will be a serious void as 17-year-old forward Klim Kostin, the first overall selection from the 2016 CHL Import Draft, remains in Russia.

Jeff Chynoweth, president and general manager of the Ice, was hopeful Kostin was going to report to Cranbrook after being claimed with the top nod at the CHL's annual international market in June.

Instead, the highly-touted and supremely talented playmaker from Penza, Russia, is going to stay home, at least for the time being, as he pursues a roster spot with Moscow Dynamo of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). According to Chynoweth, Kostin signed a contract with the KHL club after the U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in August.

While Kostin remains in the motherland for now, Chynoweth didn't come up empty-handed at the import draft as burly Russian defenceman Nikita Radzivilyuk — selected 61st overall — is expected to be in Cranbrook this weekend ahead of Kootenay Ice training camp.

Still, Chynoweth said the Ice have been virtually handcuffed at previous CHL Import Drafts and the longtime Kootenay kingpin believes serious change is needed in order to level the playing field.

According to Chynoweth, the biggest problem with the CHL Import Draft is the ever increasing circumstance in which some teams come to agreements with players and player agents prior to the running of the import draft.

"Until the CHL changes the rules of the import draft, nothing is going to change," Chynoweth said. "I know when my dad was in charge of the CHL, he would recognize and strive to address the issues. Right now, to me, it looks like the commissioners of the OHL and QMJHL look the other way and are ignoring a serious problem when it comes to the import draft. It's broken.

"It's the haves and the have-nots. It's not a level playing field. Something has to be done about it."

Chynoweth's father — the late Ed Chynoweth — was the commissioner of the WHL from 1972 through 1995 and the first president of what is now the CHL, holding that position from 1975 through 1995 after helping form Canada's major junior banner league. He was posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008 for his role as a builder and is widely regarded as one of the most influential men in junior hockey.

These days, players and agents hold the bulk, if not all, of the power heading into the CHL Import Draft. If a player has his heart set on playing in a specific market for a specific team, all his agent needs to do is circulate the word that the player he represents will not report or come to North America if any other club expresses interest or claims his rights.

What this leads to is informal arrangements in the back rooms of the CHL, where member clubs lay claim to highly-touted and skilled players, ensuring their services without necessarily needing to spend an equally valuable import draft selection to do so.

Really, it completely defeats the purpose of even hosting a formal draft when so much is predetermined and out of control for many CHL franchises.

One needs look no further than the 2015 CHL Import Draft for recent example.

With the 45th overall pick, the OHL's London Knights selected Finnish defenceman Olli Juolevi. At the time, it was no secret the 6-foot-3, 179-pound blueliner was expected to be a top-tier choice at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, which was still a year away.

After coming over from Europe, Juolevi's stock continued to soar. The Vancouver Canucks eventually tabbed the mobile rearguard with the fifth-overall selection at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft this past June.

Why 44 teams prior to the OHL's powerhouse Knights opted to pass on the supremely talented Finn is a baffling mystery, unless of course they all knew the native of Helsinki was only only going to report to London.

Chynoweth — and many general managers before him — likely would have loved the opportunity to use a top pick on a player of Juolevi's ilk. Instead, Chynoweth was left with few options, eventually taking Czech forward Roman Dymacek in the 35th slot — well ahead of Juolevi. Of course, Dymacek never truly found his stride in North America and was released by the Ice at the conclusion of the 2015-16 WHL campaign after having very little impact.

"The Western Hockey League polices itself against the backdoor deals that go on with the import draft," Chynoweth said.

David Branch has been the president of the CHL since 1996 after the late Chynoweth left the role. He has also been the commissioner of the OHL since 1979.

Further east, Gilles Courteau has been the commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since 1986.

Meanwhile, Ron Robison has served as the WHL commissioner since 2000.

So what is the solution? How can the CHL Import Draft be fixed?

Chynoweth has his own answer for that and the first step is to create an opt-in process for players to enter the import draft.

"Critics will say an opt-in doesn't guarantee a player is coming," Chynoweth said. "Absolutely it doesn't. But at least you know that Kootenay or London have the same list of players to choose from.

"Until we do that, it's not a level playing field."

As long as the status quo remains, small-market managers like Chynoweth will remain unable to compete with the big-market, big-money powerhouses of the CHL when it comes to the import draft, making life even more challenging than it already is for clubs operating in small towns around the country.

It also means elite talents like Kostin will stay home rather than coming to North America to ply their trade in one of the world's greatest developers of high-end hockey talent, while the CHL as a whole loses out on bringing in entertaining and skilled players for fans to enjoy.

"With the bantam draft, when you select first overall, you know you're getting a good player," Chynoweth said. "Unfortunately, with the import draft, that's not the case."

All things considered, it's a lose-lose situation for the entire Canadian Hockey League and hockey fans in North America.

The Kootenay Ice report for fitness testing this Sunday before on-ice training camp sessions get underway Monday (9 a.m.) at Western Financial Place.