It's probably not a notion that the OHL wants publicized, but the league could be at risk of a reduction in talent available to them. Like many things, when there's a peak there's only one way to go and that direction is down. It's the responsiblity of both the League and it's 20 member teams to attempt to keep the talent level at the highest level possible.
Currently there's a three-pronged assault on the talent pool:
Birth Rates: Birth rates in Ontario peak in 1991 at approximately 150,000, not much higher than the rates associated with the 1989 born players drafted in the 2005 OHL Bantam selection. Those rates quickly drop off to roughly 130,000 per year by mid-decade those born 1995 and later. It's a 13% loss, which would be effectively the equivalent to each team losing 3 of their roster players. Keep in mind that only half of those born are male, and while the league doesn't ban female players there has yet to be any drafted at this point - unlike the QMJHL.
Loss of maritime players: Once upon a time Ontario Hockey League teams could draft from any of the Atlantic provinces, superstars like Al MacInnis emerged in Kitchener despite growing up in Nova Scotia. Due to QMJHL teams moving to and expanding to: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and now New Foundland, the OHL has drafted their last players from each of these provinces at this time. In the 1980's the OHL held the 'trump card' because of it's reputation and the QMJHL's lack of english-speaking teams. Kingston overager: Connor Cameron and Sudbury's Adam McQuaid may be the last OHL drafted players from Prince Edward Island. The OHL currently has a half dozen New Foundland natives in the league, headlined by Peterborough Petes' Mike Ryder. During the mid-90's pretty much every team in the OHL had at least one player from one of the Eastern provinces often-times several, the only untapped land-masses in Canada are the northern territories which don't tend to produce much in the way of hockey players because of their low populations.
A possible decline of US players: Might sound crazy, to predict a decline in US players given the trends that have emerged, but a possible decline in players entering the OHL out of the US is a legitimate possibility. Since the inception of the Detroit Compuware Ambassadors, the league has seen a steady increase in players from the United States. In 1995 (10 years ago) the OHL had 20 players who were drafted out of the United States, five years later that number increased to 29, and most recently (numbers taken from start of October) the OHL has a total of 37 players drafted out of the US. The question: why the concern?
A year-by-year breakdown gives us the answer:
Obviously there are natural causes for everything. The gradual increases seen were because of the influence of first the Niagara Falls Thunder moving to Erie and becoming the Otters, and second the move of the North Bay Centennials into Mid-Michigan area. Proof of that would be how the players drafted out of the United States have polarized towards the three US teams. Plymouth (9), Erie (6) and Saginaw (4) account for over half of the US population in the OHL as of October 1st, 2005. No other OHL team has more than two of their members from the United States.
The problem is the downward trend that the OHL is experiencing. Why are there only 5 players born in 1988 in the OHL out of the United States and a rather poultry 2 underagers born in 1989. Greater-Detroit area alone should prove capable of supplying those numbers to the OHL! One theory which we will quickly dispatch is that of players from the United States joining the OHL at older ages. Of those players born in 1986 currently in the OHL, 3 joined the OHL as underagers, another three joined the league during their 17th year, and the final pair joined the OHL after time in the USHL. Back in 1995-1996, and in 2000-2001 there were more seventeen year olds coming out of the United states to play in the OHL than there are for this current season. Five 17 year olds when compared to much higher numbers from previous seasons does create reason for concern.
Unfortunately it's the only area of the three identified where the OHL be feeling the talent squeeze where they might actually be able to exert some influence. The OHL obviously cannot use a time machine to go back in time and somehow increase birth rates, it's also impossible to reclaim lost territories (those provinces now occupied by the QMJHL teams).
With 11 overagers (all guaranteed to graduate) and a number of 1986-births - such as London's Rob Schremp, Kitchener's Matt Lashoff, Peterborough's Patrick Kaleta and Windsor's Patrick Davis all unlikely to return as overagers, the OHL could see it's first ever significant reduction in talent out of the United States. That is, unless there is a major influx of rookies from the land of the free and the home of the brave as the 2006-2007 OHL seasons starts.
Success of the Canadian World Junior team: It's a well known fact that the World Junior Championship has a huge following only in Canada. But! Any young American who is serious about their hockey is aware of the happenings of the World Junior Championships and have a short-term (2-3 year) target of representing the United States of America at the World Junior Tournament. The problem for junior hockey in Canada is that American system is slowly catching up. Unfortunately the face that most American-born players were exposed to in the 2004 tourney was not only that the United States system was catching up, but in beating out Canada in the winner take all Gold Medal game may have created the illusion that the US system has caught up. Prior to that the Canadian program seemed to be failing creating a rather disturbing gold-medal draught that extended from 1997 to 2005
The teams aren't just teams from competing countries, but competing ways of hockey. The US team comprised by a majority of players that have come out of the US national system, USHL, and college hockey. While the Canadian teams are primarily players out of the CHL, with a spattering of players over the years from Tier II junior hockey protecting their college eligibility and occasionally those who have played in the US college system. Much like there is with the leagues between the countries there is cross-over, but the traditional affiliations still exist.
NHL Draft trends: It appears to be over, or at the very least nearing the end of the NHL's fascination with 'European' players. Much of that fascination appeared to be dropping off as recently as the 2003 and 2004 NHL entry drafts. There was a massive fall-out in 2005, but that might be attributed to the NHL lockout and teams that chose to cut some of their overhead in staff and overseas scouting may have been minimal at best with the chances of any type of draft looking rather bleak.
The OHL along with it's CHL sister leagues has seen a reduction in player that have been drafted into the NHL. The OHL may have seen the worst decrease in recent years, and that leads players to seek other routes to the pros, and for many (especially those who aren't familiar with Canada and the OHL) it can create a push through fear towards the NCAA route and what many refer to as the "sure thing" given that regardless of their hockey accomplishments, a full-ride scholarship awaits them.
Scandal and bad press: There are certainly negative detractors at work keeping potential players out of the OHL. The incidents involving the Windsor Spitfires at season's start obviously will not serve the league in a positive manner. And while some of these issues may not make the media in the United States rested assured that they are extremely accessible by those in the Great-Detroit area, traditionally a hotbed for US-born OHL stars. There's obviously a share of other negative press shared throughout the league over the years, along with many bits of positive news out of the Ontario Hockey League which unfortunately seldomly make news.
Simpler said than done. The OHL needs to work on some grass-roots marketing and recruitment in the United States. The State of Ohio is as good a growth project as any geographical area considering the proximity to both Erie, Pennsylvania and Plymouth, Michigan. One of the struggles that the OHL could potentially encounter would be that an inordinate amount of US born players might report to the US based teams, even more so than is currently practice creating an unlevel playing field. The best the OHL can do on home soil is continue to ensure that it's imagine stays clean, and progressive. Exert influence where we can and, compensate for any short comings were the league cannot control it's fate.
Special Thanks to OHLPHOTOS.com for use of their excellent photography
* Chris Gravelding was drafted out of the State of New York since he is injured and out for the season he was not included in the study since he was not listed on Sarnia's roster, he was born in 1987. Recent NCAA acquisitions by the Kitchener Rangers: Matt Auffrey and Victor Oreskovich (both 1986's) were also not included in the study as they did not meet the cut-off date, Auffrey was US start who chose the college route. Oreskovich was never an American to start with, he was attending Notre Dame, but did play his Tier II in Canada prior to advancing to the USHL and then the US college system. The statistics and conclusions are those of the author and may contain inaccuracies, however the best possible conclusions were raised given what was available.