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Monday, Jan. 26, 2015: Too many 'junior' hockey leagues?

   Leading off today: If you were to ask two experts what the best path to college hockey is for a good -- but not great -- teen player, you might very well get three (or more) different answers.

   Basketball has AAU and the soccer discussion/debate has shifted from the Olympic Development Program to the academy system. But neither is any match for hockey's high schools vs. juniors battle when it comes to helping prospects fulfill their ambitions for the next level.

   I was reminded of that over the weekend when, while searching the Internet for something completely unrelated, I came across a column on one of the websites operated by the popular SB Nation franchise. Writer Jeff Cox, who has enough familiarity with the sport to speak with some authority, took the proverbial hockey stick to the knees of the current development system and said the same thing I've heard from observers for at least a decade:

   "There are far too many junior hockey leagues and the crux of the problem is out east," Cox wrote. "Don't get me wrong. The United States Hockey League (USHL) is a terrific league and any parent or player would be silly to not jump at the opportunity to play in the finest development path to college hockey. This argument is not against the USHL, it is against the lesser leagues that are watered down and only viable due to the money it brings in for its organizers."

   One of the criticisms of AAU basketball is the undeniable spokes-and-hub system that exists in many programs -- a handful of stars form the nucleus of the team, and the remainder of the roster is there mostly for support at best or just for looks at worst. And all the while the supporting cast is paying a chunk of change and too often not getting comparable value in return.

   Cox's argument is somewhat similar and leads him to endorse high school hockey as a valuable alternative to marginal junior programs that he says may look good in pamphlets but too often don't help players reach the college level, whether it's major Division I's or fledgling Division III's.

   "Where the problem lies," he writes, "is at the lower levels of 'junior hockey.' The words junior hockey are in quotations because half of the leagues and teams that call themselves junior hockey are an absolute joke. Not to pick on the USPHL, but that league having an empire, elite and premier divisions is just complete nonsense."

   If you have an interest in the sport -- or perhaps just an interest in the organization and management of youth sports in general, then the column is a good read. And be sure to check out the reader comments beneath the column, which are a mix of pro and con.

   College commitments: It's been two announcements in as many days for Buffalo-area football standouts firming up their college plans.

   On Sunday, 6-foot-6, 295-pound offensive lineman Evin Ksiezarczyk of West Seneca East verbally committed to the University at Buffalo after also considering offers from Nevada, Old Dominion and Texas-El Paso.

   On Monday, Canisius linebacker Brad Zaffram committed to UTEP following his weekend recruiting visit. If UTEP seems to be an unlikely destination for New York standouts (BTW, Jonny Forrest of New Rochelle also visited over the weekend), then The Buffalo News points out that Lockport native and former Buffalo Bills assistant Sean Kugler coaches there.

   Zaffram led Canisius with 91 tackles even though he was suspended for three postseason games for violating school rules, which turned out to be allegations of cheating on an exam. The paper reported the allegations may have scared off some potential recruiters, and Zaffram's other offer was from Football Championship Subdivision program Robert Morris.

   Possibly not unrelated to all that is the revelation that UTEP wants Zaffram to grayshirt. By having Zaffram enroll in January 2016, UTEP saves a scholarship in the current recruiting class and keep an eye on his transcript if he chooses to enroll part-time in a junior college in the fall.

   Speaking of grayshirting: Friends Academy running back Tyrone Perkins, the first Class of 2015 recruit to commit to Syracuse, told recently that he will enroll in January 2016.

   The deferred arrival will allow Perkins additional time to rehab a knee injury and doesn't put him at much of a disadvantage. As is the case with Zaffram, Perkins would have been unlikely to play as a true freshman. By the time 2016 fall preparations begin, he will have gone through spring practice and the full regimen of offseason training -- leaving him with four years of eligibility but putting him ahead of the incoming freshmen.

   Volleyball changes: A new penalty system for an unnecessary delay in starting or resuming play was approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations volleyball rules committee this month.

   The new penalty system relaxes previous rules that charged teams a timeout for an unnecessary delay. If a team had exhausted its timeouts, then it lost serve and the opponent was awarded a point. Now, the first offense results in a yellow card warning and subsequent delays during the same set will draw a red card with the previous loss of serve and point penalty.

   "The previous penalty was viewed as too severe for rally scoring," said Becky Oakes, NFHS director of sports and liaison to the volleyball rules committee.

   In a lesser change also announced Monday, schools will have the option of extending the intermission between the second and third sets from three to five minutes.

   Coming back: Former Fayetteville-Manlius football coach Paul Muench will return to his old job, reported Monday.

   Muench coached F-M from 2000-12 before stepping down to devote more time to his family and teaching, and he was replaced by former Hornets star Damien Rhodes.

   Rhodes recently resigned after two seasons due to the demands of his fulltime job.

   Muench was 73-46 in 13 seasons with the Hornets including 21-6 over the final three years. He also coaches at Oswego from 1993-99.

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