With all of the understandable focus on the Sept. 15 expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association, less attention has been paid to the passage of another significant deadline. The transfer agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League (OHL, WHL, QMJHL) expired in July.
There are many teams around the NHL that want to see the agreement with the CHL change significantly. The present system was adopted in 1979. That year, in conjunction with the NHL's merger with the WHA, a plan was put in place to admit 18-year-old and 19-year-old prospects into the Draft. Before that, players had to be 20 to enter the NHL Draft and play in the league, whereas the WHA admitted "underagers" to the circuit.
Under the terms of the NHL-CHL agreement, if a drafted player under the age of 20 does not earn a spot on an NHL roster, he must be returned to his junior team and cannot be assigned to the NHL club's American Hockey League affiliate until the conclusion of his junior season. There is a misnomer that the AHL is the one with the "Age 20 Rule". Not so. For example, collegiate players who turn pro before age 20 can play in the AHL right away.
Now that the NHL-CHL agreement has expired, there are many NHL general managers and owners privately (in Steve Yzerman's case, publicly) lobbying for the League to restructure a new agreement with the CHL. The most common proposal is to allow drafted players with three seasons of OHL/WHL/QMJHL experience -- in some cases, 18-year-old players but usually 19-year-olds -- to be eligible for AHL assignment at the behest of the NHL club.
The present arrangement has held for 33 years largely because the NHL recognizes that the stronger and healthier its primary feeder system for prospects, the more the teams in the NHL ultimately benefit. Major junior hockey in Canada is a pretty big business in its own right.
The argument against changing the NHL-CHL arrangement holds that shortening the time period in which CHL teams can hold onto some of its top players would have bad consequences in the long term. It would negatively affect the bottom line of the CHL teams. Some opponents to change say it may also hinder Hockey Canada from having access to certain AHL-bound players for the World Junior Championships.