The Coquitlam Express acquired rookie goalie Joe Howe from the Victoria Grizzlies on Tuesday.
The trade for future considerations might seem a prudent move by Express general manager Jason Fortier to bolster the bench of the BC Hockey League’s top team in anticipation of a long post season.
But it’s more like a birthday present.
Coquitlam’s star goalie, Clay Stevenson, turns 21 on March 3. And an obscure NCAA rule means he likely won’t be available to the Express for those playoffs.
The rule, that applies only to men’s hockey and skiing, means any competitive game Stevenson plays after his 21st birthday would cost him a year of athletic eligibility at a Div. 1 school next fall.
Stevenson is committed to play in September for Dartmouth College, a Div. 1 Ivy League university in Hanover, N.H. that plays in hockey’s East Coast Athletic Conference. But if he plays for the Express after March 3, he’ll be left with only three years of eligibility to play for the school, short of the four years he would require to also earn a business degree there.
Fortier said the team and Stevenson were aware of his situation heading into the season but both were hopeful some sort of accommodation or exception could be negotiated with Dartmouth.
So far, Fortier said, that hasn’t happened despited prolonged negotiations.
Even a built-in loophole to the rule — one that allows a 21-year-old Junior A player to retain their four years of NCAA athletic eligibility if they’re enrolled in a post-secondary institution without a varsity hockey program and then transfers to their new school — has proved problematic, Fortier said.
A spokesperson for the BCHL said the league doesn’t deal with NCAA eligibility rules.
“This is our teams’ job to ensure their players are eligible and they are ones working with NCAA coaches,” said Jesse Adamson, the league’s director of communications.
Fortier said Stevenson’s situation is difficult, especially as his stellar play in goal has been a driving force in the Express’ ascent to the top of the BCHL standings. He’s also been an inspirational leader after he lost his mom, Holly, at the beginning of the season.
But, Fortier added, he respects Stevenson’s desire to get the full value of his educational opportunity at Dartmouth.
“We’re not going to stand in the way of that,” he said. “The rules aren’t meant to help us in this situation.”
Fortier said he has been working the phones to Junior A managers across Canada to find another goalie.
In the 19-year-old Howe he may have found a promising prospect out of Ontario who was forced into a starting role right at the start of his BCHL career when the Grizzlies’ veteran goalie, Liam Souliere, was injured in the preseason.
After a shaky debut in which he allowed 14 goals in his first two games, Howe settled in to share netminding duties with another rookie, Blake Wood. Each has won eight games. But with Souliere healthy again, the Grizzlies found itself with a surplus of shotstoppers.
Fortier said he hopes Stevenson can stick around even in a coaching or advisory role as the Express push for a league and national championship.
“Our goal is to let him finish his Junior A career with us.”