Early next year, the NCAA is expected to pass legislation that would relax its definition of amateur athletics. The movement was intended more for tennis and track and field, but it will have profound effects on hockey as well. Currently, a player loses NCAA eligibility the moment he plays in the Canadian Hockey League--the largest and best junior hockey league in the world and the NHL's primary feeder of talent--because its players earn minimal stipends.

However, under the proposed rule, CHL players would have until five years after entering high school to decide if they want to attend an NCAA school. CHL teams draft players at ages 14 and 15, and teens are veterans of junior hockey by 18, when they become eligible for the NHL draft. Under the new system these players would have much more leverage to decide their career path, and it would mark a major strike against Canada's junior hockey system, which is feudal at best.

Kids leave their homes and move hundreds of miles to play junior hockey with the carrot of playing in the NHL dangled before them. They play grueling 80-game schedules (that's before the playoffs, of course) with agonizing bus travel, all in pursuit of their dreams. School is hardly a priority. CHL teams are big business, and profits are what matter most. Players are mere cogs at the mercy of their coaches and management. This is serious stuff--Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell said he knows of one instance last season when a CHL team called up a 15-year-old kid for one game, then immediately sent him down, draining the player's NCAA eligibility and basically binding him to the junior team for the next five years.

Just a tiny percentage of these teens ever make it to the NHL, and thousands have passed up athletic scholarships to top institutions because the CHL is perceived as a closer equivalent to the NHL, with more games, more emphasis on the sport and rigorous travel. It's a tougher brand of hockey. It's the Canadian way.

But many general managers strongly support the new legislation, including the Capitals' George McPhee, a product of Bowling Green State University. The legislation still is being haggled about in NCAA committees, but in the next few months the NCAA is expected to begin discussing it with its conferences and sources say it will become effective for hockey beginning with the 2001 freshman class. Some expect an exodus of second- and third-line players from the CHL, who might not be getting the playing time they want. Such an influx would raise the overall level of college play, and that in turn could spur more top players to take the college route.

"I think this will be a great thing for the kids," one top NHL agent said. "Now if a coach wants to mess with a kid, and the kid feels he's not being treated right, he can say, 'I've got options, I'll go to school and play.'

"It will be interesting to see what kind of control junior teams try to put on kids, what kind of contracts they try to draw up to keep them out of school. They don't care about education. They treat it like the NHL; you play every night to win. You don't develop skills, you don't develop people."

Rookie Russian Rocket?

Buffalo's Maxim Afinogenov missed the first month of the season, and other rookies got all the attention. By spring Afinogenov might be the talk of the league. The 20-year-old Russian is a clone of Florida superstar Pavel Bure right down to the way he wears his helmet (cocked back, lots of forehead). He has incredible speed, a great scoring touch and four goals and eight points in his first six NHL games. "He has that maturity," said Sabres captain Michael Peca, who played with Bure in Vancouver. "He's not just a kid flying around and trying to do individual things. He has a lot of power moves, and the things he does, you wouldn't usually see from a kid that age."

Vancouver's Peter Shaefer and New Jersey's Scott Gomez are off to great starts, but scouts drool over Afinogenov, the 69th player selected in 1997. He could be an elite goal scorer. The Sabres will host the Capitals Wednesday.

Around the League

Former Capital Brian Bellows is hoping to make a return to the NHL. The free agent will play for $400,000 or less and his agents are trying to get him tryouts. . . . The Philadelphia Flyers have scored 23 of their goals on the power play--the highest percentage in the league. . . . The Florida Panthers lead the Southeast Division but are just 3-6-1 on the road; 8-1-1 at home. . . . Ex-Capital Andrew Brunette is thriving in Atlanta, his second expansion team in as many years. He leads the Thrashers with nine goals. . . . The Dallas Stars fear that defenseman Shawn Chambers (yes, another former Capital) might have played his last game. He's scheduled to return from another knee injury in January. . . . The Stars will get their championship rings at a ceremony Dec. 13, something management hopes will bring closure to last season and fire up the middling team (in a 2-6-2 rut) for a turnaround. . . . The St. Louis Blues very quietly went 9-6 without top defenseman Al MacInnis, last season's Norris Trophy winner. He's back, goalie Roman Turek has played much better since a poor start, and their coach, Joel Quenneville, is one of the best in the NHL. Second-year forward Michal Handzus has nine goals and 15 points in 20 games after scoring four goals and 16 points in 66 games last season. They will be feared come playoff time. . . . The NHLPA has pledged to donate $15 million over the next five years to youth hockey organizations worldwide.