Slow & Steady Wins the Race

New College Rules Putting The Brakes On The Recruiting Process
Tom Worgo

College Hockey Inc's Executive Director Mike Snee regularly checks his Twitter feed to keep up with youth hockey teams.

What he saw several times in 2018 was something that he considered to be in poor taste: youth hockey rosters with college logos appearing alongside the names of 13- and 14-year-old players who had already committed to Div. I programs.

"I don't know if most people who would have seen it thought that was almost accepted as normal," said Snee, who works for the nonprofit organization that promotes the college hockey experience. "That creates a finish line or a sense that something really important happens at that age. Now, I won't have to look at any line charts any more with college commitment logos next to a player's name."

That's because the NCAA adopted a rule change regarding Div. I men's hockey recruiting that took effective May 1. The new rule states that college coaches can't have contact with recruits until Jan. 1 of a player's sophomore year in high school.

Another part of the change prohibits coaches from extending a verbal offer until Aug. 1 prior to a player's junior year. And athletes can't sign a binding National Letter of Intent until their senior year.

Before the rule change, teenagers as young as 13 verbally committed to colleges.

For example, in 2017, brothers Chaz and Cruz Lucius, then 14 and 13, respectively picked the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.

"I applaud the NCAA for stepping in and solving a really complicated and messy situation," said Boston College head coach Jerry York. "It was just way out of hand. Just think about 14-year-olds choosing college that were four or five years away."

York had questions about these young players who committed to the Eagles, some of whom hadn't even enrolled in high school yet.

"The whole process was Looney Tunes," York said. "Ninety percent of the coaches in America understand a 14-year-old has trouble matching the color of his socks. And they had no idea on academics. How were they going to do in algebra or in foreign languages? What a game that was."

Scott Paluch, a regional manager with USA Hockey's American Development Model, applauds the new rule, but he'd like to see the NCAA Div. I hockey mirror what college lacrosse does with recruiting.

Paluch considers lacrosse to be the leader when it comes to recruiting reform. In 2017, the sport and the NCAA agreed to a Sept. 1 date for both coaches having contact and making offers.

"I would fully support any rule that pushes back and allows the institution to see a more fully-developed player," said Paluch, a former head coach at Bowling Green State University. "Also, a rule that allows the time gap between acceptance, commitment and arrival to be closer together."

Paluch says the contribution of College Hockey Inc., spreading the facts of recruiting cannot be overlooked.

The average age of players committing to a college is 18, highlighting the need for freshmen to wait to make a decision. Most players also commit while playing Junior hockey, which could be after a student's senior year of high school.

"I think it's important for people to be aware of statistics," Paluch said. "A lot of the hockey community didn't have that information. We are just starting to understand it. I think the big difference a lot of other people don't understand between hockey and most other collegiate sports is the average age difference of a freshman. Our average age is 22 years old this season."  

The changes approved by the NCAA were endorsed by NHL and USA Hockey.

"We are confident that rules, which support and promote college contacts later in a player's development will reduce many of the unnecessary pressures felt by young hockey players," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly was quoted as saying in a College Hockey, Inc press release. "That will provide them a better and more enjoyable experience playing the game."

The new approach to recruiting puts player development as its primary focus. In other words, allowing kids to be kids and play the game they love without any more outside pressure.

"There is still a large percentage of families that go through the youth sports experience without ever stepping into this process and are left to enjoy it for what it is," Paluch said. 

"It's a positive experience for their children and athletes. When people start using a college acceptance or college scholarship to target a youth athlete's measure of success at age 12 or 13-they don't match up very well. I think it can create a poor experience." 

Cleveland Monsters general manager Chris Clark believes the new rules takes the pressure off of teens from trying to impress scouts.

Clark played four years for the Clarkson Golden Knights before embarking on an eight-season NHL career.

"We preach patience in development at every level, but the recruitment model in recent years has flown in the face of that," said Clark, a member of USA Hockey's board of directors. "This is an important step by NCAA hockey that will allow players to take their time and not feel like they need to chase a commitment that is likely several years away."

The changes are just not aimed at young skaters. It also provides families more time to consider their college options.

"It's an important decision for a family and a player," said University of Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin. "We wanted them to make a better decision when they are a little bit older and they have a little more education on certain things. I think that's we are trying to do."

Sandelin cites Mikey Anderson as an example of a young player he felt uncomfortable recruiting. Anderson committed to the Bulldogs as an eighth grader. He played two seasons for Minnesota Duluth before signing with the Los Angeles Kings after they drafted him in the fourth round in June.

Sandelin also had a late bloomer in Alex Iafallo, who committed to the Bulldogs as a senior and now also plays for the Kings.

York also had some players who committed as high school seniors-Philadelphia's Kevin Hayes and Pittsburgh's Brian Dumoulin-who eventually made the NHL. 

With the inception of this new rule, York is relieved that he doesn't have to worry about wooing high school freshmen to come to Chestnut Hill. Now, players will still be there two years later, better prepared, mentally and physically, and ready to tackle the rigors of college hockey.

"We all came to our senses and said, 'This is not the right way to do things.'" 




Tom Worgo is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.





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