COLLEGE HOCKEY: Recruiting younger players yields mixed resultsIn the past decade, nearly every team in the country has recruited 16-year-olds. Many have received commitments from players as young as 14. And it all has had a profound effect on the sport. The current landscape is a controlled chaos.
By: Brad Elliott Schlossman, Grand Forks Herald
Red Berenson remembers when it all began.
The Michigan men’s hockey coach sent assistant Billy Powers to scout a prospect tournament in St. Cloud, Minn., in the summer of 2002.
Powers watched a 15-year-old defenseman named Jack Johnson dominate a collection of the nation’s best talent in his age group.
“Jack had been coming to our hockey school since he was 9, so we knew who he was,” Berenson said. “But we didn’t know how he measured up against the best kids in the country until he went to that camp.”
Canadian major junior teams scouted the camp as well and began to pursue Johnson. Because the NCAA renders anyone that signs with a major junior team ineligible for college hockey, Johnson had a decision to make.
“Jack called us and said he wanted to talk about his future, because he was getting so much pressure from major junior teams,” Berenson said.
Michigan promised Johnson a scholarship would be there for him in a few years.
Johnson accepted the offer.
And early recruiting in college hockey was born.
In the decade to follow, nearly every team in the country has recruited 16-year-olds. Many have received commitments from players as young as 14. And it all has had a profound effect on the sport.
The current landscape is a controlled chaos.
Coaches are not only trying to map out recruiting classes three or four years out, they are trying to predict which 15-year-olds will be top players at age 18 or 19.
The results have been mixed.
There are plenty of success stories like Johnson, who starred at Michigan for two years before embarking on an NHL career.
But early recruiting has caused plenty of problems, too — de-commitments by players, reneging on scholarship offers by schools and teams recruiting more players than they have spots.
“It’s different. It’s all changed,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “Is it for the better? I can’t say it’s for the better.”
What’s driving it?
When Lucia was playing high school hockey in Grand Rapids, Minn., in the 1970s, he didn’t receive any recruiting calls until his senior year.
“Nothing happened until the spring or after the state tournament for kids at that time,” he said. “I don’t think we even thought about college when we were in 10th or 11th grade.”
But that all started to change in the mid-to-late 1990s.
That’s when USA Hockey began holding select festivals, rounding up the country’s top prospects from each age group for a week full of games.
This was done to help USA Hockey select the best players for national teams and for the National Team Development Program, an all-star squad of prep juniors and seniors that train together for two years.
In turn, the festivals also helped colleges identify which players stood out among their peers.
“One of the reasons these kids get recruited is because USA Hockey has done such a good job identifying all the top kids and bringing them together,” Berenson said.
After Johnson committed to Michigan, other top-end players followed suit. The recruiting age quickly dropped.
Lucia said in the late 1990s and early 2000s, top-end players at the NTDP would generally commit after their Under-17 season.
“All the sudden, those guys with the 17 team started committing earlier and earlier,” Lucia said. “Now, you go to a tryout camp before kids even get to the 17 team and half of them are already committed.”
Nebraska Omaha coach Dean Blais, who won a pair of national championships at North Dakota in 1997 and 2000, said it’s not always the schools that are driving the early commitments.
“Kids will make unofficial visits and back you into a corner,” Blais said. “They’ll tell you that if you don’t offer a scholarship right now, someone else will. That’s what is happening. Kids and parents are more of a driving force than we are as coaches.”
But a lot of the prospects and parents, like Johnson, face a difficult decision on whether to go the college route or go to Canadian major juniors.
The three Canadian major junior leagues — the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — draft prospects at age 14, 15 or 16. At that point, a lot of players have to decide where to go.
If they want to go the college route, they want an assurance of a scholarship from a school of their choice.
“Major junior has pushed early recruiting as much as anything,” Berenson said. “If there were no major junior hockey issues, we wouldn’t be recruiting kids as early as we are now.”
Is it working?
The first time UND dipped into young recruiting it was to get a verbal commitment from a player who just completed his freshman year of high school in Eden Prairie, Minn.
That player was Danny Kristo, who went on to be an All-American and a Hobey Baker Award finalist. He’s one of the success stories. So is junior defenseman Nick Mattson, who was younger than Kristo when he committed to UND.
But for every Kristo and Mattson, there’s a Garrett Clarke and Mike Fink.
Clarke was a highly touted defenseman who committed at age 15 to UND. He backed out of his commitment and went to major juniors within a year. Fink was a highly sought-after forward from Hopkins, Minn., who chose UND after his sophomore year. Fink’s development stalled in junior hockey and he ended up at Bowling Green for two years. By age 21, he was out of hockey.
These are the stories college coaches won’t talk about, but they are happening everywhere. They are much more highly publicized at the bigger schools like North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but it is occurring at the smaller schools just as often.
“There’s no question there are more mistakes being made,” Berenson said. “That’s why you see kids de-commit and kids leave disappointed. We’re just trying to recruit the top kids. Jack Johnson was a no-brainer. He was the real deal. But now, it’s gotten to the point where more high-risk decisions are being made.”
There are a lot of variables and unknowns with young recruits.
“You don’t know three to four years down the road how they are going to turn out. . . if they even like hockey, if they are going to still be strong students, if their girlfriends are going to be a distraction,” Blais said. “It could be a whole bunch of things.”
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves once had a scout tell him, “If I had a nickel for every sophomore I thought was going to be a superstar, I’d be broke.”
“There are so many factors,” Eaves said. “It makes the job we have a lot more difficult because we’re almost trying to look into a crystal ball.”
Eaves said that Badger coaches have a certain criteria they look for when recruiting young players. It’s not all about talent.
“They have a better chance of panning out and blossoming if they have a really good, strong work ethic,” Eaves said. “If that’s their base, if they are very competitive and have a strong work ethic as a young player, their chances — it’s not guaranteed — but their chances of blossoming are better.”
Even if the players do pan out, there’s no guarantee that they wind up at the college they originally committed to.
The first 14-year-olds to commit to college were Jon Merrill (Michigan), Cam Fowler (Notre Dame) and Colten St. Clair (Colorado College). Only Merrill ended up playing at the school he originally committed to.
UND and Western Michigan both have six players on this year’s roster who were originally committed to other schools.
The University of Vermont, which comes to Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend, has two players who were originally committed to UND.
“You’re seeing the reality of de-commitments, and at this point in time, it’s significant,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol, who lost three top recruits to major juniors in the span of about a year.
Initially, early recruiting and the guarantee of future scholarships appeared to help steer more top-end prospects to college hockey than ever before.
The first five years after Johnson arrived at Michigan, there were at least 16 first-round NHL picks every year playing college hockey, a drastic rise from a decade earlier, when no more than five first-round picks played college hockey in any given year.
That number has since tailed off, in large part due to players de-committing to go to Canadian major juniors.
The parity in today’s college hockey world also may be, in part, due to the new world of recruiting.
The big schools used to pick out the top players who were ready to come to school in six months. They are now making more mistakes because of the larger error factor in projecting 15-year-olds.
Consider: The three years before Johnson arrived at Michigan, No. 1 seeds were 12-0 against No. 4 seeds in the first round of the tournament. The four years after his arrival, top seeds were just 9-7 in the first round.
“It becomes and equalizing factor, there’s no question about it,” Eaves said.
Blais said NCAA rules have helped equalize things, too.
“When I was an assistant (in the 1980s), you would go to Saskatchewan and stay until you wanted to,” Blais said. “You could stay there for two weeks, see a team 10 times, visit with the parents and call every day if you wanted. Now, with the rules, you can’t do that.”
Recruiting tactics have been a hot topic at the annual American Hockey Coaches Association meetings in Florida. Among those discussed are:
• Over-recruiting. Some teams know they have, say, three spots open for a year. Instead of recruiting three players, they will get six players committed and take whatever three turn out to be the best.
• Forcing young prospects into quick decisions. Some schools will have a 15-year-old on campus. In an effort to get him committed, the program will tell the player he has seven days to commit or his scholarship offer is gone.
• Verbal commitments. Currently, college hockey is unique and will not recruit a player who has verbally committed, even though it’s perfectly fine under NCAA rules. The NCAA allows a team to recruit a prospect until he signs a letter of intent his senior year of high school.
“I respect both sides. I’m torn,” Lucia said on the gentleman’s agreement not to recruit verbally committed players. “Especially with a younger kid. I find it frustrating that we want to recruit a kid, but we haven’t had a chance to get him to campus. Suddenly, someone puts a gun to his head to make a decision, which happens. I don’t think that’s fair either.
“Or else, maybe a kid wants to come here, but we’re full, so he commits somewhere else. All of the sudden, we have a couple of kids sign (pro deals) and spots open up. Why shouldn’t I be able to give that kid a scholarship that we didn’t have a month earlier?”
Some of the bigger schools, which are currently losing players to major juniors more than the small schools, may be tempted to pick off other recruits to replace lost guys.
For example, Michigan was put into a bind last year when star goalie recruit John Gibson bailed for major juniors. With all of the quality goalies committed several years out, Michigan was handcuffed with how it could replace Gibson.
“There was a de-commit out there, but we didn’t jump on him,” Berenson said.
In the end, the Wolverines struggled greatly in goal and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades because of it.
Lucia has been one of the most outspoken coaches, raising the question whether college hockey should give up the gentleman’s agreement.
“The bottom line is that you work for your institution, not somebody else’s institution,” Lucia said. “You don’t want to be picking off a kid weeks before signing day, but there are other situations.”
Most of the coaches don’t believe much will change in the coming years. Enough of the young recruits are panning out to be stars, and nobody wants to miss out on them. If a coach doesn’t dip into young recruiting, he’s unlikely to end up with any top-end players.
“You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t,” Eaves said.
So coaches will continue to wade through the murky recruiting waters, for better or worse.
“It’s a tough business right now,” Miami coach Rico Blasi said. “I don’t know how I feel about it.”
Call Schlossman at (701) 780-1129; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1129; or send e-mail to email@example.com.