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MEN'S HOCKEY: Decision day comes early

Jon Merrill was 14 years, 8 months old. Cam Fowler was 14 years, 9 months. And Colten St. Clair hadn't turned 15, either. Too young to drive a car, too young to watch R-rated movies, but they are the futures of three college hockey programs. In a...

Jon Merrill was 14 years, 8 months old.

Cam Fowler was 14 years, 9 months.

And Colten St. Clair hadn't turned 15, either.

Too young to drive a car, too young to watch R-rated movies, but they are the futures of three college hockey programs.

In a trend that concerns some coaches and parents: players as young as 14 - eighth- and ninth-graders in high school - are being recruited, receiving scholarship offers and verbally committing to colleges.


Merrill (Michigan), Fowler (Notre Dame) and St. Clair (Colorado College) are examples of the youngest players to commit.

And Nick Mattson, Danny Kristo and Mike Cichy - players who committed to UND at age 16 - are examples of the new norm in college hockey.

You'll hear coaches express displeasure at being forced to recruit players this young. But they don't have any choice. If they don't recruit them, they're not going to land blue-chip players.

An overview

Whether it was major juniors, ambitious college coaches, USA Hockey or Jack Johnson, the beginning of the trend is up for debate. What most observers agree on is that it started about four or five years ago, and progressively, it is getting younger.

This may seem strange, because technically, colleges can't contact players until they are juniors. So in some circumstances, the players initiate contact, inform colleges of their interest, set up unofficial visits and hope to land scholarship offers.

When a freshman, sophomore or junior commits, it's a non-binding verbal commitment. A player can't sign a letter of intent, which makes it official, until November of his senior year.

Still, the college hockey world honors the commitments and opposing coaches will stop recruiting that player. Schools rarely wind up reneging on their verbal scholarship offers and players rarely wind up spurning colleges, although both can and do happen.


That's not the largest headache for coaches, though. They are the ones who are sometimes forced to pin the future of their programs on the evaluation of a 14, 15 or 16 year old.

Why they do it is simple. Rarely are blue-chip recruits uncommitted when they start their senior year of high school.

"Coaches always come to me saying they wish they didn't have to recruit these kids so young," said Paul Shaheen, a Chicago-based writer who has covered hockey recruiting for more than 10 years. "The truth is that everyone says that but nobody is going to do anything about it. If you don't go after these top kids when they are 14 or 15, somebody else is going to get them."

When did it begin?

Several years ago, the early signing period was instituted, giving high school seniors a chance to sign in November instead of April. That got the ball rolling toward earlier commitments.

But one college coach believes the big rise in early commitments came from the U.S. National Team Development Program, a USA Hockey-led program that fields two teams of the best under-17 and under-18 players in the country. It is located in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In the early days of the program (the late-1990s), college coaches would watch the U.S. Under-18 team, made up of mostly seniors, during the fall semester and try to land players as the early signing period approached. Then, in the second semester, they would scout the Under-17 team and try to figure out who to recruit for the next fall.

That process has changed.


Players in Ann Arbor are under heavy scrutiny while trying to balance school, rigorous practice and training schedules, lots of games and lengthy road trips. So many of them now try to get their commitments out of the way before getting to Ann Arbor as 16 year olds.

As Ann Arbor players started committing, it trickled across the board.

"All of the sudden, a few kids commit, and other parents think their kids are just as good and that they should be committing, too," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.

Other factors

Sometimes, schools are moving up the recruiting age.

Some will offer a player a scholarship and tell him he has three weeks to commit or the offer is off the table. Lucia said he knows this type of pressure has been put on players as young as high school sophomores.

"There was a time when you wanted to get the last official visit for a kid, but not anymore," Lucia said. "A kid will have a first visit and the school will put a gun to his head."

There are reasons behind that type of thinking.


Many programs around the country can't compete straight up with college hockey's giants for top recruits. So they look for an edge.

One idea is to grab a prospect before the big schools offer him.

Larger schools don't want to get behind in the game, so they recruit young players, too.

Canadian major junior leagues also present challenges. They draft players at age 14 and can start negotiating soon after that to sign and bring those players to their leagues. Players who sign major junior contracts are ineligible for college hockey. So colleges sometimes try to get a prospect committed before he bolts to major juniors.

Another possibility is that the early commitments are being fueled by success stories.

In the summer of 2002, Jack Johnson committed to Michigan at 15 years, 7 months old. He was believed to be the youngest college hockey commit at that time. In the following years, 16-year-old Erik Johnson committed to Minnesota and 16-year-old Jonathan Toews committed UND.

All three of those players had short-but-successful college careers, and they all wound up in the NHL before age 20.

How do you know?


Projecting players at young ages isn't always as successful as the Johnsons and Toews. There are plenty of players who peak in their mid-teens. And there are others who blossom late.

"There's certainly a higher degree of risk," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "You are predicting things that are going to happen further in the future. I guess everybody has their own ideas and own philosophies on how to do things."

Hakstol's philosophy begins with trying to gain a strong base of knowledge about players. That's why he'll start scouting prospects at ages 14 and 15.

"It doesn't mean we're going to start recruiting guys at that age," he said. "But you have to know where a player has come from to know where he's going to go. You have to have that base of knowledge to predict how a player is going to turn out. Recruiting isn't a one-time or one-year affair. Hopefully, you watch a player develop over a period of time."

After recognizing a player's talent, Hakstol said it's imperative to examine his personality.

"It still has to start with a person that you believe is willing to commit themselves to doing the day-in and day-out things to develop - no matter where you are starting at with ability," he said. "In order to develop, you really have to be committed on a daily basis - not just talking it, but actually doing it."

Are they ready?

Scott Oliver knows the recruiting process well.


He's a former college football coach and a current high school boys hockey coach at Roseau, a small Minnesota school that boasts four sure-fire Division I players on its roster.

One of those players is his son, Nick.

Nick committed to St. Cloud State last year at age 15, becoming the Huskies' youngest-ever commitment. He accepted a scholarship offer from St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko before ever skating a shift of varsity hockey.

Before making his commitment, there was a lengthy father-son chat.

"It is an awful lot to put on a kid of his age," Scott said. "There's no doubt the parents have to make sure their kid is mature enough. Every parent knows their own kid. I guarantee you in our situation, we would have never let Nick be in that situation if we didn't think he could make a decision, work with it and take ownership in it."

Unfortunately, Lucia says, not all recruits are mature enough when they make their decisions.

"I've had parents call me and tell me that their kid isn't going to come here because the kid didn't want to make the call," Lucia said. "If you're not mature enough to make the call yourself, are you really mature enough to make that type of decision?"

Recruiting at

a crossroads

The consensus among coaches and observers is that recruiting can't continue to get younger. There becomes a point where it is ludicrous to try to predict a player's future at such a young age, and college hockey is reaching that point.

Some coaches wonder if recruiting is reaching a crossroads.

In major college football, verbal commitments mean little. Coaches continue to recruit players who have made verbal commitments and will do so up until they sign a letter of intent.

Both Hakstol and Lucia say college hockey's unwritten rule of not recruiting committed players could change in the future. It concerns Hakstol.

"That's something hockey has taken great pride in," Hakstol said. "Are we at risk of that changing? I think we are at risk. As younger players make commitments, a lot of things could potentially change. I hope we don't see the day when it changes. Hopefully hockey is close-knit enough that, by in large, we stay with the same philosophy that we've had in the past."

Lucia has a different view.

"To be honest, I wouldn't be bothered by it," he said. "If I had my way, there wouldn't be such thing as a verbal commitment."

So where will college hockey recruiting go from here?

Those within the sport wonder.

"I hope we don't go to a younger structure than where we are already at," Hakstol said. "There are already different risks when young men are making their decisions two or three years before they are going to their schools. There are inherent risks that go along with that.

"The trend has continued to get younger, but I'm not sure how much younger we can really go."

Reach Schlossman at 780-1129, (800) 477-6572 ext. 129 or bschlossman@gfherald.com .

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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