On the last day of April, a flurry of kids born in 2004 and 2005 made verbal commitments to U.S. college hockey programs. As of May 1, that kind of action was outlawed by the NCAA – much to the relief of many family advisors (a.k.a. player agents) and coaches.
It always seemed silly, didn’t it? A 14-year-old kid, sometimes before he even got to high school, committing to a university. To paraphrase the punk band Minor Threat: This time is so little, this time belongs to us, why is everybody in such a gosh-darned rush?
Like many things in life, it came down to pressure from peers, which led to parents worried that their special little angels were in danger of falling behind. The reality is that finding the right program takes time, even for an elite player. Cam York, the U.S. NTDP defenseman and likely first-round draft pick in 2019, just signed on with Michigan this season after decommitting from Boston College. Ryder Donovan, another high-end talent, also switched allegiances, from North Dakota to Wisconsin. And if you’re worried that you have to go to a “big” school to have success, just ask the boys from St. Cloud State if they’ll ever forget the name “American International.” Or ask Ottawa Senators draft pick Jakov Novak, who just completed his freshman season at Bentley.
The NCAA’s new rules are a breath of fresh air. Simply put, there can no longer be any recruiting conversations between a coach and a potential player before Jan. 1 of the kid’s sophomore year in high school. Furthermore, a verbal scholarship offer from the coach cannot be made until Aug. 1 of the player’s upcoming junior high-school year. “It’s very healthy,” said one family advisor. “A lot of what drives kids is based on keeping up with the Joneses. And parents want to be problem-solvers these days.”
There is a lot to consider with an NCAA commitment, and earlier is certainly not better for that decision. A lot can happen in four or five years, after all. What are the chances the coaching staff a 14-year-old committed to is still there when he arrives at 19? Using the Big Ten as an example, only three of the conference’s seven programs have coaches with tenures longer than five years. Coaches have also over-recruited, which is unfair to the kids who intended to keep their long-term commitments but were turned away at the finish line because all the scholarships were given away already.
For the programs themselves, getting a verbal commitment is a first step to an actual National Letter of Intent – which cannot be signed until the beginning of a player’s Grade 12 year. In the meantime, there will be competition from other programs and major junior. The CHL is a constant existential threat to the NCAA, because even playing one exhibition game in major junior can wreck a youngster’s college eligibility – but that door only swings one way. Major junior teams are more than happy to take on kids who played college hockey, with NHL prospects such as Jeremy Bracco (Toronto), Kieffer Bellows (New York Islanders) and Warren Foegele (Carolina) being examples.
Funny enough, the new NCAA rules may end up helping the CHL in a roundabout way, according to another family advisor. For years, it’s been an open secret that some players have attempted to manipulate the major junior drafts by feigning interest in the NCAA (this is not to be confused with the players who actually do go the college route). Now with the stricter commitment timeline, that ruse will be harder to pull off.
In the end, the new rules will save families and programs from themselves. “They’re positives,” said another advisor. “They’re progressive, and they are going down the right path. Kids don’t have to be in a rush now. The peer pressure will be gone.”
As with most aspects in hockey, development is a marathon, not a sprint. Many fantastic players have come out of college, and many didn’t commit to those schools when they were 14. It’s a new era for recruiting and, hopefully, one that is less stressful and more fruitful for all those involved.