When Atlanta Thrashers third-rounder Julian Melchiori reaffirmed his commitment to play for the UMass-Lowell River Hawks recently, it was a nice story, but not exactly a front-page barnburner.
Of course in the near future, the 6-foot-3 Canadian defenseman’s choice may be news simply because of the odds stacked against schools such as UMass-Lowell.
The NCAA is currently considering a rule to ban scholarship offers to student-athletes until the summer after their junior year of high school (a.k.a. Grade 11). The rule is aimed at the powerhouse college sports such as basketball and football, but would apply uniformly to all disciplines, hockey included.
And while there is no rival for NCAA football or basketball, college hockey must compete against Canadian major junior. The new rule would make an already uphill battle almost insurmountable in some cases.
“The truly elite player, these guys are being identified when they are 14 or 15 years old,” said Paul Kelly of College Hockey Inc., a pro-NCAA group. “The rule would mean schools couldn’t talk to kids until after July 1 of their junior year. Most kids at that point are probably 16, maybe 17 or even 18.
“There would be a period of time of two years where they would be drafted by CHL teams and would be listening to them, with NCAA schools having no chance to talk to them.”
Considering the lure of the Canadian League – NHL-type schedule, a shot at the Memorial Cup, plus you don’t have to be taking college-level academic classes while you play – Kelly, the former head of the NHL Players’ Association, is leery of the proposed rule. He believes two groups in particular would be affected.
“It’s Canadians that might aspire to play NCAA hockey and U.S. kids in markets where there isn’t a strong college hockey presence, such as California,” he said. “It’s not like being in Boston (where Kelly is based). Our kids grow up going to Boston College or Harvard games, it becomes part of the culture. Same for kids in Michigan and Minnesota.”
So while players such as Melchiori and 2010 first-rounders Riley Sheahan and Beau Bennett will be giving it the ol’ college try this winter, those who follow them may be bucking the trend.
Kelly noted sports can ask for exceptions to NCAA rules and many of the coaches his group has spoken with are in favor of following that path should the ban be enacted, but there is another side of the issue worth mentioning.
“There are coaches who believe the system has gone haywire,” he noted. “It’s unpleasant to be recruiting kids when they’re 14. A kid can change a lot, physically and emotionally (by the time they get to college years later). Sometimes for the better, but sometimes not.
“They’d like to bring sanity back to the system.”
Agent/advisor Alec Schall, whose clients include James van Riemsdyk and New Jersey Devils second-rounder Jon Merrill, thinks the rule isn’t a terrible idea.
“I think it’s a positive one overall,” he said. “(Recruiting) is almost like inflation, where people try to beat each other to the punch. I have some ‘96s (kids born in 1996) if you can believe it and they’re already getting noticed.”
Schall believes smaller NCAA schools would fare the worst under the new rule, since their only advantage is locking in a young prospect to a scholarship offer before a bigger school finds out about the player. But the rule would also save schools from themselves sometimes.
“For every Jack Johnson or Jon Merrill, there are just as many mistakes that schools make,” Schall noted. “They have to honor those scholarships because they gave their word and they’re always full scholarships when the kids are that young.”
Schall noted elite kids know scholarships will be available to them, but the new rule would give major junior a leg up, even though he believes the window is closer to a couple of months rather than years. Kids can visit campuses and contact schools themselves, just not the other way around and while schools couldn’t offer scholarships anymore, they could still make their intentions known.
That new window would still make recruiting even more pressure-packed for both major junior and NCAA teams, however. Schall, for example, represents Robert Polesello, an Ontario-born center whose Ontario League stock dropped when it became clear he was committed to attending Boston University in the future. But would OHL teams have balked at giving him their best pitch under the new rule?
“It may have been more of a wrestling match for BU,” Schall said.
And it certainly wouldn’t have been the only one.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday.
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