Part V: College Selection
As he began looking at colleges, Ryan hoped for the best of both the academic and athletic worlds. Campus aesthetics made only subconscious impressions and, unlike prep schools, the colleges he would be considering differed socially only in varying shades of gray.
So it all came down to academics and hockey. First and foremost, Ryan sought an education that would make a difference in his life after graduation. That would be the payoff for the 6 a.m. youth hockey practices and extra powerskating sessions.
At the same time, however, he wanted a school where he could make the most of his athletic skills. For hockey players, the list of what factors should be considered runs long. What is the coach like? What style does his team play? Will I get a scholarship? If it’s not a “full boat,” how much will I have to pay? Is the rink on campus? What type of crowds will I play in front of? Will the team be competing for national championships or getting the snot kicked out of it? Will I be a significant contributor or will I struggle just to dress for games? Each player weighs these factors differently.
Ryan’s primary athletic consideration was the opportunity to play a significant role, preferably for four years. He was looking at Division III schools, rendering many of the other factors irrelevant. D-III programs offer no athletic scholarships and, for the most part, don’t draw thousands of fans. He had also endured losing seasons before so a team’s current position in the standings was secondary to the opportunity it offered.
His Pingree coach and advisor, Buddy Taft, pointed him to the New England Small College Athletic Conference [NESCAC], the Division III equivalent of the Ivy League. Some of the most prestigious academic schools played within the NESCAC and its hockey teams emphasized speed and skill over size.
“Go somewhere that you’re going to be happy even if you break a leg and can never play again,” Taft said.
Ryan formed a list that included the typical “reach” and “safety” schools. By the time he was done, it extended to over 20 possibilities.
Since he took a heavy course load, I helped. I wrote letters of introduction to the coaches, researched the programs, coordinated the campus visits and contacted the coaches to arrange a talk, if possible, during our time there. I sent coaches his high school, midget team and tournament schedules.
When representatives of the more distant schools held open houses in the area, we attended them. We also tried to see teams in action whenever possible to gauge their style of play, but that proved difficult given Ryan’s own schedule.
Over time, he whittled the list down to 12 schools. We eliminated a few whose academics simply weren’t strong enough. Others that would have been attractive fell off the list because their coaches were infamous for over-recruiting.
Over-recruiting, bringing in a dozen kids each year all of whom have been led to believe they’re the number one guy, was a concern. If you’re six-feet, five-inches tall and weigh 230 pounds, you’ll get noticed in a crowd. Or if every other time the puck gets on your stick it goes into the net, you’ll get noticed in a crowd. But if you’re small and some of your finest skills — ice vision, playmaking and strength in all three zones — are more subtle, you might get lost in a crowd. Ryan wanted to play, not sit in the stands.
Throughout the process, when Buddy Taft talked, Ryan listened. Taft had been dealing with college coaches for many years, especially within the Division III ranks, and his opinions were tantamount to gospel.
Taft didn’t just advise Ryan. He also went to bat for him, talking to those college coaches with whom he’d developed a relationship. He championed Ryan as the consummate three-zone player, leader and student.
A mother of one of Ryan’s teammates complained once that Taft didn’t seem to be doing much to promote her son. However, it didn’t take a genius to figure out why. A walking time bomb, the kid had been thrown out of practices and, at that point in the season, six games. He’d been suspended in another sport for outrageous behavior.
Was this someone a coach could go to bat for? There may well have been deep-rooted psychological explanations for the kid’s actions, but no coach is going to throw away his credibility on someone like that.
A player isn’t owed support by his high school coach. He earns it. Day after day, week after week. It’s earned by skills most of all, but also by well-rounded play, unselfishness and being a good teammate. It’s earned on the ice, in the locker room, in the weight room and in the classroom.
If a kid has earned his coach’s support but the guy is too lazy to lift a finger, then shame on the coach. His program will suffer in the long run, and deservedly so, as word gets around. In Taft’s case, however, Ryan had an ally who worked tirelessly for him. This carried great weight with some college coaches. One said, “I haven’t seen Ryan play yet, but I’m very interested just based on what Buddy has told me.”
Getting seen is easy if you play at one of the premier prep schools, a Cushing Academy or St. Sebastian’s. If you’re a little further off the beaten track, however, you need to be more proactive to get exposure. Such was the case at Pingree, a Division II school that included several top D-I teams in its schedule.
The biggest key, of course, is to always play your best game. You never know when recruiters are watching. If you mix in a stinker for every good game, you may drop off lists every time you have that stinker.
One top Division I college coach stood alongside the glass with me at a tournament Pingree was hosting and said, “I like your number seven [Ryan] better than the number seven I came to see. My assistants have seen him play several times and they like him, but I’m tempted to overrule them. I hate to do that on the basis of just one game, but…”
In some cases, though, always playing your A Game isn’t enough. Unless you’re at one of the schools that are always in the spotlight, you need to take additional steps to be seen. In Ryan’s case, he played for the Central Mass Outlaws in the Mass Hockey Tier 1 Midget Select League outside of the high school season. Some of their tournaments attracted college coaches.
He also played in the Hockey Night In Boston (HNIB) showcase. Parents often complain about the cost and the selfish play seen in HNIB, both legitimate complaints. HNIB charges top dollar and has become a license to print money for its founders. On the ice, players are often more interested in showing off for the college coaches in attendance than in winning the game. From an aesthetic point of view, it can become ugly, selfish hockey.
Even so, it’s important to get seen. So you fork over the dollars for showcases that attract considerable attention from college coaches and you put up with puck hogs as necessary evils. It’s just part of the recruiting game.
Ryan narrowed down his top choices to four NESCAC schools: Amherst, Bowdoin, Tufts and Wesleyan. Others also had their attractions, but these four seemed his best chances at having the best of both the academic and athletic worlds.
All four, however, were extremely selective in their admissions process, accepting roughly one out of every four applicants. And getting accepted had just gotten harder.
NESCAC schools had been embarrassed by The Game of Life, a book that demonized college athletes as second-rate students and singled out for special scorn the Ivy League and NESCAC schools as academic bastions that should have held to higher standards even if all others sold their academic souls to the devil of athletics.
Never mind that on average, as the book conceded, student-athletes at these schools went on to higher-paying jobs than their non-athletic counterparts. Never mind that the grade point average deficits among athletes would not have appeared significant if displayed on charts in raw format, prompting their depiction instead in decile rankings. Never mind that the time and energy demands placed on athletes placed them at an academic disadvantage compared to, say, journalists for the school newspaper or cellists in its chamber orchestra. Never mind the improved quality of life on campus provided by its sports teams. According to the book, elite schools were accepting far too many Neanderthals just because of their athletic skills.
Ryan was no Neanderthal, but the average SAT scores for the schools he was most interested in topped 700 in both math and verbal. Ryan passed that milestone in math, but not in verbal. He would go on to post a 3.5 GPA at Wesleyan and earn NESCAC All-Academic honors every year possible — a credit to the school in the classroom, not just on the ice — but while still in high school the admissions process at these highly selective institutions still posed high hurdles to clear.
The Game of Life had embarrassed the NESCAC schools into changing their admissions policies regarding athletes. Long-time coaches who had previously understood which kids would be deemed acceptable no longer knew anything for certain. Late in the process, one coach expressed total confusion when a candidate he had considered a shoo-in got shot down by his admissions department.
Although the exact details remained shrouded in mystery, a rough approximation of the new NESCAC rules amounted to this: a typical hockey coach would get four “slots” each year for kids on whose behalf he could exert significant influence with the admissions department. Those four still had to be reasonable candidates — Neanderthals need not apply — but they would get a huge boost from the coach. Every other potential student-athlete would have to get in on his or her own merits.
If a coach had already targeted a goaltender, an offensive defensemen and a left wing sniper as his primary targets, the odds of gaining “slot” status might be slim and none for a small, well-rounded playmaker.
Could Ryan get in on his own merits at these most selective of schools, places where kids with cumulative SAT scores of 1400 frequently got rejected? Who knew? My wife and I agonized over the timing of the new NESCAC policies. Why couldn’t they have come one year later?
Amherst coach Jack Arena and Bowdoin coach Terry Meagher made the best impressions and both liked Ryan. Both, however, were hoarding their admissions bargaining chips for specific needs.
Wesleyan coach Duke Snyder liked Ryan most of all. The only varsity coach in the program’s history, Snyder had informed the school that he would be retiring. He wanted the legacy of his final recruiting class to be one of character kids who contributed on the ice and in the classroom. Ryan fit that bill nicely.
Snyder also had a special bond with Buddy Taft, a Wesleyan graduate who had played for Snyder in the seventies. Although Taft’s recommendation carried great weight with many Division III coaches, its weight reached its zenith with Snyder.
The problem was that Snyder was recruiting kids like Ryan for an unknown coach, one who wouldn’t be named for some time to come. This was not an idle concern.
I’d seen new coaches come to a school and clean house, sometimes merely to bring in his own recruits and other times to emphasize size or speed or whatever his philosophy demanded. If the new coach wanted to build a team of lumberjacks, Ryan would be sitting in the stands wondering why he’d rolled the dice with a “coach to be named later.”
The one mitigating factor, however, was that a new coach at an Ivy or NESCAC school wouldn’t be able to clean house. Even if he abhorred the style of players he inherited, he’d never be able to push enough replacements through admissions. In that scenario, the tightened admissions policies would be working in Ryan’s favor.
Still, the situation remained a concern. The personality of a coach dominates a college athlete’s life. If Ryan played basketball, I’d never send him to play for Bobby Knight and have never understood those who do. I didn’t like risking the hockey equivalent no matter how remote that possibility might be.
Ryan had been fortunate to play for coaches like Dave Brien and Buddy Taft. To finish his hockey career with Jack Arena or Terry Meagher would be like a coaching hat trick. The problem was that neither Arena nor Meagher could “slot” Ryan with the admissions department. He’d have a place on the team to be sure, but he’d have to get through admissions on his own. At Wesleyan, however, Duke Snyder could offer that slot.
It came down to how much Ryan wanted to gamble. He still stood perhaps a 50-50 chance of getting into schools even as selective as Amherst, Bowdoin and Tufts on his own. But he’d be virtually assured of acceptance at Wesleyan with the aid of Snyder’s slot.
We agonized over the decision. If anything, I’d been too cautious in my own career, not willing to take chances, always looking for the safe opportunity. I’d lost my first job only a month after I started because the company went out of business. From that point on, I thought safety first.
If I recommended Wesleyan as the sure thing, would I be poisoning Ryan’s decision-making process with my excessive caution? Or if I suggested that we roll the dice, would I have picked the single worst time to throw that caution to the wind?
If Wesleyan hadn’t looked like such a great opportunity, Ryan probably would have rolled the dice, with the fallback position of playing a year in juniors. But a sure thing like Wesleyan doesn’t come along very often. When I’d gone there with Ryan on our campus visit, I’d told him, “I’m ready to quit my job and apply myself.”
After considerable thought and discussion, Ryan selected Wesleyan. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. He converted from a standard application to early decision and Duke Snyder went to bat for him with the admissions department.
In time, Ryan received the package that announced his acceptance. We were all deliriously happy, although I was to become even happier in the days to come.
Acting completely on his own, Ryan asked my wife to take a picture of him holding his acceptance package. He then bought a frame for the photograph and got it engraved. He gave it to me as a thank you for the help I’d given him.
When I opened the package, my emotions overwhelmed me. The picture showed Ryan holding the acceptance package front and center. Engraved on the frame were these words:
I wouldn’t be here without you.
It is one of the most wonderful gestures ever bestowed on me. Even now, as I type these words four years after the fact, my eyes are misting over.
That framed photograph will always be one of my most cherished possessions.
Part VI concludes this series with a look at Ryan’s Wesleyan years.