Recruiting in college hockey is trending in the wrong direction. Once driven by players who were seniors in high school or playing junior hockey, top prospects are committing after just one or two years of high school, and in certain cases, even earlier.
In January, Maine received a verbal commitment from 13-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom, the youngest player ever known to have made such a nonbinding pledge. While the notion of a seventh-grader committing to a college drew headlines around the hockey community, some NCAA coaches have been concerned with this trend for years.
Up until this offseason, members of the college hockey coaching body have held a handshake agreement that they wouldn’t recruit players who were committed to other schools. Current NCAA rules allow recruiting until a player has signed a National Letter of Intent.
Some coaches believe eliminating that gentleman’s agreement will help slow the tide of players committing to schools at such young ages.
“What we have now in recruiting is the worst possible environment — 14- and 15-year old boys trying to select a college,” said Boston College coach Jerry York, who emphasized that the focus needs to be on what’s best for players, not what’s best for teams.
“I strongly feel we should follow the NCAA rule on [National Letters of Intent]. If you look at [Chris Heisenberg's recruiting list] from three years ago, it’s a radically different list now. What we have now is not working. [Recruiting to] the NLI will bring sanity back. Older players will make better, more informed decisions.”
In an informal poll of Division I men’s head coaches taken by USCHO, schools in favor of eliminating the agreement were in the significant minority. But those who responded they were in favor of dropping the agreement were power schools from major conferences.
“The schools that aren’t going to honor the agreement are the glamorous schools that are coming from a position of power,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “There are valid reasons why they don’t want to honor it. Some of the teams are committing players at such a young age that other programs don’t have the chance to recruit them. Second, some schools are stockpiling recruits.”
While some schools aren’t planning on following the agreement, that doesn’t necessarily mean their coaches are planning to pick off committed recruits on a regular basis.
Michigan coach Red Berenson reiterated he had no plan to recruit committed players, but he is hoping to slow the trend of early recruiting.
“Our intent is really to do the right thing,” Berenson said. “It’s not to steal other teams’ recruits. It’s to slow down recruiting.
“I have no intentions of calling other teams’ recruits. If it happens we may even call the school and tell them first. We hope we never have to, but if we slow the recruiting with the younger players and have more of a commitment to the players we’ve recruited, we’ll all be better off.”
While slowing early recruiting is a worthy cause, many of the same schools looking to stop the trend are some of the same programs who started recruiting players early, and continue to do so.
Minnesota, a school that spoke in favor of dropping the agreement at this offseason’s American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Naples, Fla., has committed two prospects born in 1999 — one 14-year-old and one recently turned 15-year-old — since the conclusion of the college season.
“The schools that aren’t going to honor the gentleman’s agreement are the ones who said they needed to commit players before they got to major junior,” Serratore said. “It wasn’t the non-BCS schools that were committing 14- and 15-year-olds.”
While slowing early recruiting is one of the major arguments for dropping the agreement, stockpiling recruits early with no intention of bringing everyone to campus is another reason schools are looking to move away from the current system.
“Part of the problem is teams load up on recruits early and they make decisions down the road on which ones they want to bring to campus,” Berenson said. “In the meantime, [the player] could have gone somewhere else.
“I think this is going to force schools to make sure they have a serious commitment with the player. I’m going to reach out to all our recruits and make sure we’re solid.”
Rochester Institute of Technology coach Wayne Wilson said he feels schools should live up to their end of the bargain if they’ve committed to a recruit.
“If we’re going to protect and respect the verbal agreement and other teams won’t recruit your verbal commitments, then teams need to also stay committed to those players and not decommit them if they don’t work out as planned,” Wilson said. “It can’t be a one-way commitment.”
There may not be a perfect course of action for college hockey when it comes to the agreement — what’s best for one school isn’t going to be best for another. In a sport like college hockey with a significant disparity in operating budgets and school sizes, there may not be a correct answer.
At the end of the day, looking out for the best interest of the players should be the No. 1 priority.
“We’d just like to see kids make more of an informed decision,” Berenson said.