February 6, 2003. That is a date with incidents whose effects are being felt as the 2003-2004 Division III men’s hockey begins. On that date, Fairfield announced it was dropping sponsorship of varsity ice hockey. Just over a month later, Iona also made the same announcement. Then during the summer, Division III MCLA piled on.
Almost immediately, speculation began about whether the players on these teams would stay at their school to complete their degree, or transfer to another institution to continue playing hockey.
This brought to light a series of larger questions. Would some of these former Division I players end up in Division III? If so, what effect would they have? On a broader level, how prevalent is transferring in Division III? And what effect does it have on the sport?
Now that the season is getting started, and rosters for teams are being finalized, some of those questions can be answered.
Looking through the rosters currently available and tracking recruits announced through other sources, there are at least 36 players transferring this season within Division III men’s hockey. Nineteen of those are coming from Division I schools, although not all of them are from now-defunct programs. The remaining 17 players are transferring from one Division III school to another.
These numbers make this off season stand out because of a higher than normal transfer rate. Over the past few years, it has been typical for two or three Division I players to transfer down to Division III each season. And typically less than 10 Division III players move around to other teams. To have 36 players transfer in a single season is definitely unusual.
The reasons why a player transfers vary widely, and can be highly personal.
“When someone is leaving a school, a lot of coaches want to know exactly why it didn’t work out there,” said Joe Baldarotta, coach at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “To me, just the fact that they are leaving says that the kid simply wasn’t happy there and is just looking for some happiness from the game. Whether it is lack of ice time, didn’t like the coach, didn’t fit in well with the other players, didn’t like the town he was in, didn’t have his major, whatever. There are a million different reasons why it didn’t work out.
“We all have gotten a second chance along the way somewhere. I want them to start fresh here.”
Deciding to transfer can be a tough decision for a player.
“A kid goes to school to get a college education,” said Curry coach Rob Davies. “You really need to look at it year to year. Your needs as a person change, and the school’s philosophy may change. Each year different obstacles are presented and they don’t always work out for the best. And then the kid is sitting there thinking ‘What am I going to do?’ Kids are not committed to a school for four years, so why not move on?
“A lot of times they’re not happy with the program they’re coming from. Whether it is a personal thing, their personal agenda wasn’t satisfied, the team or coaching changed since their freshman year, etc… There are a lot of variables. And if it is a personal thing, you have to look at it as a coach and see if you are inheriting a problem.
“It only makes sense that hockey players move around like regular students do. If you look at retention rates, especially at Division III institutions, it’s not as high. I know that every institution is trying to get its retention rate up, but you have a lot of kids moving whether they are athletes or not athletes. So it only makes sense that athletes would do the same thing.”
The rules regarding transfers are straight forward at the Division III level, and are much less complex than transferring at the Division I level where scholarships are involved.
According to the NCAA Division III Manual, a player must obtain a waiver from the athletic department of his school to start the process. This waiver allows the player to have contact with other schools and coaches. Once that waiver is obtained, the player can talk to other teams and schools to determine where they wish to go. Division III coaches are very careful not to have any contact with a player before the waiver is obtained. No one wants to be stuck with the label of ‘poacher.’
“We can’t discuss anything with them [before the waiver is obtained],” said Baldarotta. “We feel that it’s not fair to the program that they are leaving. Sometimes the transfer hasn’t even talked to his coach yet, and the last thing we want to be seen as is tampering in any sort of way. We wouldn’t like it if any other coach was talking to our players. We tell them that they have to obtain a written release from their school. That ensures that they have talked to their coach and athletic director.”
The player must also be in good academic and athletic standing at his old institution. As long as that requirement is met, the player is immediately eligible to play upon transferring and retains all of his eligibility.
A transferring player can have an immediate impact on a team. Not only are they older and more mature than a comparable freshman would be. They have also already made the adjustment to the level of play of Division III hockey. This can be a big bonus to a team who brings in a transfer over a new freshman recruit.
“They bring a certain level of maturity,” said Davies. “They’ve been battle tested. They’ve been in games, depending on which programs they’re from, big games against tough competition. They bring maturity not just physically but emotionally as well. A transfer is different from a freshman in that sense.”
Coach Davies has three transfers joining his Curry squad this year, including Manu Mau’u, who was Johnson & Wales’ leading scorer each of the last two seasons.
“I think for older kids the transition is easier,” added Baldarotta. “They’ve been at the college level before. They realize that academics are a huge part of their success along with their athletics. You don’t have to acclimate them to the way the game is played within the entire Division.”
Those teams that can recruit a transfer from a Division I school can expect even more of an impact. Manhattanville, located just 15 miles from the Iona campus, added four former Gaels players this season and are seeing the benefits already.
“We’ve noticed a difference in our first three games,” said Manhattanville coach Keith Levinthal. “They’ve played in bigger games. The kids from Iona have played at a lot of big places and are very used to playing those kinds of games. I don’t think they get as rattled. While the MAAC conference games may not be that much different from a Division III game, all of their non-conference games are noticeably different.”
Stevens Point has also had success in attracting Division I transfers. Over the past two years, Point has attracted three players from Division I schools, including the addition of Dan Francis from Findlay this season.
“If we are able to get a D-I caliber player, in most instances it will increase our skill level,” said Baldarotta. “We take a strong look when a guy contacts us, and we encourage them to come here and play whenever we can because they fit in so well. We’ve had great luck with transfers.”
If any good came out of the way Fairfield and Iona handled the termination of their teams, it is that the announcements were made early. It gave the players time to contact other coaches, look at the possibilities that existed for transferring, and make a decision. The announcements also came early enough in the recruiting cycle for Division III coaches to include the possibility of Division I transfers in to their plans.
“The Iona thing happened early enough that we weren’t in a position where we had to back out of any commitments to kids,” said Levinthal. “At the higher level programs, it is very difficult to get the very good hockey players to make a decision. They are going to look at Division I as long as possible. Fairfield happened before last season was over, and Iona happened before the playoffs. At that point, we really didn’t have any commitments from anyone. If [the Iona players] hadn’t come here, we probably would have recruited one or two more freshmen. But with four kids coming over from Iona, it just made our recruiting that much easier.”
No matter the circumstances, the decision to transfer is a tough choice for a young player to make. They agonize over it, weighing the pros and cons, trying to decide what is best. It is easy for others not involved in the decision to pass judgment on them, saying the player should have done this or that. Or thinking that one program poached from another. But when it comes right down to it, it is a young man trying to decide what is best for him at a single moment in time.
“I don’t think anyone realizes how difficult it is to leave a place that you are already at,” said Baldarotta. “For a kid to make a decision to transfer, he has had to think about it for quite a while. A kid doesn’t do this on a whim. When you transfer from somewhere to somewhere else, you’re starting over at a new place completely different. When kids come to a school, I sometimes think they get their entire life from the school. The team becomes like a family to them and they make so many close relationships.”