Signing Off

Like a rite of passage each year, the early departure season of college hockey has begun with Maine ‘s standout goaltender Ben Bishop inking a deal with the St. Louis Blues.

So starts what has been now going on in college hockey for years: Players complete the season but still have eligibility remaining. NHL teams, agents, family advisors, your local minister, whomever, all come calling wondering what your intentions are for playing hockey at the next level.

Most players know the answer — they’re in college for the long haul. But there are a select few — a number that has grown in recent years since the last overhaul of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2005 — who are swayed away from completing their college obligations by the lure of contracts and signing bonuses.

The 2005 NHL CBA, which was completely restructured during the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 NHL season, changed the terms under which an NHL team can sign a college player who has been drafted.

Prior to 2005, the rules allowed teams to hold the rights of drafted players for one full year from the time the player graduates. In 2005, that rule was revised to terminate a team’s rights to a drafted player on August 16 in the summer immediately following their graduation. Obviously, that forces teams to sign drafted players earlier or risk allowing their valued draft pick to become a free agent.

Because of this, some NHL teams are taking that August 15 date out of play by simply inking players to entry-level contracts a year or two early, before their college careers end.

The result, one might say, is the increased exodus, which has seen the number of players who leave college early triple over the last five years, according to Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna.

Still, Bertagna is quick to acknowledge that you can’t put the blame 100 percent on the NHL. The dynamics surrounding the college game have also changed.

College players are entering school later than ever. This past season, the average age of a freshman Division I player was 19.8 years old, or nearly two years older than the average college freshman. That, itself, impacts the overall timeline for college players.

“One might argue that [players] aren’t leaving early in terms of age,” said Bertagna. “Because they’re older, they’re leaving at the same point in their development [as they were in years past].”

All of which makes sense and is easily reflected in the statistics of the NHL draft. In the mid-’80s, the number of collegians drafted hovered near 50 per year, or 19 percent of the total players taken. Since 2002, that number has consistently dropped to a low point of 13 in 2005. Part of the reason for this is age.

Very few draft-age players (players are eligible at age 18) are playing in college right now. Conversely, the number of college-bound U.S. Junior and high school players has increased (though this data isn’t provided by the NHL).

“I know a lot of families who hold kids back very early on. There are kids who change schools and when they do that they repeat a year. And we have kids playing junior hockey and that can add a year or two,” said Bertagna. “There’s a different culture and kids don’t go in a straight line from youth hockey to high school or prep school to college today. Each of these decisions along the way delays enrollment in [college].”

In addition to an older entry-level collegiate player, Bertagna says that the value of the education may not be as important to families any longer.

“Sometimes you hear coaches say that if it were up to the kid, he’d have stayed,” said Bertagna. “It was the parents that wanted them to [leave college early]. That makes you scratch your heads.”

Agents also play a major role, particularly in the new era of the CBA. Entry-level salaries, which include signing and performance bonuses, are capped during the player’s first contract. Those players drafted in 2005 or 2006 can make no more than $850,000. 2007 draft picks can earn no more than $875,000. While these numbers seem significant, they pale in comparison to what players can make in a second contract.

With that in mind, there are more agents pushing players to get an early start at the pro level to in turn get an earlier start on a second contract.

This defense of the CBA doesn’t preclude some blame from heading the way of the NHL. In fact, the change to the August 15 rights date will have continued impact on college hockey.

That’s part of the reason that college commissioners have engaged themselves in discussions with NHL general managers. A meeting earlier in the winter that Bertagna attended with a select group from the NHL included discussions about the increase in early college signings. But Bertagna was quick to point out that this was hardly the focus of the meeting and no recommendations from either side were structured or made.

“We didn’t walk into that meeting with some kind of wish list,” said Bertagna. Rather, the commissioners used the meeting to begin an ongoing dialogue between the NHL and college hockey that will address other issues, among them protocol for how teams communicate with college players.

“The visit was about who we are and where our sport is today,” said Bertagna. “The NHL set up a committee to build a protocol between college players and pro [teams]. Some teams are good about going through the [college] coach [to get to the player]. But then you hear stories about [NHL] coaches calling kids all the time or sending them text messages.

“So the NHL established this committee to establish some sort of protocol.”

Bertagna did say, though, that he felt all the conversations were valuable.

Where does all this leave us today? Not too far advanced from a season ago, when players left schools for the pro ranks at a record pace. Hopefully, though, the valuable dialogue that has been initiated will help stem some leaks that right now threaten the college game.