You see them on a visit to any college hockey venue on any winter weekend – those proud fathers carrying a baby decked out in a cute little outfit with the school logo and “Future Wolverine” (or Eagle, or Badger, or Tiger, etc.) emblazoned on the front.
The next time you see such a father-son pair, stop and ask the proud papa if his diaper-clad child is just hopeful, or if this is an unofficial campus visit and the child is about to announce his intention to play hockey there.
One of the many stories buzzing around the college hockey world came out of Wisconsin where budding star defenseman Jordan Schmaltz visited several schools, weighed his options and offers, then followed his dream and picked the University of Wisconsin. In August, he gave the Badgers’ coaches a verbal commitment to play hockey and go to school there.
The only thing standing in the way of Schmaltz donning a red and white sweater and hitting the ice of the Kohl Center was the fact the he hadn’t even started high school, and was just 14 at the time he announced his college choice.
A variety of factors have dramatically changed the college hockey recruiting landscape in recent years, forcing coaches and player agents (aka family advisors) to pay more attention to younger and younger players. The changes are also forcing many young athletes and their families to make life-changing decisions at an earlier age. A closer look at this trend finds almost nobody thinks it’s a good thing, yet almost everyone is doing it.
After guiding Lake Superior State to a pair of NCAA titles in the 1990s, Jeff Jackson stepped away from the college game for a decade. Upon returning, Jackson got a hard lesson in how drastically recruiting had changed when he took over at Notre Dame in 2005. He said that in his first tour as a college hockey coach, he’d never recruited a kid that wasn’t in high school, but after coming on board with the Irish, Jackson’s assistants in South Bend immediately encouraged him to attend USA Hockey’s Select 15 Festival.
“I went to the Select 15s and came back with a dozen or so names of kids that I thought we should look at further,” said Jackson, who coached the Irish to their first-ever Frozen Four appearance this past April.
“Within two weeks, six or seven of them had already made verbal commitments to other schools.”
For Denver-based agent Kurt Overhardt, who represents a number of ex-collegians now toiling in the NHL, the acceleration of the recruiting wars has been no less dramatic. People in his profession work as family advisors to young players prior to their signing of a professional contract, helping them decide which path to take and when to take it.
“When I first got into this business in 1992, you didn’t talk to players until their junior year of college,” said Overhardt. Today, the number of agents has ballooned from about 40 a decade or so ago to more than 200 today.
With major junior teams in Canada drafting players as young as 14 and working to get those players into their systems (which makes them ineligible to play college hockey under NCAA rules), agents and many college coaches are facing a tough choice: get a commitment from a talented player several years before they’re old enough for college, or risk losing them forever.
Ron Rolston, who coaches with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Michigan, credits the Major Junior leagues for doing a good job of selling young players on their system as the best route for their hockey development, at an age when NCAA rules still forbid much contact between colleges and young athletes.
For many players eager to make a living in the professional game someday, and for many hockey parents eager to get a payoff from the years and dollars they’ve invested in their child’s hockey career, the focus is on the far-off future.
“Kids often don’t understand being in the present, and are always thinking about the next step,” said Rolston, who noted nearly every player on the NTDP’s Under-17 team already has a college scholarship locked up. “We often have kids tell us that they want to be in the NHL by the time they’re 18, and they’re looking for the quickest route.”
In the case of Patrick Kane, the quickest route was major junior hockey, and he was with the Chicago Blackhawks at 18. A player like Phil Kessel chose college hockey at the University of Minnesota, and was skating for the Boston Bruins at 19. But most feel that decision shouldn’t have to be made before high school.
Still, it should be noted that playing in the NHL at the young age of 18 is far from the norm.
“It’s all spiraled down in the last three years or so, and I don’t think there’s any question that it’s a little bit out of control,” said Don Lucia, who was Kessel’s coach at Minnesota. “Now, a kid going into his junior year of high school thinks he’s no good if he doesn’t already have a scholarship.”
Lucia notes that as good as a player may be at 14 or 15, there’s no guarantee that he will be a college-level hockey player, or student, by the time he’s 18. For that very reason, the early recruiting game isn’t one that all schools can play.
“A kid’s favorite school at 14 might not be his favorite school at 18.”
Yale coach Keith Allain, for example, says there’s no way the admissions officers at his school would admit a student without a longer high school transcript and a good look at his SAT scores, meaning you won’t see Yale offering future roster spots to pre-high school players. But Allain’s not complaining.
“The playing field isn’t level anyway,” Allain said. “Every league and every school has advantages and disadvantages, and we’ve all got our own challenges. A kid’s favorite school at 14 might not be his favorite school at 18, and by making a decision that early, he might miss out on the opportunity for an Ivy League education.”
Which also makes one wonder whose decision it is to pick one school over another – the kid’s or his parent’s and family advisor’s.
And just as a young athlete’s college interests may change in three years, so may much about who he is and where his interests lie. That’s the word from child development experts who fear that pushing kids to decide their future at such a young age is too much, too soon.
“At 15, adolescents are still exploring and forming their identity, and figuring out who they are,” said Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire.
“They’re figuring out their role and the path they’ll take to get to that point. So much development happens after the age of 14 or 15. That’s very, very early to be making a decision of that magnitude.”
Tucker’s office in Pettee Hall is just a long slap shot across Main Street from the Whittemore Center, the home of New Hampshire’s hockey team. It was there that defenseman Joey Laleggia came for an unofficial visit last February, and, after liking what he saw, gave the coaches a verbal commitment that he’d attend UNH and play hockey for the Wildcats in 2010.
At the time, Laleggia was 15.