Game Changer

The Transfer Portal Is Impacting The College Hockey
By: 
Joe Paisley

The NCAA transfer portal shook up all college sports these past two seasons. Men’s Division I hockey was no exception.

This offseason, 269 men entered the hockey portal with almost 190 finding a new home. It created opportunity for players and uncertainty for coaches trying to retain depth and talent in their programs.

The one-time transfer rule was introduced for all sports at about the same time the NCAA granted a fifth year of eligibility to any student-athlete competing during the 2019-20 season due to the pandemic.  

That gave players a chance to transfer without sitting out a year. Many took advantage of the dual opportunity to extend their college playing careers at their current school or play elsewhere with some now playing for their third school.

It’s disrupted program plans and led to concerns about the future. It’s long-term impact on the game remains to be seen.

According to Mike Snee, the executive director of College Hockey Inc., predictions of a decline in parity are premature.

“Whatever analysis you place on the first year and entering the second is premature because of the existence of that extra year,” Snee said. “Once we get back to every student-athlete having four years, you will be able to draw some conclusions.”

Many do expect the uncertainty to continue.

Recent NCAA rule changes in all sports tend to benefit the Power-5 schools. In hockey’s case, that includes the Big Ten and traditional powers such as Boston College, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Minnesota-Duluth and current national champion Denver.

“With NIL [Name, Image and Likeness], the transfer portal, you name it, every rule allows the rich to get richer,” said Greg Carvel, coach of 2021 NCAA champion Massachusetts Minutemen of Hockey East. “At first, I was against it but when you’re a program that has been in the upper half of the country for the last few years, it’s a positive.”

Players began leaving before the current climate, but the volume of transfers created some hard feelings. 

“Nobody can tell me that it’s good for the future that after investing your time, money and effort into developing them for three years, [players] decide to play for a Big 10 school after a successful season,” said Eric Lang, coach of American International College of the Atlantic Hockey Conference. “Four [who left] were not recruited by anyone. We gave them a tremendous opportunity.

“But at their first taste of attention from the big schools, they ran out the door,” he added. “I can tell you there is some venom directed at those from the teammates they left behind.”

While most coaches don’t like the situation, they feel they have no choice but to take advantage when given the opportunity. After all, they are still judged by wins and losses.

“I do feel for the coaches who have done a good job finding, recruiting, building up players only to have them move on to another school,” Carvel said. “It’s very similar to the kids who go the pros. It’s hard to lose a player when you are psyched for them to be a leader on your team. It’s hard for everyone who remains.”

As is often the case in hockey, when it comes to dealing with injuries, ineligibility or a transfer, the successful programs employ a “next man up” philosophy.

“From where I sit with my program, if we have a chance to bring in a kid who has shown he is a good player and person and wants to come here, I will not necessarily say no,” Carvel added. “You can just plug them in where needed. That’s the world we are living in now.”

Some players need a fresh start so they can play regularly, avoid a coaching change, or extend their career as a graduate student. 

It can also help new or restarting programs. Alaska-Anchorage, an independent renewing play this fall, added 12 transfers with college experience to complement its incoming recruiting class. 

Snee expect the tumult to die down once the fifth year of eligibility expires for this upcoming season’s juniors and seniors.

“Any speculation about this does not change the fact so many schools, including AIC and others, can be competitive with big-name schools,” he said, adding that top programs have a winning culture, excellent coaching, and superior facilities smaller-profile schools can provide that attract and retain players. 

“The unique aspect of college hockey is you can build a roster with young NHL Draft picks or by going with older, experienced players,” he added. “It does allow for tremendous parity.”

The need for a good program culture hasn’t changed.

“We had three transfers come in last year and four this fall because we are a program where kids want to be,” Carvel said.

The NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted on a resolution this August that would keep the portal in place while limiting the entry window to March 20 to May 18 and allow players to transfer more than once without penalty before graduation. (That vote took place after this article was submitted for publication.) 

“That window will cover 95 percent of the players, so it would be a good rule,” Carvel said. “It’s tough if you lose someone in the middle of July. There is no replacing them.”

Recruiters must evolve to attract and retain today’s empowered players. In the competitive world of Div. I college hockey, that means creating a culture where an individual can develop on the ice, in the classroom and on campus.  

“Our recruiting strategy has been to leave a scholarship open for the portal at the end of the season in case someone wants to come in,” Carvel said. “I think every team thinks that way now.”

Or pitch your program differently.

“Maybe we need to sell ourselves as a place where you can play great for a couple years and move on [to a traditional power],” Lang said. 

“I don’t like it. I believe in dancing with the one who took you to the prom. We will adapt. At AIC, we have not been afraid to do things a little differently.”

 

Joe Paisley is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Issue: 
2022-09

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