Proposed rule change could shake up college hockey
TAMPA, Fla. — On April 13, 2013, goalie Jeff Malcolm lifted his arms in a glorious on-ice celebration of Yale’s first NCAA hockey championship. It was his 24th birthday.
On April 13, 2012 — exactly one year earlier — center Andre Drummond officially declared he was leaving UConn to enter the NBA draft. He was 18.
For someone who covered major league hockey for two decades and Connecticut sports for nearly two more as a general sports columnist, the stark difference in age was striking.
Make no mistake. From powerhouse schools that have little national identity in other sports, to its own cadre of conferences to its slew of 21-year-old freshmen, college hockey skates to its own NCAA drummer.
“College hockey is so different than other sports,” said my cousin Kathy O’Neill, who has two sons committed to Hockey East schools and has packed them off to faraway places to play junior hockey. “It’s hard to explain it to other people.”
So when the Big Ten, which formed its own hockey conference in 2013, unilaterally proposed NCAA legislation last fall to lower the age a freshman can start a four-year career, it was little surprise that many coaches in the insular world of the sport voiced strong objections.
Many, including Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, did not like the rule. Not one of them liked getting big-timed by a Power Five conference.
“I think college hockey is in excellent shape,” said Pecknold, whose Bobcats faced North Dakota Saturday night at Amalie Arena for the national championship. “There’s a lot of parity. We’re putting one out of every three in the NHL out of the NCAA. We’re graduating our athletes. Why fix something that is not broken?”
Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia has estimated at least two-thirds of the 2015-16 freshman class reached its 20th birthday before playing a game in college. The average age of college players is nearly 22. The Big Ten rule would have put college hockey more in line with the rest of NCAA sports. It also would cut down on 17-year-olds playing against 25-year-olds — although 18 to 24, in truth, are the more realistic working age.
Quinnipiac, for example, had one 25-year-old and five 24-year-olds, including goalie Michael Garteig and captain Soren Jonzzen, on its 29-man roster this weekend.
College Hockey News reported last November that 49 of the 60 Division I coaches voted against the Big Ten legislation in a straw poll. Cavanaugh was one of the 11 who voted for it. In fact, when we talked Wednesday, Cavanaugh thought the 40-member NCAA Legislative Council — filled with athletic directors, senior women’s administrators, faculty representatives, many with no ties to hockey — could pass the legislation.
“There are a lot of people in the general public, NCAA presidents even, who have to be wondering why kids wait until 21 to go to college,” Cavanaugh said. “They don’t understand the dynamics of college hockey.”
Chances are you saw where the NCAA banned football satellite recruiting camps this past week in Indianapolis. That got plenty of national coverage. During those same meetings, the Legislative Council was set to vote on the hockey legislation. Only a few hours after I talked to Cavanaugh, U.S. College Hockey Online, citing sources, reported the Big Ten had withdrawn its proposal to allow for more discussion in the hockey community. The NCAA Legislative Committee had recommended the Council not pass the Big Ten proposal. So we’ll see where this goes.
“Some of the people pushing for it say it will be better for the student athlete,” Pecknold said. “Well, I couldn’t disagree with that more. If you play that 20-year-old [junior] year, like Landon Smith did, then you go to college, he only gets to play three years. He loses a year. How is that better for Landon Smith [a 22-year-old sophomore who scored the winning goal against BC in the national semifinals]? Or plenty of others who have done that? I struggle with that. Some argue they should go to college earlier; it’s better for them. Well, it’s not.”
With its structure, college hockey has enjoyed the best graduation rates among men’s Division I sports.
The Big Ten has the resources. The Big Ten has its television network. The Big Ten also has not been faring well in the national tournament. Its schools get a lot of high-end recruits. They’re high-round NHL draft picks. They play right away in college, and some move on. They’re certainly not going to wait around, playing in junior hockey, until they’re 21.
Yet as talented as the kids are, they’re still kids. Schools are taking older players, who are physically stronger, more mature and win games that matter most.
“I think the Big Ten proposal has some merit,” Cavanaugh said. “Do I think it’s perfect? No. And I don’t agree with how the proposal was put forward. The Big Ten kind of said, hey, this is what we’re going to do whether you like it or not. I’m not sure that’s healthy.”
Cavanaugh also was a longtime assistant at BC before coaching in the Atlantic Hockey League with UConn before the Huskies got into the Hockey East. He has seen it from different angles.
“For a long time in college hockey, you have your ‘haves’ and your ‘have nots,'” Cavanaugh said. “You have your Big Ten teams, Boston College a few others, and they’re ‘always trying to get an advantage.’ But in my mind, this could possibly help the Atlantic Hockey League.
“What’s happening now is many teams are stockpiling recruits. You’ll see schools with over 20 kids committed. Committing kids and then trying to decide if they can play or not. They just keep putting the kid off, buying time. If you made them figure out a year earlier, at least that would help with the stockpiling of recruiting.”
My cousin Colin O’Neill, from Odenton, Md., is set to attend UMass Lowell next school year. After graduating high school, he played two junior years for the Aberdeen [S.D.] Wings in the NAHL before playing for the Okotoks [Alberta] Oilers of the AJHL this past season. He’ll be 21 in July.
“If the rule was in effect, maybe he would have had to have aimed a little lower and maybe started earlier,” Kathy O’Neill said.
She said she hopes 19-year-old Jason, who committed to New Hampshire in 2014, and played for the Langley [B.C.] Rivermen of the BCHL last season, will start at UNH after two years of junior hockey. The boys take online courses from a community college to help build college credits. It is not unusual in college hockey for players to complete undergraduate degrees and, to keep playing, start in on graduate programs.
“My own parents at first, I think they were kind of shocked by how this works,” Kathy O’Neill said. “It’s like, ‘They’re good students. Why aren’t they going to college?’ Now they see the overall picture and the maturity and the experiences they’ve had.
“There are strict rules. Curfews. Nobody is giving them a curfew in college unless they’re in a sport. We know kids who went to college, partied too much and failed out. The boys have matured so much. Colin had teammates from Iceland, Germany. They’re not only meeting kids from all over the country, they’re meeting kids internationally.”
At the conclusion of the season, Colin drove back from Alberta and spent a number of days in South Dakota visiting with the family he billeted with there. He’s like another member of their family.
“It’s funny. We just got the email about orientation dates at UMass Lowell,” O’Neill said. “I’m like, ‘I guess we should go with you. Most parents do.’ But it’s like he’s not an ordinary freshman.”
Cavanaugh, meanwhile, said he doesn’t have as much a problem with the on-ice age discrepancies as some others.
“It’s there in high school,” Cavanaugh said. “Jack Eichel [who played at BU before going to the Sabres] is 19. He’s playing against 30-year-old men. [UConn freshman] Tage Thompson was third youngest kid in college hockey, and he led the nation in power-play goals. I’m not saying an extra year or two is bad, not at all. I just don’t like the way that college hockey recruiting has gone.”
If the rule’s enacted, Pecknold said, it won’t hurt Quinnipiac.
“We’ll just take kids a year earlier,” he said. “I don’t think it will hurt us because we’ve kind of moved up the food chain in recruiting. I do think it would hurt a lot of mid-level and low-level programs who take a lot of 21-year-old freshmen to survive.”