By Josh Levine
Let’s Play Hockey
It’s time to stop the race to recruit earlier and earlier, and fix the college recruitment process. The current situation is unnecessarily hurting athletes and increasing the workload for college coaches. As colleges commit to players who are younger, the risk of making the wrong pick increases, and the need to “stockpile” players becomes greater.
We are seeing these trends reflected in commitments this year. As of Jan. 1, 2017, there were 52 athletes who had verbally committed to play college hockey their freshman season in 2020-21. Under the current rules, colleges are acting risk-averse – they don’t want to lose talent because they won’t commit early, so many schools seem to be giving out commitments as fast as they can. For some schools, I have to ask, “Who haven’t they offered a scholarship to?”
As of Jan. 1, there were 15 schools that each had 20 or more recruits slated to play on their 2020-21 team. Some teams, like the University of Wisconsin, would have 31 players on the 2020-21 team if every commitment holds and each player stays all four years (not likely to happen but this also assumes no current high school player will also commit to play for Wisconsin during the next four years).
Parents, players and our youth hockey culture is part of the problem. The desire to be considered elite and the social value of verbally committing all contribute to a hockey culture that wants to label kids at a younger and younger age as college-bound. The verbal commitment does not guarantee them anything, so why rush it?
The trend of earlier college commitments is likely to continue, get worse and harm players as well as colleges in the process, which is why college hockey needs a rule change to prevent early recruitment.
“We need to find a better solution,” said Mark Strobel, assistant coach at Ohio State.
That solution might be in the works.
“NCAA Division I men’s hockey created a committee last year to improve the recruiting environment in men’s college hockey,” said Mike Snee, Executive Director of College Hockey Inc. “Addressing the recruiting and committing of younger players and negative aspects created by it are a top priority of the committee.”
While I do not know the exact policy needed to fix this situation, I do know there are many compelling reasons for why it needs to change:
A verbal commitment doesn’t mean anything if you don’t continue to improve and develop the skill set necessary to play college hockey. There are plenty of stories of players committing, stagnating, losing the passion for the game and ultimately not playing at the school they committed to. We just tend to forget about them. A verbal commitment with a freshman high school player is NOT validation of their ability to play college hockey today, but rather an estimation by the college team that this player will be ready and able to play in 4-5 years.
There can be up to a five-year difference between an athlete’s biological and chronological ages. That is, one freshman might have hit puberty early and is biologically 17, whereas another freshman might be biologically 12 years old. Which one do you think looks better on the ice in almost all cases? It is very hard for scouts to identify future talent. Turnover among the elite ranks is high even when male athletes hit 16 and 17 years old. The earlier a school recruits, the more likely a player’s future projections could be off. Early recruitment punishes those skaters that will simply hit puberty later.
“Puberty changes a lot. We see a lot of athletes really develop after high school and while playing junior hockey,” said Strobel.
Players should focus on development during these crucial years. Most male athletes are in a very important training window at 15 and 16 years old. Speed, quickness and explosion can be developed much faster for most players at these ages. Yet prospect tournaments (high cost, low training value), out of town travel, phone calls, e-mails and the rest of the recruiting process just get in the way! What is better for a sophomore athlete – speed work on the track for an hour or a tourney in Chicago?
Were you able to make a decision about where you wanted to attend college so you could pursue a career of your choosing at age 15? If not, then perhaps this is also a good reason to delay recruitment. Most freshman athletes are unable to fully realize the long-term impact of a college commitment. In addition, who feels good about placing this kind of pressure on young athletes? Ultimately, college recruitment is a business deal. The college is providing a free or reduced cost investment in exchange for an athlete’s performance. What happens if colleges don’t get their return on investment? And will earlier and riskier recruitment force them to “diversify their portfolios” with larger and larger recruiting classes?
Committing kids during such formative years accentuates a major problem in sport – self-identification by youth and high school players solely as athletes. Yes, I love sports and I want our youth to identify as athletes, but not to the detriment of everything else in life! Wouldn’t it be nice to recruit a high school player that is a National Honor Society student, great friend, amazing teammate, etc.?
“A ninth grader doesn’t need an ego,” said Strobel.
He couldn’t be more right. Let’s focus on what matters. Put your head down, be humble, and work hard. As Strobel continued to stress to me, “it’s all about your character.”
It is easy to see how a continuation of the current college recruiting trend could result in harm to high school athletes – mentally, athletically and academically. At the same time, the current set-up puts college recruiters in a tough spot. They can reduce the risk of losing talent by recruiting earlier, but then they also increase the risk of making a mistake. Let’s fix the situation and give colleges a recruiting framework that works better for high school athletes’ long-term development on the rink and in the classroom.