Last Friday, a much-needed proposal to restructure college hockey’s flawed recruiting environment was rolled out. An internal college hockey committee and the advocacy group College Hockey Inc. had spent two years trying to educate the relevant parties to the nuance of “verbal commitments” and “verbal agreements.” The most important part of their labors was revealed last week, presenting a new timeline to eliminate recruiting prospects who are still in middle school.
The most significant component of the new guidelines is the window of time between when a player verbally commits (Aug. 1 prior to 11th grade), to his binding National Letter of Intent (November of his senior year). That time window has been shortened considerably under this new plan, an attempt to curtail all the player movement from recent years. The current era is characterized by unbinding verbal commitments from 14-year-old recruits. Commitments that were frequently ignored by both coaches and athletes.
“I do think we’ll see less ‘movement’ prior to the National Letter of Intent being signed because we’ve shrunken that window,” said NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton, a driving force in this 20-member committee of coaches, commissioners, and athletic directors. “We needed to find a way to curb early recruiting.” Fenton acknowledged that recruiting 14-year-olds was by no means in the prospects’ best interest.
The 20-person committee did not have the power to change the legislative impact of a verbal offer (from the school), or a verbal commitment (from the player). By definition, verbal agreements are not binding. But the committee’s proposal to shrink the time between the verbal commitment to the binding National Letter of Intent should go a long way in stabilizing a system that had run amok.
For years recruiting functioned under a “gentlemen’s agreement,” in which coaches were supposed to respect the student-athletes’ verbal commitments. But commitments were coming from increasingly younger players, and violations of trust from both player and coaches became more and more frequent. The old “gentlemen’s agreement” soon became obsolete.
“The sport adhered to a set of unwritten rules differently in the past,” Fenton said.
The poster child for recruiting anarchy was the case of young Oliver Wahlstrom. As a 13-year-old hockey phenom from Yarmouth, Maine, Wahlstrom made news when he committed to the University of Maine, becoming the youngest hockey player ever to commit to an NCAA program at the time. Shortly after his 15th birthday, he decommitted from Maine and pledged his services to Harvard. When the ice chips settled this past fall, Wahlstrom was found in Chestnut Hill playing for Boston College. Fans were of the jilted schools were left with a bitter aftertaste.
“I think we saw a lot of skepticism related to recruiting and commitments happening at early ages,” Fenton said. So a new proposal, with two crucial time windows, has been laid out for all to see, with special thanks to College Hockey Inc. for its easily digestible graphic.
Courtesy of College Hockey, Inc.
The first window is a seven-month recruiting period, from Jan. 1 of the athlete’s sophomore year to Aug. 1 prior to their junior year. Coaching conversations and campus visits are permitted during this time frame. It is at the end of this period, Aug. 1, in which verbal offers and verbal commitments are permitted.
That Aug.1 date commences the next time frame, the 14-month countdown to the National Letter of Intent. Fenton is convinced that a more mature athlete, now 16 or 17 years old, will be less likely to jump ship to another college. Coaches will only have one season to observe their verbally committed players, not three or four. It is expected that coaches will not change their mind over player choices over that one season.
The consensus within the hockey establishment is that this new proposal is a massive improvement to the previous arrangement, one that was spiraling out of control. Implementation does not require any legislative victories either, just an adherence to common sense.