Q&A With NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton About New Recruiting Guidelines

Shortly after a 20-person College Hockey Committee came up with new guidelines to curtail recruiting of pre-high schoolers, committee member and NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton spoke with FloHockey’s Tim Rappleye. Fenton was the driving force behind the committee’s two-year effort to stabilize a system that was clearly flawed by underage recruiting.

FloHockey: Josh, your committee that just unveiled the new recruiting rules, is this the same committee that was formed in the spring of 2016 in Naples?

Josh Fenton: You are correct, good memory. It was three representatives from each conference, 18 people: commissioner, athletic director, and a coach from each conference. Mike [Snee] and Nate [Ewell, both of College Hockey Inc.] participated in kind of an advisory capacity, so yeah, they were part of meetings.

Was job one to take care of the recruiting SNAFU’s from the old “gentleman’s agreement?”

There were three main tenants. One was understanding what a “verbal offer” is and is not. There’s nothing legislatively surrounding that, whether a coach is going to adhere to or not. A verbal offer or a verbal commitment, let’s just make sure we’re understanding that it’s a verbal, and there’s nothing legislatively, in the NCAA or otherwise, that can hold a verbal agreement together into the future.

Number two: Understanding the mechanics of the National Letter of Intent, how it relates to our unique delayed enrollment rule. Our sport has this unique delayed enrollment rule, you can delay your enrollment until your 21st birthday. There are some mechanics surrounding the LOI [Letter of Intent] because you can initially sign November of your senior year in high school. You may not enroll until two to three years afterwards. 

There’s some things we needed to clarify, and frankly educate coaches on what they can and cannot do with the National Letter of Intent surrounding delayed enrollment. We worked with the NCAA to put an educational document together and circulated that to compliance administrators and the coaches.

And the last thing was the news that came out last week, was the new recruiting time frame. That was the biggest piece we wanted to tackle. We knew that it would take the most time. The genesis of that was everybody in the sport felt that recruiting had gotten too young. This isn’t a unique college hockey issue, this is a college athletic issue, but it’s certainly prevalent in our sport. 

We needed to find a way to curb early recruiting, alleviate some of the early recruiting. We felt it was not right or good, first off, in the best interest of the prospect, to have recruiting conversations about where a kid may be attending college, and the kid may be in only eighth or ninth grade. We wanted to align the recruiting experience with what a normal college consideration experience would be for a non-athlete.

The first date of contact, and that’s coach-initiated or prospect-initiated or even going through a third party—agent/advisor, junior coach, midget coach, what have you—until Jan. 1 of your sophomore year. That’s also the date they can start to take official visits, have recruiting conversations at camps and clinics.

The second period was Aug. 1 prior to the junior year where they could take official visits, off-campus contacts, meaning in-home visits, going to evaluate a kid at a rink and then have a conversation with the him at the rink as an off-campus contact.

And then the last one is probably one of the biggest parts of the legislation, is that verbal offers, spots on a roster, can’t be done until Aug. 1 prior to the junior year. So, we’re hoping that there’s an appropriate recruitment period that can take place. Prospects at all institutions from Jan. 1 (of sophomore year) until the date in which they can officially be offered, which is Aug. 1 prior to their junior year.

The focus and the underlying goal is to try and improve the recruiting experience for the prospect. We felt that it had gotten too young, and not fair and appropriate. Therefore, we wanted to change it, and put together the legislation you saw last week.

From our reader’s point of view, the enemy here, the thing that drove a fissure through the “gentleman’s agreement,” was the 14-year-old recruits, the example of kids too young having to make these gigantic decisions in their life. Is that a fair assessment?

I think the fair assessment, let’s use your example of the 14-year-old kid, it’s an inappropriate age to be discussing and recruiting a kid for college. He has no academic background at 14 years old. How do your truly “commit” a kid to a college or university when there’s no academic background? 

I’d like to say to all the admissions officers around the country, “Are we all aware that kids 14 years old are ‘committing’ to your college?” The aspect of committing at such an early age, or recruiting at such an early age, is just inappropriate to begin with, and secondly, when that recruiting was done, the verbal offer was made, and the verbal commitment was given on the other end, then what that became was the student-athlete was locked up, so to speak, and he’s locked up until he signs his National Letter of Intent. That may be three to four years later. In what fairness is that to any party in that situation? 

Going back to what we tried to educate our coaches on, a verbal commitment is just a verbal commitment. So a school could break that verbal commitment on their own, saying “You haven’t matriculated to a point where you think you should be, and that offer we provided you two years ago is not there.”

Or the kid could easily say, “I don’t like the situation that I originally committed myself to, and therefore I’m going to go to a different situation.” We’ve fixed that in a sense that you can think about when the verbal offer, verbal commitment comes now with a new regulation, Aug. 1 of the junior year, to the point in which that kid can now sign a National Letter of Intent early November of his senior year. We’ve taken a three- to four-year window of “commitment,” again verbal, and shrunk it to now a year and a couple of months. We can’t offer it until Aug. 1 of the junior year. I think that’s a huge, huge benefit, and to be honest with you, I believe we’ve protected coaches a little bit more, in delaying those dates.

You have presented, with the help of College Hockey Inc.’s excellent graphics, much tighter recruiting windows. In recent years, passionate college hockey fans, ones that say “I can’t believe all the poaching that was going on,” players that were supposed to go to one school, ending up at another, outraging these fans. Do you think these tighter windows will cut down on that poaching?

I do. Well, I don’t know if I’d use that word, but I believe that we’ll see a verbal commitment that may be made today at 14 and 15 years old being broken, not broken because the commitment isn’t made until Aug. 1 before their junior year. Therefore, the kid is older, there’s going to be more palatability on both sides, have that “verbal commitment” period be a year and a couple months, as opposed to three or four years. So yes, I do think you’ll see less “movement” prior to the national letter of intent being signed because we’ve shrunken that window.

Unlike recent offseason proposed legislation like overtime formats and freshman age restrictions, this recruiting overhaul has gotten favorable reviews from fans and media. How has it been received on your end?

Very positive. The hockey organizations around North America has been very positive. National Hockey League, USA Hockey, certified NHL agents/family advisors have made positive comments on it, people who are at NHL clubs have made positive comments about this because they understand and realize we need to improve experience and opportunity for kids in the game. That means staying away from a college commitment discussion at 14 and 15 years old.

Secondly, the fans or general public that follows college hockey, I think we saw a lot of skepticism related to recruiting and commitments happening at early ages. When people saw what came out last Friday, many said they’re trying to do right by the prospect, which is what our goal was.

Safe to say the “gentleman’s agreement” was broken. Your solution unveiled on Friday was a much-needed fix that appears have achieved consensus.

Yes, is the short answer. I think the “gentleman’s agreement,” however you want to define that, is something we truly tried to educate coaches on, and say listen, whether coaches, prospects, the sport overall is adhering to verbal commitments or verbal offers and verbal commitments, let’s all realize and understand what they are. They’re just that, verbal offers and verbal commitments. Whether you want to adhere to an unwritten rule is just that, an unwritten rule. There’s nothing in legislation that we were going to able to fix to say, once the kid verbally commits, everybody’s got to stay away from them, because it’s a verbal commitment.

Now, if there’s something legislatively that could be done, that would be different. But that wasn’t or isn’t going to happen. The National Letter of Intent is the definition of a true commitment. I guess to some extent, the sport has adhered to a set of unwritten rules, maybe differently in the past, the way in which those rules were being followed recently have changed.   

The College Hockey Inc. graphics really help break it all down.

Nate Ewell did a tremendous amount of work in creating those graphics, and obviously writing the press releases.

One thing to underscore: We are a very different sport compared to most other sports in collegiate athletics. We have to work with a junior hockey system and structure. There’s a U.S.-based system and structure and a Canadian-based system and structure. Our dates of first date of contact has to be different than the general sport that was out there that didn’t have these other influences. It was very important that we keep that Jan. 1 [sophomore year] first date of contact. We have these unique junior hockey systems that you make sure you educate these kids prior to them making decisions.

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