Last week, College Hockey News (CHN) reported that the Big Ten proposed a piece of legislation to the NCAA to change a key recruiting regulation governing college hockey. This new rule, if passed, would lower the age limit of incoming hockey recruits from 21 to 20 and anyone enrolling after age 20 would lose one year of eligibility for each year. In other words, a 21-year old incoming freshman would only have 3 years of eligibility, a 22 year old would have 2 years of eligibility, and so on. Essentially, every player on a given roster would be required to be 24 years old or younger.
This proposal has little support in college hockey. In an unofficial straw poll, CHN reported that 49 of the 60 college hockey head coaches are against the proposal. Of the 11 in favor of the change, it is presumed that 6 are the Big Ten hockey coaches. While this vote has no bearing on the April, 2016 vote, it does reflect how the college hockey community feels about this proposal.
“There have been quotes out there by leaders of the Big Ten that they’re trying to do what’s best for them,” DU coach Jim Montgomery said in an exclusive interview. “That’s disappointing. I think [the college hockey community has] always had the idea that we’re going to do what’s best for the sport.”
So if college hockey doesn’t like the proposal, why is the Big Ten flexing its Power Five muscle and forcing the issue?
While there is no definitive answer to that question (and Big Ten coaches won’t give any good, specific, accurate answer), the whole issue may have surfaced after the 2014 National Championship game when Minnesota, a team made up of mostly younger student-athletes, lost in embarrassing fashion to Union (7-4 final). After the game, there was a feeling around the Gophers hockey program that Union had an unfair advantage because their average age was (a bit) higher than Minnesota’s.
In reality, Minnesota lost the National Championship because Union recruited well and built a program around players who stayed with the program long-term. They understood how to play sound, fundamental hockey and they had been playing with each other for more than just a year or two.
Fast-forward a year and here we are talking about the Big Ten trying to tip the scales in their favor instead of adapting to the current college hockey climate. Meanwhile, the rest of the college hockey community is pushing back.
“The number of players (college hockey) is putting in the NHL is higher than it’s ever been before,” explains Montgomery. “The graduation rate continues to be the highest in all of Division I Men’s sports. There’s nothing broken. There’s nothing we need to fix.”
Coach Montgomery’s feelings on the proposal have been echoed all over the country. Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle told CHN, “What is the problem? What is your issue? You don’t want to recruit those kids, then don’t recruit them. What business do we have to restrict who can and cannot play?”
Niagara coach Dave Burkholder agrees, “College hockey is unique and I think that’s one of the beauties of it. [College hockey players] are more mature coming to us as student athletes, and that makes for better hockey.”
College hockey has always been a unique sport in the NCAA. More often than not, incoming freshmen are 19, 20, and even 21 years old. The reason for this is that junior hockey is an important step in most players’ development. Most student-athletes play juniors for a year or two before making the jump to college hockey. The general consensus is that this path raises the level of play in college and makes these players more NHL-ready when their time in college over.
“Our recruiting hotbed is Junior hockey. It is for everyone in college hockey,” Coach Montgomery said. “The development of our sport at the junior hockey level is going to get hurt. There are a lot of players who don’t reach their potential until they turn 20. There’s nothing better than Tyler Bozak and what he was able to do as a 21 year old freshman.”
Bozak is a name DU fans know well. In his two years with the program before signing with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, he tallied 57 points in 60 games. If this rule were in place prior to 2007, it’s likely that Bozak would not have chosen to play with the Pioneers because of the limited eligibility. There are many other players in college hockey like Bozak who did not develop into a high quality hockey player until age 20 or 21.
Even this year, Denver has nine student-athletes on its roster who would have been affected by this rule if it were in place. That means that about a third of the current roster would either not be permitted to play college hockey or have limited eligibility, which would handcuff Coach Montgomery. The rule “would force me to make a decision on these student-athletes before they’re ready. It doesn’t allow me to bring a player in when I think it’s best to help the program.”
The Big Ten is acting against everything college hockey stands for. Graduation rates in college hockey are the highest in college sports. College hockey is putting more players in the NHL than ever before. And the game is growing faster than it ever has (even Arizona State has a program now). There is no reason to change an already incredibly successful institution.
The Big Ten is exploiting its status as a Power Five conference at the expense of the sport. Because of that status, they are the only college hockey conference that is able to propose legislation directly to the NCAA. Further, every Division I athletic conference will be voting on this proposal and all Power Five (autonomous) conferences (PAC-12, SEC, Big Ten, Big XII, ACC) have four votes each while all other conferences only have one.
This means that conferences that have no college hockey programs could decide the fate of this proposal. “If you don’t have a vested interest, you’re just going to listen to your fellow Power Five schools and follow the party line,” Montgomery explained. “It’s a loophole the Big Ten is trying to take advantage of.”
In the past, if there was something that needed to change in college hockey, the coaches would get together, come to a consensus, and then propose a change to the NCAA together. The fact that the Big Ten has the ability to propose legislation directly to the NCAA without consulting other conferences could be a problem for college hockey. If the rule passes in April, there could be a dangerous precedent set that the Big Ten can unilaterally change things to benefit themselves, thereby effectively killing the smaller, niche programs like Union, Niagara, Northern Michigan, and others.
That’s why it’s extremely important that this rule does not pass. College hockey is a unique, amazing sport and it’s getting better every year without NCAA interference. Montgomery will be doing everything he can to make sure this rule does not pass. “We will reach out to all those [Power Five] schools who have a vote and try to help them understand how this is not going to help the game.”
The Big Ten is doing its best to ruin college hockey with this proposal. The main pipeline of recruits for many schools could be effectively cut off if this rule were to pass. Without that pipeline, these programs will likely struggle and eventually schools might be forced to cut their hockey programs. That is not in the best interest of college hockey.
“I really hope that college hockey as a whole is able to do what we’ve done in the past and talk about it as a group and do what’s best for the game and not what’s best for certain programs,” Montgomery said.
The college hockey community agrees. This rule cannot pass.