This April the NCAA has adopted new recruiting rules and regulations for all of its major sports. This has sparked debate across the country on the pros and cons of this new legislation from football to basketball to lacrosse to hockey.
As a neutral party who serve both NCAA and CHL programs, we have analyzed the changes as it relates to college hockey and broke down the ideology as well as the realities of how this legislation will impact youth hockey. As with all things with Neutral Zone, we do not pick sides (hence our name) and we simply serve the hockey community to educate and present the facts.
What is the recruiting rule change from the current model to the new model? What was the reason behind this change?
Given this is an NCAA legislation we will refer to the NCAA website on what they are trying to accomplish with the legislation and what the actual change is.
For most sports the rule change moves off-campus communication via phone, text, email and unofficial visits to June 15 after the prospect’s sophomore year in high school. For men’s hockey they have created a different model that allows for communication January 1st of their sophomore year (we will explain why later). However, both hockey and other sports cannot extend verbal commitments and they cannot host official visits until August 1st going into the prospect’s junior year.
The purpose of this legislation according to the NCAA is to curb early recruiting and to put rules and policies in place to have more effective standards. They also state this legislation is for the student athletes well being so there is a prospect focus on this legislation and not only coach focused.
It is important to note men’s hockey was given a 6-month head start on other NCAA sports because the NCAA recognizes the presence of the CHL and the impact this would make on not allowing contact prior to June 15th.
How is this different from the current model in place?
The NCAA stance on early commitments has been that they do not recognize verbal commitments. To them, the National Letter of Intent has been when the NCAA steps in and recognizes a legal scholarship offer. With the rise in recruiting efforts and competitiveness among college programs, the landscape has changed quite a bit in the past 10 years and the NCAA has been forced to react. In their eyes players committing to schools at ages 14, 15 and 16 as well as overrecruiting and the rise of de-commitments are all a negative both for college hockey and its impact on youth hockey.
While there has always been legislation in hockey in regards to contacting perspective student athletes and hosting official visits, there were no rules on verbal commitments and coaches were allowed to field calls from the players as well as host unofficial visits. The key was the communication for younger players had to be initiated by the player not the coach. Therefore, the biggest difference between last year and this upcoming year is coaches cannot verbally commit a player before August 1 going into their junior year and they cannot host a player on an unofficial visit or communicate with the player (regardless of who imitates contact) prior to January 1st of their sophomore year.
Who will be most impacted by this rule change?
Like any other sport, recruiting changes impact schools differently. The “one and done” rule for college basketball impacts Kentucky and Duke much differently than it impacts Northwestern and Harvard. Same is true in hockey.
There are three groups that will be most impacted by this legislation:
- NCAA programs who recruit younger players and players in competitive CHL markets, ie. Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Michigan, New York, California, etc.
Not every team in the NCAA is recruiting younger players. So teams like AIC, Canisius in Atlantic or teams like Minnesota State in the WCHA or teams like UMass Lowell in Hockey East, RPI in ECAC; these programs are typically recruiting 18, 19 and 20 year old prospects who are low risk for going the CHL route. However, there are teams like Michigan, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Boston University who are competing for recruits at young ages 13-16 who many of which are in highly-competitive CHL markets. There are teams who have a successful track record of recruiting young talent but aren’t as vulnerable to CHL recruitment like Northeastern, Providence and Minnesota. These are programs who have an established track record of identifying, recruiting and acquiring younger talent.
In looking at the recruiting data from the past 3 years we analyzed teams most impacted by the recruiting changes. This model accounts for teams who have committed players younger than 16 and teams who have lost committed players to the CHL. It also takes a look at teams who recruit a high percentage in competitive CHL markets.
High Impact – 13/60 = 21.66%
Moderate Impact – 16/60 = 26.66%
Low Impact – 31/60 = 51.66%
What this graphic shows is that while there is a lot of buzz about this issue and its impact on hockey; the majority of teams in the league are not directly impacted much at all. The reason early recruiting gets a lot of buzz is because the biggest programs (North Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin, BU, BC, etc.) are the ones in the high impact area and the players they recruit are the high-level prospects you see in the NHL; ie. Jack Eichel, Tyson Jost, Clayton Keller, Noah Hanafin, etc.
- Agents/Family Advisors
Family Advisors (the correct term for an agent of an NCAA player) play a pivotal role in the youth hockey arena. This is for a variety of reasons; most specifically these players have a lot of options where to play hockey as oppose to other sports who work off a high school model or a national AAU model. In hockey there is a AAA midget model, there is a high school model, a prep school model, a junior hockey model and to navigate the path players and parents rely on experienced agents and advisors. There is also the CHL where the top-level players are going to have both NCAA and CHL options and the agent will help with that as well. Most NCAA coaches will admit they spend considerable time talking with agents as they play a vital role in the recruitment process. Now that players, more specifically high caliber players, will not be able to reach out to the coach or their parents until later, the agent/advisors will now have an even larger role in this process. It was somewhat shocking that given the new legislation there was no mention whatsoever of agent/advisor communication among college coaches. As a result kids will likely need to acquire representation at a younger age because there is no direct communication with coaches anymore at bantam and minor midget age so indirect communication through the agent is the only way around it. We will not make the case here whether agents having more power and influence in the process is a good or bad thing; there are arguments on both sides, but it is certainly a reality that the advisor community will be the primary go-between the schools and the players.
- The elite/high level hockey prospects
Majority of this article is focusing on early recruiting which only impacts the very best players and it is a very small percentage. However, these players, like Jack Eichel and Clayton Keller are the representatives of NCAA hockey that get the most global appeal because of their success at the next level. It is those types of players who are being targeted at 13, 14, 15 and 16 years old by NCAA programs. However, these players are also being targeted by CHL programs and this rule change will arguably have the most impact on them. Again, like with agents, we aren’t going to argue whether that is a good thing or bad thing because there are legitimate cases on both sides, but it is the blue chip prospects who prior were able to meet coaches, look at schools and commit to a team and now are going to have to delay that process.
What is the CHL impact and will this decrease the quality of talent in the NCAA?
The CHL impact is likely the most important discussion on this legislation. Hockey is different from other NCAA sports in that they have a “professional” or more accurately “non-amateur” option at the age of 15 and 16 years old for high level players. Therefore, colleges do not just compete against other colleges and universities but they also compete against the CHL. Some regions more than others; for example, a Boston, MA prospect or a Minneapolis, MN prospect are not likely going to take the CHL route over playing for Minnesota or Boston College; however, a player born in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, is the opposite and will likely not leave to go down to the US to play NCAA.
To really answer the question, you’d have to ask how do you define quality of talent? If you judge NCAA route by its best players (Eichel, Keller, Hanafin, Mittelstadt, Jost, etc.) then yes this legislation could negatively impact the talent in the league. Does Tyson Jost commit to North Dakota if he cannot speak to them until he’s 15-16 years old when he’s been recruited and drafted by a WHL team at age 14? Who knows? More importantly, how much time is Michigan going to invest in Western Canada at the 14 and 15 year old levels if they cannot have them on campus or offer them until they are 16? And if schools start pulling back on their recruiting efforts for those aged players in those regions, the NCAA could see less Cale Makars and Tyson Josts coming to the US to play NCAA. On the other side of the coin, it’d be highly unlikely that Noah Hanafin or Jack Eichel would go to a french speaking QMJHL program coming out of Boston with dreams of playing in the Beanpot so it is very individual to the region the player grew up in, the CHL team that drafted them and the league itself.
If we judge talent by the size, skill, speed of NCAA D1 men’s hockey then taking away some of the elite level players, which would likely be less than 20 every year, is only going to impact, at the most, 80 of the 1,600+ players in NCAA D1 hockey so less than 5%. So overall, if the NCAA lost out on some of the higher end talent to the CHL as a result of this legislation, at very worst, it would shave off less than 5% of the top talent pool which would have very low impact on the overall level of play.
Impact on the CHL?
Whether the CHL is able to take advantage of this new legislation, time will tell, but the impact presents a unique opportunity for the league that it’s never had. They get at least a one year head start on the recruitment process of these players than the NCAA. Therefore the CHL can educate these players on the league, they can go through the drafting process and sit down with the teams management before ever having an offer from an NCAA program. That is significant advantage as the CHL will have the ability to hand them a legally binding contract at 14, 15, 16 years old whereas the colleges are handcuffed until 16 to give a verbal, non-binding commitment and wait until 17-18 to have an actually binding contract in the form of a National Letter of Intent.
The impact here could be CHL teams could have an easier time retaining talent in their home markets; so for example Owen Power with the Chicago Steel in this landscape would not have been able to verbally commit to Michigan in his minor midget year and may have gone to the OHL instead of the USHL and eventually NCAA route. The other repercussion to his change could be CHL teams investing more in the scouting and recruitment of US players. Markets like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, etc. could start seeing more and more attention from up north as they’ll be able to talk to the players, draft the players and offer them something well before colleges can.
Again, this depends a lot on the area and the player. Noah Hanafin was almost a 0% risk of ever going to the QMJHL regardless of having to wait to commit to a college.
What are the real positives and negatives of this legislation from the perspective of college hockey?
- Less pressure on the student athlete to worry and feel pressure about the NCAA recruiting process at younger ages (under 16).
- Less pressure on schools/coaches to spend a lot of money and resources on scouting and recruiting younger talent (under 16)
- Could lead to a more efficient recruiting process where there are less de-commitments and players/families and coaches making more informed decisions.
- Gives the CHL, as a league, a major advantage for the elite level players both in retaining Canadian talent and recruiting US talent. NCAA could potentially lose out on top tier talent they have shown recent success in acquiring.
- Eliminates direct communication between the student-athlete and the coach so all communication is done through intermediaries, mostly advisors/agents, which creates a disconnect in the process. It also creates for a much less transparent system than is currently in place so families cannot see who schools are verbally committing or talking with at the younger ages.
- Could disrupt the parity within NCAA D1 hockey. Currently the schools with the highest recruiting advantages (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Boston University, etc) with big budgets and professional level resources and facilities are spread out watching 14-20 year olds and can’t spend the time and resources on the 19 and 20 year olds that a lower budget program can as that is their only focus. Now that the blue chips are being legislated away from actively recruiting younger talent, there will be be more coaches watching the same level which could lower opportunities for the lower budget programs to compete for older prospects.
How will this likely play out? Is there ways to police this legislation and where are the holes?
The simple answer is nobody knows how this will play out because it has never been done. We will leave that part of the question there because that is where it belongs. Every opinion on the reality and likelihood is just that, opinion.
With that being said we can and think it is important to talk about the policing and enforcement of this rule change as well as where are the holes that can be exploited (and likely will be).
The NCAA has not yet released a complete breakdown of how they are going to police this issue and what the penalties are for different infractions. This is typical of the NCAA who has made several changes to recruiting across all sports in the past 5-10 years and many come without any specific policing/enforcement actions on their part. However, it is safe to say that this will likely be very loosely policed and enforced and the NCAA will have to rely on coaches calling out other coaches if/when they violate the rules. This is also challenging because how would a school, in many of these cases, be able to prove mishandling of recruitment. If a kid goes to visit Minnesota on his own dime, pays for tickets on his own dime, tells his advisor that he wants to go to school there and the advisor tells the kid the coach loves him and will offer him on August 1st. St. Cloud finds out and says there is tampering and the kid was on an unofficial visit there. How can you prove it? Who would conduct the investigation?
Given the enforcement and policing will be difficult for the NCAA to keep up with there are two obvious holes with this legislation which will likely be exploited.
- Agent communication- The rule outlaws student athletes at the younger ages to call/text/email coaches and coaches cannot call/email/text these players either. However, it says nothing about agents/advisors, youth coaches and other intermediaries having conversations with coaches about players. Therefore the only communication outlined is direct player and coach discussion but indirect communication isn’t a penalty.
- Unofficial visits – Players and families can visit any campus they want in the US at any time as long as it is on their dime. They cannot speak to the coaches while on campus or get a tour of the facilities, but a player can go visit a school with their family and check out the hockey rink/facilities on their own.
The legislation that was passed this month has been met with excitement by some, trepidation by others and skepticism by others. It will impact some programs more than others, it could have some impacts on NCAA hockey as a whole as well as on the CHL as a whole. Overall, this was a step by the NCAA to curb early recruiting which they identified as a problem facing NCAA athletics and they made special exceptions for men’s hockey with the understanding they have unique pressures given the presence of the CHL.
It would be too early to start making predictions on how this will impact youth hockey from bantams to midget to high school/prep school to junior hockey and everything in between. It’s too early to tell how teams will change, if they change at all, their focus in recruiting and how that impacts the league as a whole.
“It is important to realize that the direct impact of these legislation efforts impact a very, very small group of elite level hockey players,” remarked NZ owner Steve Wilk. “With that being said, let’s not kid ourselves that the NCAA is selling Jack Eichel and Clayton Keller to their base while the QMJHL is selling Crosby and the OHL is selling Connor McDavid. The best players matter and it is that reason why this topic has gained such traction.”
Wilk commented that the legislation, which they were expecting as a company, will not change the scouting focus of Neutral Zone from 14-20 year-olds pre-NCAA and pre-CHL. He also added that he has brought both CHL and NCAA based scouts together along with NZ’s analytics/education arm to track the top 100 highest rated 14 and 15 year old prospects in the US and Canada to watch where they end up, what their options were and compare it to the previous 3 years’ results to analyze any differences pre and post rule change. “What is equally of interest to us is not just the NCAA and CHL impact but does this have a trickle down impact on youth hockey and in what way? Does this make it tougher on the USHL to compete with the CHL in their Futures Draft? Does this make it easier or harder for CHL programs to know the intention of the players they are drafting? Will there be less value placed on showcase driven events at the bantam levels outside of the WHL draft eligible territories? Time will tell.”