Big Ten Proposal Reasoning Doesn't Hold Up

Photography by ryan johnson

Photography by ryan johnson

There has been plenty of discussion about the Big Ten’s proposal to change the rules of eligibility for college hockey players. To oversimplify the change, players entering college as 21-year-old freshmen would no longer have four years of eligibility. More specifically, the change would be based on years past the player’s expected high school graduation date. Currently, players are still able to play four years of college hockey even if they don’t start until they are 3 years removed from graduation (21 years old), the new rule would change that to 2 years or typically 20 years old.

Since the story broke on College Hockey News back in November, many coaches on both sides of the issue have commented with their thoughts. The coaches in favor of the legislation have thrown out a variety of reasons why this change is good for college hockey and supposedly not self-serving the typically-big school, power five conference teams. Today we’ll break down those reasons and see if the numbers back them up.

Tech Hockey Guide has poured over USCHO, Elite Prospects and Chris Heisenberg’s commitment pages for the last five years to compile a master list of data about current rosters throughout college hockey, with the exception of Arizona State (whose recent addition and large number of transfer/club players makes them significant outliers with respect to these rule changes). To start with, there were some assumptions made on this data collection that are important to note. Without talking to each coach, player or compliance officer, it is hard to know who would and would not be affected by this rule change if it existed 5 years ago. For simplicity, we’ve assumed an age cutoff of August 1 of the player’s freshman year and we’ve focused on commitments to their first team if they transferred to a new school. Quite a few players have no record of their commitment on Elite Prospects or Chris Heisenberg’s list so we’ve assumed approximately a month before they started with their team.

There are 1611 players on the 59 teams analyzed and of those, 308 appear to have been 21 years old as freshmen (about 19.1%). Over the last four years, that percentage has increased from 18.0% to 20.4% and that trend, which has been steady, might be an indicator as to why this proposal to be brought now. 

Age as Freshmen 2012 2013 2014 2015 Total*
17 2 3 6 8 19
18 40 55 55 51 207
19 95 126 105 113 448
20 132 131 167 195 630
21 59 73 80 94 308
Total 328 388 413 461 1612
% of Total 18.0 18.8 19.4 20.4 19.1

*Includes 2011 freshmen that redshirted and are still playing D1

Table 1 - Percentage of Players Potentially Affected

Minnesota’s Don Lucia is ultimately the person who proposed this within the Big Ten. Their status as the only all-sports conference allowed them to push this legislation directly to the NCAA without the knowledge of the other conferences. Minnesota has a long history of promoting the greater good in college hockey and playing the little guys. They’ve also been great at promoting high school hockey within Minnesota and taking mostly local players for their team. One of the first things that jumped out after analysis was how this would affect Americans and Minnesotans. This legislation would have changed things for 189 Americans and 39 Minnesotans, more than any other state or province except for Ontario (also with 39). A closer look shows that a larger percentage of Canadians and other foreigners would have been affected, but the old adage of “overaged Canadians” is far from the norm here.

Country/State/ Province 21-Year-Olds Total % of Total 21-Year-Olds Regional % 21 Years Old
USA 189 1081 61.4% 17.5%
Canada 107 470 34.7% 22.8%
Europe 12 61 3.9% 19.7%
Minnesota 39 203 12.7% 19.2%
Ontario 39 195 12.7% 20.0
Alberta 25 88 8.1% 28.4
Michigan 23 140 7.5% 16.4%
British Columbia 20 110 6.5% 5.2%
New York 16 96 5.2% 16.7%
Pennsylvania 14 53 4.5% 26.4%

Table 2 - Players' birth regions

Scott McLaughlin, with WEEI out of Boston, spoke with current Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson about why he and other coaches are likely in favor of the legislation.  Jeff first talked about how the rule changed while he was gone from college. He previously coached at Lake Superior State where he won a national championship “thriving on older freshmen” who had even lost a year of eligibility because they were playing in junior hockey as 20-year-olds. The biggest issue with this situation which rarely happens now, is that it feels like a disservice to the student athletes who only get 3 years to complete their degree while playing. It seems silly that a coach would advocate for a rule change that would mean less scholarship money paid to some players because they bloomed later, making it a bigger financial investment for them to graduate.

Jackson also mentioned that his team had lost a conference playoff series, a few years back, to Alaska, and he thought it was primarily because the Nanooks team was older. We’ve also heard rumors that Minnesota’s loss to an older Union team for the 2014 National Championship could be Don’s ultimate reason for pushing this legislation. Digging deeper, there are some differences in the completion of the rosters. On Jackson’s reference to the 2006 CCHA playoffs, the Nanooks did have nine players that were probably 21 years old as freshmen while Notre Dame had none, but the average age of Alaska was 22.0 years, while Notre Dame was 21.4, even when looking at just the 18 skaters (and starting goalie) that each team dressed for the first game of the series, the difference only increased to 0.7 years, a difference of 0.1 years. Wisconsin has been living off of the success of large senior classes under Mike Eaves, with their National Championship in 2006 coming from an older squad, averaging 21.8, so it’s not like Big Ten schools don’t take advantage of “older” players from time to time. As for Union, they had a 5-2 advantage in “over-age” freshman, with all but Union’s Matt Krug dressing for the championship game. Minnesota was around a full year-per-player younger depending on looking at full rosters or those dressed for the title. While Union did have four older players, only Eli Lichtenwald finished the season top-ten in scoring for the team, at tenth. That team was led by seniors Mat Bodie (20 years old at start of his freshman year), Daniel Carr (18) and junior Shayne Gostisbehere (18).

To be fair to Union, stats do show that college undergraduates are getting older with more “non-traditional” students attending college. Using Minnesota as an example, in Fall 2015, over 29 percent of all undergraduates were at least 22 years of age. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) show that 34 percent of full-time male undergraduate students at non-profit 4-year institutions are at least 22 years old. The one glaring disparity between college hockey and the general population is that there are very few players under 20 years old (14.6%) compared to the undergraduate bodies of both U of M (36.4%) and the nation as a whole (27.8%). The Big Ten (25.7%) and Hockey East (20.9%) are the only conferences that are anywhere close to the national average, with the rest of the conferences under 20%. This really isn’t all that surprising since so much of the young (and usually drafted) talent is stacked in those conferences along with some players in the NCHC (17.9%) and ECAC (15.4%), the other two conferences that are younger than the average for collegiate hockey. The rest of college hockey has to recruit older players to compete and a large percentage of all players play at least one year of junior hockey.

Under 18 18-19 20-21 22-23 24+ 22+ Total
National (2012)* 0.3% 32.4% 33.1% 17.3% 16.9% 34.2% 4,759
19 1,304 1,256 695 1,485 2,180
0.4% 27.4% 26.4% 14.6% 31.2% 45.8%
U of M (2015)+ 557 10,554 10,349 4,296 4,748 9,044 30,504
1.8% 34.6% 33.9% 14.1% 15.6% 29.6%
College Hockey 8 227 784 526 66 592 1,611
0.5% 14.1% 48.7% 32.7% 4.1% 36.7%
AHA 0 15 152 116 19 135 302
0.0% 5.0% 50.3% 38.4% 6.3% 44.7%
Big Ten 3 38 74 38 7 45 160
1.9% 23.8% 46.3% 23.8% 4.4% 28.1%
ECAC 0 51 159 116 6 122 332
0.0% 15.4% 47.9% 34.9% 1.8% 36.7%
HEA 2 66 158 89 10 99 325
0.6% 20.3% 48.6% 27.4% 3.1% 30.5%
NCHC 2 36 109 60 5 65 212
0.9% 17.0% 51.4% 28.3% 2.4% 30.7%
WCHA 1 21 132 107 19 126 280
0.4% 7.5% 47.1% 38.2% 6.8% 45.0%

+ Ungraduate students from University of Minnesota

* For full-time male undergraduate students in Non-Profit 4-year institutions (listed first) and all degree granting institutions (listed second) from NCES, listed in thousands of students

Table 3 - Undergrad Enrollment vs Players

Another talking point that has been widely discussed as a reason for this Big Ten proposal is related to recruiting. Big Ten coaches have to deal with a lot of early departures if they’re doing things right because they tend to get recruits who are on the fast track to the NHL. All of these early departures have led to Big Ten coaches publicly announcing they’d no longer follow the long standing gentleman’s agreement to not recruit players who have verbally committed to other schools. The Big Ten believes that commitments are getting earlier every year and that other schools are getting early commitments and asking recruits to stay in juniors longer than necessary. If we focus specifically on 21-year-old freshmen, over 70% of them are committed for a year or less before starting college. That’s the highest rate of any age group. Less than 6% are committed over two years, so there is basically no evidence of teams stashing players and holding them back until they’re 21.

Years Committed 17 18 19 20 21
<1 38.6% 36.2% 41.5% 58.1% 70.5%
1-2 31.6% 31.4% 30.4% 26.8% 23.7%
2-3 31.6% 23.2% 20.5% 9.7% 3.2%
3-4 0.0% 9.2% 7.1% 4.3% 2.3%
>4 0.0% 0.0% 0.4% 1.1% 0.3%

Note: Commiment date for first school used for transfers.

No commitment date was found for some platers. Their date is assumed 30 days before start of semester.

Table 4 - Length of Commitment

There are rare exceptions, including players who end up not going the first school they committed and enter college as 21-year-old freshmen. Bentley will have one such player next season. Jake Kauppila committed to Michigan Tech back in 2011, things didn’t work out and he decommitted in 2015 and eventually committed to Bentley in December where he will be a freshman. He would have been committed to MTU for around five years when he started next fall. While his case certainly isn’t what anyone really wants for players, he is hardly the rule and changing this rule would seem to hurt the level competition which has done nothing but help more college players than ever get to the NHL. Despite what some coaches claim, it's hard to imagine that pro scouts really want college hockey to get younger. It's been a great place for players to hone their skills and get an education. Speaking of education, many coaches opposed to this proposal point out that older freshmen mean more mature students, ready to handle all the responsibilities of Division I athletics, attempting to balance classes, team commitments and a social life. While it is hard to find stats that back this up, it is easy to notice that Academic Progress Ratings for college hockey are among some of the best the NCAA.

More Information

Age Analysis Spreadsheet