Over the past two decades, recruiting has changed dramatically. As information about young athletes expanded and as alumni and fans became immersed in the “recruiting wars,” the way a roster is assembled has developed into a game-within-the-game.
While hockey hasn’t reached the manic levels of football and basketball, the challenges have swelled:
- Increasingly, players leave early for pro hockey, including the “one and done” process Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin followed. Even the Huskies aren’t immune to this with both Jujhar Khaira and Angus Redmond departing after just one season.
- NHL clubs are, more than ever, persuading college players to enter their minor league system sooner so they can lock in talent and train players to mesh with their franchise’s on-ice approach.
- First-rate facilities are huge. Gone are the days when Bo Schembechler could sell the nostalgia of Fielding Yost’s “hang your clothes on a nail” locker room as cover for a third-rate building. Great arenas, television exposure, training facilities, multi-media capabilities and living accommodations all factor into a recruit’s choice of school.
- Big money is in play. Penn State’s D-I entry was fueled by a $102 million gift from PSU alum Terry Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Sabres and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Notre Dame’s Compton Arena was also funded by a generous gift.
- College hockey players, unlike those in other sports, typically play one, two or even more years in junior leagues after graduating from high school. This isn’t like NCAA football, where high school athletes accelerate schooling to get a diploma and enroll early to participate in spring football.
- The “graduate transfer” rule is now commonplace, where a player who hasn’t exhausted his NCAA eligibility but completed his undergraduate degree can transfer to another school to play hockey and pursue graduate studies without sitting out a year.
- There’s even discussion that the one year waiting period for undergraduate transfers will be eliminated, making every year a potential free-for-all where talented players look to move around based on their chances of winning—and their odds of being promoted to the next level.
What does all this mean for Michigan Tech? For years we heard how hard it was to recruit talent to the Keweenaw. It’s out of the way, the winters are brutal, and the academics are tougher than at most of the schools the Huskies compete with. In some ways, that was an excuse for a program that floundered under coaches who couldn’t put together a winning season. The university commitment to hockey seemed soft, too, with an attitude of “we can’t be great, so we’ll try to be OK.”
By 2008, the writing was on the wall. With Penn State committed to Division I, the Big Ten was pledged to its own league. And, with College Hockey America’s men’s league struggling and collapsing, it was clear things were going to change. Tech’s administration recognized you were either all-in or you’d soon be out of D-I.
The Huskies improved their facilities, upgrading the Mac with luxury suites, a new coat of paint, improvements to the Grant Hockey Educational Center, and new seats. Later on, they added a modern scoreboard and new ice making gear. They hired Mel Pearson in 2011 and it became apparent he would drive an aggressive approach to recruiting. In truth, Pearson inherited some real talent from Jamie Russell, but he also managed to attract in-state kids that had gone to Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Kalamazoo and Big Rapids in the past.
And he opened a pipeline to the BCHL, where Husky great John Grisdale is the commissioner. When my wife Carol and I vacationed in the Okanagan Valley in 2016, we felt like we were touring the junior teams of the Huskies’ roster—Penticton, Salmon Arm, Trail, Merritt and Vernon are all clustered around Lake Okanagan. More importantly, he was able to start winning again. Once the WCHA was left with teams the NCHC deemed wouldn’t give them the national exposure they craved, and the remnants of the CCHA were added, Tech became a serious contender in the WCHA.
And winning further improved recruiting. And better recruiting continued improving the team.
For a while, I started to think Pearson hit the sweet spot in college hockey. He ended up with teams where everyone stayed for four years. Tech wasn’t getting the highest level of talent, but players that came stayed and developed. Then, in Pearson’s last year you could see things unraveling. As THG pointed out, the recruiting grid grew unbalanced. Early departures hit, with Matt Roy joining Redmond by turning pro after last season.
With transfers and early-outs now a fact of life, it may be increasingly difficult to maintain a balanced grid. You’ll have to be nimble and scramble every year to put together the talent needed to be an NCAA tournament team.
And that’s not unlike what Joe Shawhan faced in the NAHL.
Shawhan’s moves so far—bringing in Packy Munson and the other pledges Tim Braun explained nicely in The First One Hundred Days–look doggone good to me. If the Huskies want to get to the next level, which means consistent trips to the NCAA tournament, and, just as importantly, some tournament wins, they are going to have to do more than they did during the Pearson years.
What will it take?
Recruiting will have to be agile. While you’ll need to plan as far ahead as possible, you’ll also need to pivot on the edge of the skate blade if something changes—and things will change in unpredictable ways. You’ll need to be personable. When Munson says that Joe Shawhan blew him away, you know he saw the infectious enthusiasm and high-energy optimism that Shawhan has demonstrated in his public and private moments since becoming head coach. Recruiters will have to be connected. The experiences that Shawhan, Chris Brooks, and Dallas Steward share appear to have the US covered. The association with Grisdale and the BCHL will also be important, and you can see that in this year’s freshmen Tyler Rockwell and Mitch Meek.
In the days of past glory, that’s similar to John MacInnes’ approach. John oozed charm, class, commitment and integrity, and everyone knew it. He had great ties to Canadian leagues from Ontario to British Columbia, and he was one of the very first US coaches to recruit Europeans.
Tech’s not likely to get a $100 million gift for hockey. Much as THG fans love the UP, it’s always going to be a tough geographical sell. We just have to work harder, be smarter, and sell what Glenn Mroz has called “The cult of Michigan Tech.”
So far, Shawhan’s shown he can do all of that.