While this post is attributed to me (purely for administrative purposes on our platform), this piece actually comes from a contributor who wished to remain anonymous. We will have a few more posts in coming weeks that express other viewpoints on the issue of recruiting. -Ed.
NCAA Division 1 hockey used to be a special place among the giants in the sports world. While NCAA football, and basketball grew into billion dollar juggernauts, designed to be the NCAA’s private mint, college hockey stayed out of the fray, mostly forgotten by all but the fans. College hockey was, and still is, a niche sport, a fact that every fan realizes sooner or later. Despite its status as a niche sport, over the last several years, the landscape of college hockey has changed. With that change, college hockey has lost its innocence. The stark realization that the same forces driving NCAA football and basketball are also pulling the strings of NCAA DI hockey has hit some programs (and fans of those programs) like a young child learning Santa Claus isn’t real.
Conference realignment has been the most obvious symptom of this shift, but it is not the only important change that impacted DI hockey. In the last few years, recruiting practices among the largest, and most powerful college hockey programs have changed. On October 6, 2014, Mike McMahon of CHN reported that in the spring of 2014, at the annual AHCA convention in Naples, Florida, representatives from all NCAA DI discussed the merits of the longstanding gentlemen’s agreement. For many years leading up to this time, the gentlemen’s agreement, between all DI coaches, dictated that coaches would cease contact with a recruit once that recruit made a verbal commitment to another program. The idea was that once a student athlete made a decision, that decision would be respected by other coaches. Following a heated discussion, a vote was held, and the results showed that the gentlemen’s agreement would be kept in place. Despite this result, several coaches were said to have stated that they would not adhere to gentlemen’s agreement. With this revelation, the agreement was dead, and DI college hockey changed.
There were many coaches that spoke out against this shift in policy, one of whom was current Notre Dame head coach, Jeff Jackson. In the same Oct. 6, 2014 article on CHN, Jackson, when discussing the dissolution of the agreement and recruiting committed players, was quoted as saying:
“I go back to that and say that I don’t think it’s ethical. I watch it happen now that I’m at Notre Dame all the time with big-time basketball. I watch it happen with our football program and I think it’s an embarrassment.” – Jeff Jackson
When asked about this topic during his weekly coach’s show, former Michigan Tech head coach, Mel Pearson, was quoted in an article from The Daily Mining Gazette on June 10, 2014 as saying:
“But from my perspective, I’m not going to call a kid who has verbally committed. We believe that your word should be good. Once we give a kid our word, we are not going back. And we hope the player feels the same.” – Mel Pearson
Throughout Pearson’s tenure, Tech was among the schools that continued to adhere to the gentlemen’s agreement.
A common explanation for the rationale of the coaches that aligned themselves against the agreement was that the agreement protects programs, and coaches, that stockpile recruits. Towards the end of the Mike Eaves era at Wisconsin, Eaves had developed a reputation for doing exactly this with his Badger teams. Programs that stockpile recruits accumulate commitments from young prospects, hoping that several players will develop into highly skilled, impact players at the DI level. While this strategy undoubtedly leads to high-end talent landing with programs that stockpile, it also leads to players being cast aside by programs. If a better player commits to a team that already has a full class of recruits, it means that another committed player gets left behind by the program. To the consternation of many Michigan Tech fans, Pearson appeared to be stockpiling recruits at Tech towards the end of his time leading the program. This directly led to a difficult recruiting situation for new coach, Joe Shawhan, once he took the reins in 2017.
A few years have passed since the split between two factions (programs following the agreement, and programs ignoring the agreement) in DI hockey occurred. During the time that has passed, it has become obvious that the gentlemen’s agreement is decisively dead. Wisconsin has a new coaching regime in place, which seems to be continuing the tradition of stockpiling recruits. It also appears that Mel Pearson’s opinion on the gentlemen’s agreement changed once he accepted his current position with the University of Michigan. Within the last week Pearson secured a commitment from Jake Harrison, a recruit that was verbally committed to Michigan Tech. It is also important to note that Harrison committed to Tech after Joe Shawhan took the reins, so this is not a case of a recruit that previously committed to Pearson wanting to follow him to Ann Arbor.
The big, powerful DI hockey institutions seem to have benefited most from the dissolution of the gentlemen’s agreement. These programs have unmatched resources to commit to recruiting efforts, and they have turned their efforts to include both uncommitted players, and players committed to other programs. Within the last year, Michigan Tech has lost recruits to both Minnesota-Duluth and to Michigan. While it is impossible to determine the level of contact coaches had with recruits while they were committed to Michigan Tech, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility, especially in the case of Pearson at Michigan.
While the current state of the college hockey recruiting landscape looks grim for a smaller school, like Michigan Tech, there are still many opportunities for a program in Tech’s position. Recruiting in college hockey is now like the Wild West. Schools like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are going be contacting committed recruits, and attempting to convince them to flip to their schools. There is no way to get around this new reality, it is not going to change, it is not going back to the way it once was. Some programs are going to stockpile recruits, accumulating more talent than is possible to sign to letters of intent. This will lead to talented players being released, abandoned, by the programs they committed to. Michigan Tech has already benefited from this, by securing a commitment from former Wisconsin recruit, Trenton Bliss. In this new world of recruiting, picking up talent that has been cast-off from the Goliaths of DI hockey can be a very valuable source of talent for a program like Michigan Tech. There is an abundance of young talent in the ranks of junior leagues, elite leagues, and even high school, more talent than the DI powerhouses can sign. High caliber, talented players will be looking for a new program late in the recruiting process more often than ever before, after the programs they originally committed to try to defer enrollment for a year, or pull scholarship offers altogether.
Michigan Tech, Joe Shawhan and the rest of the coaching staff should jump into the fray of major DI recruiting, and position themselves to best take advantage of the new state of the recruiting world. The gentlemen’s agreement is dead, so Michigan Tech should adapt to the current situation and take advantage of it in any way possible. While opposing programs attempt to sway future Huskies, Tech’s coaching staff should begin talking to recruits of those same teams that are stockpiling. Tech coaches should be pointing out the distorted reality of opposing teams’ recruiting strategies. They should be targeting talent that is at risk having scholarship offers pulled, or enrollment deferred by larger programs, and offering these players the opportunity to play big minutes, for a great program. The key will be managing recruiting correctly, so that Michigan Tech does not fall into the same trap larger programs have become susceptible to: over-recruiting. This is easier said than done, and Shawhan, and his staff, will have to manage the recruiting situation deftly if they are to succeed. If Tech is able to attract some additional talent from the larger, powerful programs, it will help offset the talent that is lost to those same schools. After all, in the new world of recruiting, turnabout is indeed fair play.