Big Ten wants age limit for incoming hockey freshmen

The six-team Big Ten hockey conference is in just its third year of existence, but it’s already tryi
Union College captain Matt Wilkins said he was more comfortable coming to college as a 21-year-old freshman after spending years away from home playing junior hockey.
Union College captain Matt Wilkins said he was more comfortable coming to college as a 21-year-old freshman after spending years away from home playing junior hockey.

The six-team Big Ten hockey conference is in just its third year of existence, but it’s already trying to change how coaches recruit players.

Needless to say, most of the coaches in the other conferences aren’t very happy.

The Big Ten is proposing that the age limit for incoming recruits be reduced from 21 years old to 20. If a 21-year-old is recruited to play college hockey, he would only have three years of eligibility instead of four. If the player comes in at 22, he only has two years of eligibility.

College hockey is unique in that, unlike the other sports, some players come in a couple of years after graduating high school. They play in junior hockey leagues, honing their skills for one or two years before arriving on campus.

Earlier this season, The Daily Gazette ran a story about the culture of the older freshmen hockey players at Union and how they were more mature than the typical freshman student. Senior co-captain Matt Wilkins talked about how coming in as a 21-year-old was better for him.

“Personally, it helped,” Wilkins said. “I was away when I was 17, 18 years old. Coming in [to Union] when I was 21, it was nothing new. I lived on my own in the summers, too. It was, actually, kind of a step back having to live in dorms and whatnot. At the same time, it was good for me to get away from home and come in at an older age.”

Minnesota coach Don Lucia thinks that should change.

“I don’t think many kids leave to go play junior hockey thinking they’re going to play three years [in juniors],” said Lucia, whose Golden Gophers lost to Union in the 2014 NCAA title game, a contest that saw 20-year-old Dutchmen defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere named the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

“Every kid that’s playing college hockey, the beauty would be they just go to college a year earlier. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Just for me, philosophically, I don’t believe there should be 22-year-old freshmen. Other people can disagree, and that’s fine.”

Most of the coaches are not on the side of Lucia and the Big Ten. College Hockey News, which first reported the Big Ten proposal, said that in a straw-poll vote, 49 of the 60 NCAA coaches were against the proposal.

Count Union coach Rick Bennett and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute coach Seth Appert among those who aren’t happy with the Big Ten.

“I think a lot of people don’t like the fact with, let’s be blatantly honest, what’s happened the past three years,” said Bennett in reference to the last three NCAA championship teams — Yale, Union and Providence — being small schools. “A part of me gets it, but a part of me says I don’t know [the Big Ten’s proposal] is good for college hockey.”

Appert is especially perturbed that the Big Ten coaches didn’t present the proposal at the annual American Hockey Coaches Association in late April in Naples, Florida. The Big Ten coaches discussed the proposal over the summer.

“I don’t agree with it, first of all,” said Appert, who is a past president of the AHCA. “Instead of proposing it in Florida, as per custom and how we traditionally like to do business, whether we agree or disagree with each other, they decided not to bring it to everybody’s attention and then try to do it behind everybody’s back. In my opinion, that’s real, real poor ethic on their part, whether I agree or disagree with what they want to do.”

Bennett believes there are some 17- and 18-year-olds ready to play college hockey.

“But they’re also called first-round picks,” Bennett said. “But the majority aren’t [ready].

A spokesman for the NCAA declined to comment on the proposal.

Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia thinks the proposal has merit.

“The rationale for the legislation is pretty simple,” Traviolia said. “Our group of coaches felt that the age range of players playing collegiate hockey is too great. For any kid who graduates high school, they’re 17, 18 years old, so those are going to be the youngest kids on your roster. Given the way the current rule works, kids who play juniors to the full extent that they can come back as 20-, 21-year-old freshmen and then play for four years, you could have kids who are 25-year-olds playing against the 17- and 18-year-olds. That gap and range of age, our coaches feel, is too great.

“Our proposal isn’t to drastically reduce that. Our proposal is to, as modestly as possible, reduce that.”

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy believes the Big Ten coaches’ focus is in the wrong place.

“If we really want to look at an issue that needs attention, it’s probably the commitment of 13-year-olds,” Dennehy said. “I’m not worried about the older guys, I’m more worried about the younger guys. I don’t think recruiting 13-, 14-year-olds is healthy for our sport or our society.”

The Big Ten’s proposal will be voted on by NCAA committee at its convention in April.

“I think the hockey coaches have a very good process in place, as far as talking about rule changes, legislative items and really discussing all of these topics on the floor in Naples when every school is represented,” Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said. “I think there’s some disappointment that the process wasn’t followed.”

Categories: College Sports

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