Between the Lines
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Often, this column will be the place for a lot of random musings. But this month, there's a lot of meat here, as we delve into hot-button topics like new NCAA regulations, the upcoming World Junior Championships, and coaching shifts. Hopefully it's not too much to digest at once.
A lot of people wrote over the last few weeks, looking for the column to run more frequently. Well, I'm thrilled people have enjoyed reading, whether you agree with me or not. But we can only do so much. This month's column is nearly twice the size of last one, so hopefully that will give you enough to chew on for a while.
The days of the 21-year old freshman may soon be over. And the 20-year-old one, for that matter. Legislation before the NCAA would allow, in effect, Canadian major junior players to retain their NCAA eligibility. Many fans and coaches have longed for this kind of change, and are excited about the possibility, believing it rights a wrong and opens up new recruiting opportunities.
But there is a huge can of worms about to be opened, with far-reaching implications the casual fan probably has yet to realize.
The legislation is a result of a two-year study by the NCAA's Sub-committee on Amateurism and Agents. They were charged with investigating the deregulation of amateurism — in other words, reexamining the definition of an amateur.
The result is five pieces of related legislation, currently before the NCAA and tabled until its April, 2000, convention. If the legislation passes, student-athletes will be able to do the following and still not lose eligibility: enter a pro draft, sign a pro contract or commitment, participate on a pro team, accept prize money and accept compensation (in the form of a stipend or educational expenses).
This, in and of itself, completely changes the ballgame. In theory, it means an athlete can play in the NBA for one year, then return to college. They can't get paid while in school, but what happened pre-enrollment is no longer a concern to the NCAA. For hockey, it means the doors are reopened to any athlete who played in major juniors.
This is great, say many. The NCAA has finally recognized that just because a kid locks into something at a young age, it shouldn't penalize him or her later. It means a Canadian kid who had to commit one way or another — to major juniors or a U.S. college — at age 15, no longer has to worry. It means a kid who is sweet-talked into playing for a junior team can change his mind if he decides it isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The negative? Prep schools and U.S. junior-A leagues, such as the United States Hockey League, may lose kids who say, "What the heck. I'll try major juniors. I can always come back."
But the USHL can live with that. As Gino Gasparini, commissioner of the USHL, said, "The challenge is to create an environment to present the same development level. You don't have to leave this country to get what you want. We could do it as good or better. If the NCAA does [change the rule], it provides the impetus to get better."
Here, however, is the long-awaited catch.
As part of the legislation — essentially, as a sacrifice for this newfound freedom — student-athletes will lose one year of eligibility for every season played anywhere outside the NCAA following the year of graduation from high school.
Read that again, folks. Anywhere. This includes not only pro, but any outside competition, including (listen up, hockey fans) prep schools, the USHL and other U.S. junior leagues, and even the USA Hockey junior developmental program.
The NCAA legislation has completely eliminated the distinction between where you play, what contract you sign, what agent you deal with, or how much money you make. Instead, eligibility will be based solely on four total years of competition anywhere following your year of high school graduation, regardless of where this competition occurs. Basically, the NCAA is saying that you do not get a competitive advantage from being paid per se, but from competing.
Is this bad? Maybe not. But it is a complete disaster to the three aforementioned groups of hockey developers in the United States. They will lose all but a select few 19- and 20-year-olds. The USHL says 61 percent of current players would be affected. For other U.S. junior leagues, the effect could be even greater.
There is a contingent of folks, many fans included, that wouldn't mind the elimination of the 21-year old freshman. But the fact is, the rest of the hockey-playing world considers the age of the junior classification to include players up to age 20. That isn't changing.
"The league gets a lot younger, and I don't think it lends to the overall best interest of hockey," Gasparini says. "It opens up major junior, but it does nothing for the American-born player.
"If you want to apply the rule, don't apply it to leagues and levels of hockey that have been cognizant to amateurism. Apply the one-year rule to those leagues that have not been previously classified as amateur."
The legislation was always intended to affect all NCAA sports, and cover everything with one broad stroke. Hockey wasn't considered any more or less than any other sport. But the far-reaching effects on collegiate hockey, intended or not, are unmistakable, and the most jarring of any sport.
Thus the frustration of having no members of the committee that have an interest in hockey.
Here's the list of sub-committee members:
Lisa Dehon is the NCAA consultant and former Student-Athlete Reinstatement Representative. She insists the effects of hockey were considered and the sub-committee is ready to hear hockey's concerns. Hockey could decide, she says, to support an amendment that would maintain the status quo for the USHL, prep schools and the national developmental program.
"We're waiting for the hockey community to come together," said Dehon. "This sub-committee is willing to look at everyone's concerns. We're not getting specifics enough from hockey to change anything.
"If a conference can agree and sponsor legislation, we'll decide whether to support or not support it. We know it's a unique recruiting environment, but we don't have a consensus."
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna says league coaches are split on the issue, and therein lies the problem.
"There will be a huge pool of third-line players [from major juniors] that become eligible," Bertagna says. "But the blue-chip American might leave. Some people might like that. The MAAC is not getting those kids anyway. It's going to make college hockey a lot younger, and some people might think it's not a bad idea."
The USHL would continue to be a strong alternative for kids from areas that don't have established high school hockey programs, but more kids from places like Minnesota will be jumping directly into college from high school.
"There [are] so many horror stories of major juniors, and that's the positive [of the proposed rule change]," says Gasparini. "But the point is, if the present rules have kept them out, then deal with that. Why take those problems and apply those to what has worked?
"I think some common sense is going to prevail. I know this is a multi-sport issue, but I'm a believer that if enough information is presented, there's going to be some change."
This issue is very difficult. In many other sports, it will have little effect. In hockey, there will certainly be an enormous effect, both positive and negative. It's just too chaotic to predict at the moment, but it's definitely something all college hockey fans should be keeping a close eye on.
Also on the plate at the NCAA's April convention is another proposal, to increase the hockey bracket from 12 to 16 teams. This has already been shot down once, but its time may be drawing near. Ty Halpin's story at the NCAA News site covers all the bases.
Meanwhile, according to the NCAA, its new 11-year, $6-billion TV deal with CBS will have no impact on hockey. John Painter of the NCAA says the deal doesn't cover sports that have current contracts with ESPN, such as men's Division I ice hockey. If ESPN later decides to drop ice hockey, then the NCAA and CBS would be in position to work something out, but there's no indication that ESPN will do that.
Harvard is back in business. Perhaps it won't be as easy as an early-season surge indicated, but the Crimson are headed in the right direction under new coach Mark Mazzoleni. Geoff Howell's outstanding feature for USCHO covers the ins and outs of Harvard's fall from grace, underachieving last five years, and its hopeful rebirth.
As for the inside scoop behind this summer's coaching soap opera: No one still really knows the motivations of the school and all the candidates who came in and out of the running. In Bill Beaney, Joe Marsh and Tim Taylor — head coaches at Middlebury, St. Lawrence and Yale, respectively — Harvard had a New Englander, a Bostonian and a Harvard alum to choose from, all with respected hockey backgrounds. All three pulled out of the running during the process as Harvard athletic director Bill Cleary pondered the decision.
You can't blame Cleary for going after the guy he wanted, but some Harvard alumni were shocked it wasn't someone with stronger ties to the area, especially someone like Taylor, who has gone after the job twice. Rumors said the monetary offer being made on the position was comparatively low for a Division I school in the Boston area.
Did the three candidates just get cold feet? Were they tired of waiting? Were they offered too little money? Or was Cleary just holding out for his man?
Beaney has won five straight national championships with Division III Middlebury, and, unless there's something we don't know, should be able to land a Division I job if he wanted it. Depending on who you talk to, he pulled himself out of the running for the Cornell vacancy five years ago, or was the second choice. Similar story this time around. Was he not wanted? Is he holding out for something at this alma mater, New Hampshire, or nearby Vermont?
A combination of the above?
The story is similar for Marsh. Did he take himself out of the running because the job wasn't paying enough? For Marsh, who has a daughter attending St. Lawrence gratis, the move wouldn't have made much fiscal sense. But there's surely more to it than that for Marsh, who has a good relationship with the administration and a loyalty to the area.
"You stay at a place long enough, you feel a certain ownership of it," Marsh said.
Taylor apparently took himself out the running while his alma mater dragged its feet, leaving him a bit baffled at what was going on. That's when, word has it, Harvard bumped up its offer to Mazzoleni, and got the deal done.
Again, few will ever know the real motivation behind all the decisions made on both ends. But one thing I do know: it's good for St. Lawrence and Yale to have their long-time mentors still around. And Harvard's program got a pretty good boost too. So, if you're a fan of the ECAC as a whole, you should be happy.
"I think people respect [Taylor] so much for his decision," says Marsh. "It's good for the game, it's great for Yale, it's great for our league. He's a fabulous coach, and it's always exciting to go there."
While we're on the subject of coaches, let's take a look at some who may be on the hotseat. Please note: This is not who I necessarily believe should be on the hotseat, but only those whose names you constantly hear, fairly or not.
Tim Watters, Michigan Tech — With one win, this program is headed nowhere fast. Watters is in his fourth year, but hasn't been able to resurrect his alma mater. Joe Mallen, UMass-Amherst — With its powerful resources and beautiful building, people said it was only a matter of time until UMass restarted the program to become a Hockey East power. Six years later, we're still waiting. Scott Borek, Lake Superior — Comparing him to Jeff Jackson was always unfair. But the program ran into offseason problems this year, and many fans are calling for his head. He hasn't gotten a ringing endorsement from the administration, but the team is playing relatively well right now. Mike Gilligan, Vermont — A hazing incident that the school labeled "misconduct" didn't help matters. Is this a one-time incident, ongoing, or not a big deal? At the same time, promising recruit Don Richardson left because "he didn't feel comfortable on campus." Neverminding all of this, Vermont has done little over the years despite being the only ECAC program from a full-fledged Division I school that gives full scholarships. Still, longtime beat writer Ted Ryan of the Burlington Free Press isn't sure it's Gilligan's fault, and is sure the UVM administration wouldn't fire him over wins and losses. "Given the structure of UVM athletics, I'm not sure bringing in another coach would mean more wins," he said. Word is that Gilligan will retire soon and stay at the school to coach golf and as a fundraiser. Mark Morris, Clarkson — Morris is one of the best coaches of special teams and defense in the country. His teams always have the same, distinctive style that works for over 20 wins a season. This season might be different, but that isn't the issue. Clarkson fans can often be heard moaning about an inability to get teams over the hump. The Knights dominate the league, but can't get beyond that. Is that Morris' fault or just the limitation of the program? Consider this recent comment by former Clarkson assistant Ron Rolston, on why he decided to leave for Harvard: "I would not have come here unless I thought that Harvard had as much or more potential than Clarkson to get to the championship level. ... We won a lot of games at Clarkson, but didn't make it to the [NCAA] Final Four. I think Harvard has that ability." Why should Clarkson, which can give scholarships, have less of a chance to win a championship than Harvard? Guess you'll have to ask Rolston. Craig Dahl, St. Cloud — Underachievers, their fans say. They want to see the stagnation end, they say. Does the administration agree?
The World Junior Championships are coming up, scheduled for Dec. 25-Jan. 4 in Sweden. To Canadians, this is just about the biggest thing there is. Americans, even those that are hockey fans, could care less about international competitions, unless it's the Olympics.
That is a shame. College hockey fans, especially, should take note of the WJC. It's the place where some of college hockey's best young stars get a chance to prove themselves, and to make their schools proud. It also is a great developmental tool for these guys, and a source of pride.
This is the year people are looking for the U.S. Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., to start bearing fruit. The program was developed four years ago as a place for America's top young players to develop in a highly-competitive environment without having to leave the country. Under the tutelage of former Lake Superior coach Jeff Jackson, the program showed a lot of progress, but last year finished a highly-disappointing eighth in Winnipeg.
There are a lot of naysayers of the program out there, so this year is important.
"I like the model," says Ferris State coach Bob Daniels, who has been involved in USA Hockey throughout his career. "It's going to have to be looked at and changed here and there, but the basic premise is good. The right people are in charge, Jackson, [Bob] Mancini.
"It allows for kids from California and Texas to move to a program that would really benefit them and play with a high level of skill. But they do not go to a junior program, so maybe it allows parents to send their kid to a more structured environment.
"I think it's working. Major juniors is still getting some players, but the program is succeeding. At the World Juniors, you'll see players that have gone through the program for a couple of years."
Looking at this year's roster, you'll notice that there's only one player not currently enrolled in a Division I school. I don't know, but that might be a first.
That player, by the way, is Phillipe Sauve, a goalie who plays for Drummondville of the Quebec League. He follows a line of recent Team USA goalies who have French-Canadian heritage, including Brian Boucher and Jean-Marc Pelletier. Sauve is different, however, in that his father is former NHL goaltender Bob Sauve, who played 13 seasons, from 1976-89.
Before we get back to that point, however, let's talk about Notre Dame, which put three players on the World Junior team, the most of any school. In fact, Notre Dame is one of a select few schools to put players on the WJ team four years in a row. This points not only to the advancement of the Fighting Irish program, but to the shift toward American-based recruiting. Which brings up another interesting point: If a team recruits largely in the U.S., usually its coach is American — but not so with Notre Dame, which is led by Canadian-born NHL vet Dave Poulin. Now, bringing both points together ... Team USA has a total of three players whose parents were in the NHL; Sauve, plus current Fighting Irish forwards Brett Henning and Connor Dunlop. Henning's dad, Lorne, played nine years for the New York Islanders; Blake Dunlop played 11 seasons for four teams. This is all part of a growing trend which has been a boost to American hockey: Canadian-born hockey players in American NHL cities raising American-born sons.
The points we're making here are coming at a dizzying pace, so try to follow us. Not only is this a boon to USA Hockey as a whole, but it's also raising the profile of some areas that don't traditionally produce Division I hockey players. For example, Henning and Andrew Merrick, whose father, Wayne, also played for the Islanders, both grew up on Long Island. Blake Dunlop is from St. Louis, Missouri, a growing youth hockey area with nine players in Division I, including Union's Jordy Federko, son of former Blues star Bernie Federko.
As further proof of almost every aforementioned point, Notre Dame adds another big-time recruit next season in defenseman Neil Komadoski, a St. Louis native and member of the Developmental Program's Under-18 team. His father played eight seasons in the NHL for St. Louis from 1972-80.
To summarize, we have another French-Canadian goalie on Team USA, who is part of a group whose fathers played in the NHL, two others of which are with Notre Dame, which is recruiting more Americans, despite having a Canadian-born head coach, and is putting more of them on the World Junior team than anyone else, which has more Division I players than ever before, partially because we have a growing group of ex-NHL players sons who grew up in American NHL cities, and partially because of the success of the national developmental program.
As for the tournament itself, the Soviet Union won seven of 10 titles before the breakup, and Canada won eight of 11 soon after that. The last of five in a row for Canada came in 1997 in Switzerland, when the U.S. finished second. But that was too much, too soon for Team USA, and it has since finished fifth and eighth.
The fifth-place finish in 1998 was a decent showing, as Pelletier shut out Canada and Roberto Luongo, 3-0, then won the fifth-place game. Canada lost the seventh-place game to Kazakhstan, its worst showing ever except for the infamous brawl and disqualification of 1987. Jeff Farkas and Brian Gionta were huge in 1998. Host Finland won the tournament.
Gionta was big again last year despite the eighth-place finish. Russia won, by the way, defeating Canada in overtime.
I won't pretend to know how to handicap this year's field, but I know one thing, I'll be paying close attention. (See USA Hockey's release.)
Odds and Ends: My new favorite team, Fairfield, came up with win No. 1 recently. Here's hoping for many more. ... It's holiday tournament time again. I don't find many of them overly compelling, though the Denver Cup should be good with Colorado College, Maine, Notre Dame and Denver. ...
The ECAC is the hardest conference to figure, as usual. The parity is insane, with two points separating the top seven teams, and perennial league power Clarkson winless and in 11th. The other conferences each have two teams separating themselves at the top, then a bunch of mediocrity. Michigan State, NMU; BU, New Hampshire; North Dakota, Wisconsin. Of course, it's all relative to each other, and based on everything I've seen, I don't think there's any question that Hockey East is the strongest again. ...
Six weeks ago, Clarkson opened the season with two impressive, close wins at Northern Michigan. Those wins put Mark Morris one win away from tying Len Ceglarski's school record. Six weeks later, with just one win over Wayne State in between, Morris is still waiting. We thought maybe there would be poetic justice with him beating St. Lawrence last weekend, but the teams tied. He'll get another crack at the record at home against Mass-Lowell on Friday. ...
Since I like making these obscure and mostly irrelevant observances, I'll point to the rosters of Yale and New Hampshire. I think Tim Taylor is an alphabet bigot — he's prejudiced against surnames with too many letters. Look at this list of players from Yale's current roster: Jeff Brow, John Chyz, James Chyz, Joe Dart, Luke Earl, Dennis Nam, Jason Noe, Corey Shea, Evan Wax. What is going on here? Maybe he's a syllable-hater.
On the other hand, Dick Umile must own stock in some sort of eye chart manufacturing company. Only three of these guys remain, but check out some of the names from recent seasons: Matt Dzieduszycki, John Sadowski, Jason Shipulski, Corey-Joe Ficek, Eric Boguniecki, Jayme Filipowicz, Christian Bragnalo, Chad Onufrechuk, Dylan Dellezay. Say that 10 times fast. ...
And speaking of New Hampshire, Jason Krog has awakened. Many were surprised he didn't make the dreadful Islanders' roster this fall, but then he got off to a very slow start in the American Hockey League with Lowell. It prompted one observer to say, "He's got incredible hands, but he's small and not too fast, and that's a bad combination."
Well, Krog was just named AHL Rookie of the Month for November. He is second in the AHL in rookie assists with 13, to go along with four goals, and he recently played in his first NHL game. I would've predicted better things for Krog than Steve Kariya, but the race isn't over yet.
This month's column, on the other hand, finally is.