Between the Lines
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last month, we wrote about the plight of Russ Bartlett, who was cut from Boston University and then, after transferring to St. Lawrence, was forced by NCAA rules to sit out a year without playing.
Obviously, his case is not unique, and we received an impassioned letter from the parent of another player who faced similar circumstances.
Bob Shields is the son of David Shields, a recruit for Minnesota-Duluth who received a scholarship, but was cut, along with three others, by incoming coach Scott Sandelin after three days of practice. Like Bartlett, Shields was unable to go to another school without sitting out a year. Instead, he decided to turn pro and is playing in the Central League for Oklahoma City, where he has eight goals in 19 games.
Bob Shields wrote:
If [you] can't play hockey, or practice with the team, chances are very slim that other schools would risk future scholarship money on a player they can't evaluate.
[Plus,] scholarship funding is reviewed yearly; thought to be based upon academic standing but loosely knit on another option of "athletic ineligibility." Thus, being cut [from] the team greatly enhances the financial hardship toward continuing your education at specific institutions.
As expected, inquiries with the NCAA only revealed that a secretary can quote policy by rote. Athletic directors skate well in defending the decisions of new coaches and, with [a] "Good Luck," keenly advise you of the options of immediate transfer to Division II and III schools.
Notwithstanding such educational hurdles, what a parent can be left with is a very bitter [child]; a quality hockey player with credentials who falls through the cracks of the U.S. College scholarship system based on a new coach and a formal three-day evaluation.
The cons of committing to a particular school are not readily revealed or admitted during the glitter and excitement of the recruiting process.
I strongly suggest that prospective student athletes view thoroughly any and all scholarship offers subjectively during initial stages of recruitment. Ask questions — even dumb ones. Contemplate potential hardships resulting from imminent changes to the coaching staff, coaching direction, playing style, and related in-house political whim. Get your parents actively involved in the recruiting and decision making process.
I cannot begrudge a coach for exercising his right in picking those players he feels are right for him. However, I do question the act of cutting previously recruited and scholarship players after three days of formal evaluation in lieu of walk-ons, or for the sake of reducing "numbers." Seasons are long and subject to injury; anything can happen, even extended loosing streaks wherein forced player changes are routinely made.
Cutting a scholarship player outright really places his educational goals and hockey aspirations on hold. Practicing players at least have the current option to redshirt for a year.
I firmly believe the UMD action will send a strong message to potential recruits throughout the US and Canadian junior hockey leagues. Will future scholarship athletes at UMD men's hockey sign their Letters of Intent knowing that they could be gone after three days of practice, thereby limiting their educational funding and housing to one year? I would have a few personal choice words of advice to both players and junior league educational consultants on that issue.
I agree with you. The NCAA must change the rules for the scholarship player that no longer fits into the team plans.
Part of the criticism is that Sandelin owed these players a year of time because they signed letters of intent in good faith. The letter of intent guarantees one year of scholarship money, but it doesn't guarantee a spot on the team.
Sandelin could not be reached for comment, but in the Oct. 6 edition of the Duluth News-Tribune, he said, "I told everyone that they were starting from scratch. Scholarships were not a factor, everyone was equal. It was a fair process. We said, 'You've got three days, show us what you can do.'"
But it's hard to blame the coach here. Not even Mr. Shields does that.
I'd again urge the NCAA to deal with this issue.
Recently, Maine's Colin Shields was declared ineligible by the NCAA. He was taking some courses while playing junior hockey in the USHL, but, since he was a native of Scotland, he needed to take a full load in order to retain immigration status.
So, Shields enrolled in the requisite classes, then didn't go. But, since he enrolled in the classes, the NCAA now considered him full-time, and since he didn't go, he didn't pass, and thus the NCAA declared him ineligible for this year.
Following the problems Maine had with the NCAA in the mid-'90s, they put in a much more proficient compliance department, and it paid off in this case. The school caught the problem, reported it and the NCAA ruled the player ineligible.
But, considering the past problems, coach Shawn Walsh's reaction caught my attention.
Said Walsh, "He needed to pass a full year's coursework, but he didn't do that because he didn't even attend some of the classes. It was really a technicality because of his nationality.
"He didn't tell anybody, so we didn't know it until he filled out a form and our compliance people caught it. He didn't let us know and our mistake was that we didn't ask him if he was going full time. I've never encountered anything like it. So we've got ourselves to blame, too."
Now, I'm going to try not to make too big of a deal about this. Looking at it from a certain perspective, what Walsh says has merit. It's a quirk of the rules that Shields was OK in the NCAA's eyes while taking a light course load, but once he added to his load and failed the classes, he wasn't OK.
But, let's get one thing clear: Shields was trying to circumvent U.S. immigration law. At best, he got stuck in a situation he wasn't sure how to deal with, and then dealt with it poorly. If this had happened a few years ago, when Maine's Mickey Mouse compliance system was in place, this all would have ended badly.
Remember, years ago, when Jeff Tory was ruled ineligible because of a "technicality." Walsh had a copy of a letter the NCAA had sent to another school, warning about potential eligibility issues. Walsh, however, thought he knew the rule, and played Tory anyway, despite that and other warning signs. That incident resulted in the forfeiture of three games and a five-game suspension for Walsh.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Walsh has learned from past mistakes. But I'd suggest that he may not want to be so cavalier as to call Shields' transgressions a "technicality," when that's the kind of attitude that helped get Maine into trouble in the first place.
Let's repeat and be clear, before the inevitable hate mail from Orono starts pouring in. Nobody — especially me — is accusing Walsh or Maine of any wrongdoing in this case. There isn't one hint or sniff of that, and nothing I say is meant to imply so. What Shields did could have happened to any program. The compliance office found out, and the situation was taken care of.
But, rightly or wrongly, the reaction raises the eyebrows.
Should we expect Walsh to come out and rip the kid for making everyone look bad? Of course not.
But, by the same token, he should be more careful than to call the issue a "technicality," as if the NCAA is just enforcing one of those over-strict silly little rules again.
These aren't technicalities. They are a very clear violation of NCAA rules, and in this case, U.S. immigration law.
Perhaps Walsh is just saying that these rules aren't to the benefit of the student. Perhaps he has an honest disagreement with how they are handled. But that doesn't preclude the wrong that occurred.
Or perhaps we're just programmed to perceive anything Walsh says in a negative light. And maybe that's our fault. But, at least, Walsh's choice of words was poor. And whether anyone likes it or not, his history cannot be dismissed. If that means he is being unfairly held to a higher standard, then so be it.
On the Other Hand
Of course, despite the previous section, there are plenty of things the NCAA does that just scream "silly."
Last June, BU goalie Ricky DiPietro gave up his remaining three years of college eligibility in order to "opt-in" to the NHL Draft. He had to opt-in because he wasn't yet 19 years old, the age to be eligible for the draft. Eighteen-year olds are eligible if they decide to opt-in.
Canadian junior players can do this without penalty.
Most college players who have finished a season are already 19. But since DiPietro missed the deadline, he was forced with this decision: stay in school, or opt-in for the draft.
A player like Dany Heatley, already 19, did not have to opt-in. He was taken by Atlanta, did not sign, and chose to stay at Wisconsin.
Even though DiPietro was taken No. 1 overall by the Islanders — making history in the progress — there were still questions about whether DiPietro was ready for the NHL. The sanity of Islanders general manager Mike Milbury notwithstanding, DiPietro never had the option to just stay at BU for seasoning.
Given that the Islanders sent DiPietro to the minors anyway, doesn't this case scream for the option to remain in school?
The opt-in rule can give college programs good PR. A player like Heatley is drafted as a "Wisconsin" player, instead of under the banner of his junior team.
But, otherwise, what purpose does this rule have? It only serves to force players into decisions about entering the draft, or staying in school.
And since we've already mentioned Shawn Walsh once, let's state complete agreement with another comment he made.
Maine goalie Rob McVicar was declared ineligible after it was learned he had opted-in to the draft last year. McVicar opted in while he was in juniors, because, as we mentioned, junior players can do so without penalty. After deciding to go to college, and realizing college players are not allowed to opt-in without losing eligibility, he "opted-out." That didn't matter to the NCAA, which declared him ineligible anyway.
"It sounds like it's no problem, but the NCAA said it's black and white," said Walsh. "Because you opted in, even though you opted out prior to the draft, you're done. You'll never play college hockey.
"It's stupid! What's a shame is that he was an engineering student who was doing very well in school and enjoyed it tremendously. Now he has to go back and play junior hockey without education because there are people in a bureaucratic office who don't feel for the student-athlete.
"The rule is there, but the rule isn't working."
We can definitely agree with him here.
Last year, around this identical time, I wrote that Princeton was by no means an 11th-place team. That was what the ECAC coaches had selected them as in the preseason poll. Of course, Princeton, if I do say so myself, finished sixth.
This year, the Tigers were again selected 11th. And, again, it ain't gonna happen.
[il1]Last year, I said there was no way a Don Cahoon-coached team would finish 11th. This year, I don't have the ability to use that as a justification — Cahoon is no longer the coach.
This year, there's simply too much talent there to finish 11th. You could see that after their first two weekends of play. Of course, that prediction looks better now that the Tigers are through eight games and are 3-3-2 ... but I swear, I said it three weeks ago. Really.
Everyone wanted Quesnelle to get the job. He's a Princeton graduate and followed that up with 12 years as an assistant coach. But no one was sure how he'd be as Cahoon's replacement.
It's good for hockey when a program like Princeton's can stay strong. Sure the Ivy League schools aren't quite as strong, as a group, as other factions of college hockey. But the more quality programs there are in college hockey, the better, and the Ivies generally do a good job given their circumstance.
One For the Ages
This isn't like a big anniversary or anything, but I don't care. Who knows if I'll be writing this column in 16 months?
Nearly four years ago, I saw the best college hockey game ever played. (OK, that's a strong opinion, but it's my column.). That game? The 1997 NCAA semifinal between Boston University and Michigan, a 3-2 final for the Terriers (they went on to lose to North Dakota in the final).
To refresh memories, Michigan had thumped BU the year before on the way to a national championship. A slew of big-name juniors all stayed for their senior year, and the Wolverines were a juggernaut the following season, ranked No. 1 nationally almost from start to finish.
Instead, BU won the game with an inspired effort.
But, more than that, you had the importance of the game, the pure skill level of the players, the large crowd of 17,000 at Milwaukee's Bradley Center, the two competing bands, and a big upset with a revenge factor, all rolled into one.
"We were a little flat in the first period I thought then in the second period we picked it up," said Sean Ritchlin, a sophomore on that team. "Chris Drury really carried BU and he did a real amazing job for them. I thought at the end, we were going to get one. I never thought we'd lose. It's just one of those things where you thought your team was so good, you couldn't lose. But that's the beauty of college hockey, it's a one-game thing."
In addition, I had the pleasure of broadcasting that game via a then-little known technology called Webcasting. It "aired" over AudioNet, a then-fledgling company that turned into Broadcast.com and was subsequently sold to Yahoo! for $6 billion, and whose owner, Mark Cuban, bought the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.
My color man was USCHO's own Mike Machnik, who now does color for Merrimack hockey. Thanks in large part to Mike, and to the material we had to work with, it stands as the best job I've ever done calling a game out of over 400 career hockey broadcasts.
This feeling of being a pioneer, and of having had a good night on the air, admittedly adds to the aura for me. But, I still think that, without this, I'd consider it the best game I've ever seen.
Ultimately, what stands out to me, more than anything, was a first period filled with some of the most ferocious, good, clean hitting I've seen in a college hockey game.
A center-ice collision between Brendan Morrison and Chris Drury, two guys who would eventually be named Hobey Baker winners, stands indelibly etched in my mind. As does a collision in the corner when freshman Dan Lacouture delivered a huge blow to Michigan senior Jason Botterill. It was two big boys just going toe-to-toe, and it was riveting.
"Lacouture killed Botterill. It was such a huge hit, and I think that really got them going," Ritchlin said. "And Drury had a big hit on Morrison at center ice. You talk about two teams that were ready to go at each other, that was a game where two teams had a lot to prove, and I think both coaches had the teams revved up pretty good."
And beyond the game, what stands up is the remarkable fact that it featured 14 players who went on to play in the NHL, a figure that could surely grow in the coming years.
Ten different Michigan players have seen NHL action: Brendan Morrison, Bill Muckalt, John Madden, Jason Botterill, Matt Herr, Warren Luhning, Bubba Berenzweig, Blake Sloan and Dale Rominski, totaling 537 NHL games entering this season. The 10th player, Marty Turco, had no NHL experience until this season, during which he's played in five games so far. Two others (Greg Crozier and Sean Ritchlin) are significant contributors in the AHL.
For BU, four players have totaled 408 NHL games entering the season, including Chris Drury, Tom Poti, Dan Lacouture and Shawn Bates. Four others (Michel Laroque, Chris Heron, Chris Kelleher and Jon Coleman) play prominent roles in the AHL.
That's 945 total games in just three seasons.
"We were going into the game thinking BU would come out hard, and they sure did," said Ritchlin. "It was an amazing game. It was one of the fastest games I've been in, and you look at that game, considering everyone who played in it, and you have a lot of respect for college hockey."
Lest anyone think that's normal for a pair of Frozen Four participants, take a look at the other semifinalists from that season, North Dakota and Colorado College. Between them, three players have NHL experience: North Dakota's Jason Blake (65) and Matt Henderson (2), and CC's Brian Swanson, who had no games entering the season, but 14 this year.
A quick glance at some other seasons shows very little in the way of competition for the standard established by the 1996-97 Michigan Wolverines and BU Terriers.
Going back two seasons, the 1995 Terriers had Jay Pandolfo (210), Rich Brennan (27), Mike Grier (292), Chris O'Sullivan (60), Drury (161) and Bates (90) for a total of 840. However, their opponent in the final was Maine, with a grand total of one NHL game ... by Jeff Libby.
Two seasons before that provides a solid competitor, the final between the Maine juggernaut and defending-champion Lake Superior. That game featured 12 future NHL players for a total of 1654 NHL games over seven seasons entering this one.
They are, from Maine (1030 total): Paul Kariya (376), Jim Montgomery (85), Chris Ferraro (73), Peter Ferraro (88), Patrice Tardif (65), Mike Dunham (137) and Garth Snow (206); from Lake Superior (624 total): Keith Aldridge (4), Brian Rolston (414), Clayton Beddoes (60), Rob Valicevic (99) and Blaine Lacher (47).
The total of 1654 in seven seasons is an average of 236 per year. The 1996-97 Michigan-BU total of 945 in three seasons is 315 per year. Still no.
Going back a bit farther, we get the Northern Michigan-BU final of 1991. In that game, 14 future NHL players participated, totaling 3,071 games over what is now nine seasons for an average of 341 per year. That includes, for BU (2889), Shawn McEachern (617), Tony Amonte (722), David Sacco (35), Dave Tomlinson (42), Keith Tkachuk (600), Peter Ahola (123), Ed Ronan (182), Scott Lachance (550) and Doug Friedman (18); and for NMU (1182), Jim Hiller (63), Brad Werenka (312), Dallas Drake (524), Marc Beaufait (5) and Ed Ward (278).
Pretty darned good.
So what does all this mean? Damned if I know. But it's pretty cool.
I'd love to know if any Frozen Four pairing beats this. And I'd love to know what the most amount of NHL games played is among a team of players from one particular season. BU's 2,889 from that 1990-91 team has to be pretty good.
Yes, folks, this is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night. But it beats worrying about hanging chad.
Oh Captain, My Captain
Of the 30 NHL teams, three captains all grew up nearby each other, and played together on the same college hockey team in the same year. Who are the players, and what is the team?
That question should be pretty easy for college hockey fans, especially those from the East. But ask that to a hockey fan friend who doesn't follow the college game, and see how much it stumps them.
In all, up to 12 (depending on how you look at it) NHL teams have captains with college hockey connections. Even a conservative count of nine would be a 30 percent ratio, much higher than the 20 percent or so that are in the league.
Of those, remarkably, three all played on the same BU team that lost that epic 1990-91 title game to Northern Michigan: Shawn McEachern (Ottawa), Tony Amonte (Chicago) and Keith Tkachuk (Phoenix), all of whom left after that season following their junior, sophomore and freshman year, respectively.
But there's more. Hockey East can also claim Paul Kariya (Maine/Anaheim), Eric Weinrich (Maine/Montreal) and Tom Fitzgerald (Providence/Nashville).
Then, there's Jason Woolley (Michigan State/Buffalo), Doug Weight (Lake Superior/Edmonton), Scott Mellanby (Wisconsin/Florida), Rob Blake (Bowling Green/Los Angeles) and Adam Oates (RPI/Washington).
That's 11, give or take some caveats.
For example, Weinrich shares captain duty with Saku Koivu in Montreal. In Florida, Mellanby has been out all season, but is the team's named captain. Conversely, Michael Peca is the captain in Buffalo, but Woolley is the acting captain as Peca holds out. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, the Wild are using a different captain every month, and former Hobey Baker winner Scott Pellerin of Maine was it for November.
So, count 'em up however you want, but it's still interesting.
By the way, that leaves 16 (or so) captains from the major junior ranks, and three Europeans (Jaromir Jagr, Mats Sundin and Markus Naslund). In case you care.