College Hockey's Recruiting Battles Intensify
by Joshua Berhow/CHN Writer
The statement Jack Campbell released might have been honest, but one portion of it wasn’t exactly a message the NCAA wanted to hear.
Campbell, who made a verbal commitment to be an incoming Michigan recruit next season, released a statement last December explaining why he chose not to come to Ann Arbor, Mich., next year and instead go to the Ontario Hockey League.
And his message made the NCAA cringe.
“By going to the Ontario Hockey League, I feel it will accelerate my development so I will be able to more quickly achieve my goal of being an NHL goaltender,” he said.
As if the NCAA didn’t have enough problems competing with Major Junior hockey in recruiting the top young players.
Campbell will most likely be the first goaltender selected in this summer’s NHL Draft — he was a sixth-round pick by the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires in 2008 — and decided to go to the OHL just days after Michigan sophomore Robbie Czarnik left the Wolverines for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers.
Prior to Czarnik leaving, Minnesota sophomore Sam Lofquist left the Gophers for presumably a deal with the OHL’s London Knights but has now landed with the Guelph Storm, and incoming freshman Kenny Ryan left Boston College just prior to the start of the regular season for Major Junior as well.
Although it’s reported that Czarnik is still going to school at Michigan, his exact reasons for leaving the team are still unclear, and the same goes for Lofquist and Ryan. But the biggest dagger to the NCAA has been without question Campbell’s decision.
“It’s definitely something that has worried the NCAA in general as you can see by the steps [we] took in hiring someone to help us market our game and push our game and better educate people about what it is and the opportunities there are in college hockey,” said one member of a WCHA coaching staff, speaking of the recent hiring of former head of the NHL Players Association Paul Kelly, who now serves as the Executive Director of College Hockey, Inc, a new organization designed to help promote the game at the collegiate level.
Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna said Kelly will “raise the profile of college hockey,” and he’s confident Kelly can help educate young players on their future hockey choices.
“Some kids didn’t get all the facts first and hopefully Paul and his staff can at least help kids know both sides before they make a decision,” Bertagna said.
The promotion of teams and players is where the NCAA trails Major Junior the most, as leagues like the OHL thrive in Canada from a marketing and promotional standpoint.
Major Junior has a few clear recruiting advantages over the NCAA as well, mainly that players are drafted at a young age and coaches can talk to players whenever they want and at any age. College coaches can’t even contact players until they turn 16, and still the contact is limited.
This has been an age-old issue. But in recent years, the OHL has raised the heat, and now, more top-flight Americans (and there are more of them) are bolting as well.
“It used to be a problem in recruiting Canadian players,” said the same member of a WCHA coaching staff. “It’s now a problem in recruiting hockey players.”
But what does the NCAA do to prevent what is now a few stragglers from becoming an ever-growing movement away from the college game?
One point of emphasis the NCAA has is education, which is what Bertagna said has always been the NCAA’s primary focus. He said only about 20 percent of kids who play Major Junior go on to graduate from a Canadian university — which is helped paid for by the player’s former Major Junior team — while about 80 percent of NCAA hockey players finish school with a degree.
The biggest thing the NCAA can do seems to be informing players of their options, and it looks as if help is on the way in that area with Kelly coming aboard. Besides getting word out of what the NCAA believes are advantages of college hockey, there’s not much else that can be done immediately.
There has been talk in the past about allowing NCAA coaches to call players once a year or allow them to talk to players at a younger age, and also discussion about allowing players to play a year of Major Junior without signing a contract and losing NCAA eligibility. These options — like many others — have been discussed before, but still seem to be nowhere near an eventual reality.
The NCAA just hopes younger players can delay their decisions until they know enough about both leagues to figure out which route is the best for them.
Said the same member of a WCHA coaching staff: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a thousand times: I’ve never seen patience kill a hockey player.”