The Gentleman's Agreement: What Now?
College Hockey's Recruiting Wars Have Reached a New Crossroads
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
For years, there's been a theoretic gentleman’s agreement among college hockey coaches that says a program will stop recruiting a player as soon as he makes a verbal commitment to another school.
But as the number of players breaking their commitments reaches an all-time high, it seems more and more that the agreement isn’t worth the price of the paper that it isn’t written on.
This past spring in Naples, Florida, as coaches across college hockey met at the annual AHCA Convention, discussion once again turned to the gentleman’s agreement, and whether or not it should be abolished.
Minnesota’s coaching staff asked that it be added to the Naples agenda, and it was. Ultimately, the agreement was upheld by vote. However, in the aftermath, some coaches flat out said their programs would not adhere to the agreement; which prompted numerous other coaches to come out at state that they would continue adhering to it.
You needed a scorecard to keep track.
Chair of the committee, Providence head coach Nate Leaman, told College Hockey News in May that the issue was discussed, as it has been most years, but balked at the suggestion there was a “mutiny” among coaches.
The Grand Forks Herald did report, however, that discussions regarding the issue were “intense.”
Among the concern for coaches like Minnesota's Don Lucia, is that other schools are stockpiling players, getting a ton of verbal commitments with no intention that all those players will eventually come to their school. And then those players are unable to be recruited because of the Agreement.
In other NCAA sports like basketball and football, teams recruit players up until they sign a National Letter of Intent.
But because the ages of recruits vary so much, most coaches fear a return to the Wild West atmosphere that once pervaded college hockey.
“I go back to my days at Lake Superior State,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “Back then, we had to scratch and claw to get every kid we possibly could, and we weren’t recruiting 15 year olds, we were recruiting 19 year olds. You’d have bigger schools recruiting a kid that had already committed to us. We’d have kids commit in October, and they were being recruited right until we could get them signed in November. I go back to that era, and I used to call coaches out. I’d make phone calls.”
Jackson won three national titles at Lake Superior State, one as an assistant in 1988 before winning twice as a head coach in 1992 and 1994.
“Bruce Hoffort won a national championship for us back in 1988, and Minnesota-Duluth was recruiting him after he committed to us,” Jackson said. “It was the same thing with Wayne Strachan, who won a national championship in 1994, North Dakota was recruiting him. They weren’t 15, they were 19. 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.”
Notre Dame and Boston College are nearly identical institutions. They’re both Catholic colleges regarded as two of the top universities in the country, if not the world. Athletically, both are involved in the Atlantic Coast Conference, either as a member or as an affiliate, and on the ice both the Irish and Eagles are members of Hockey East.
The framework for their ideology, on the surface, would appear to be very much parallel.
But when it comes to one of college hockey’s most burning hot-button issues, the head hockey coaches at BC and Notre Dame couldn’t be further apart.
BC head coach Jerry York is on the side of recruiting to the National Letter of Intent. Minnesota head coach Don Lucia and Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves have stated a similar belief. By eliminating early commitments, York believes coaches would not only be more fair to the players, but it would also virtually eliminate the issue of players de-committing.
“I think our rule gives us all the clarity we need,” York said. “The National Letter of Intent determines where a player goes to school. It’s clear in my mind. That alleviates a lot of the issues of the 15-year-old trying to pick a school before he can get his driver’s license or before he gets to high school. I think we have precedent in football and in basketball and soccer and in all sports.”
The philosophy certainly explains how Boston College landed Johnny Gaudreau, after he had de-committed from Northeastern, and, more recently, Sonny Milano. Milano had committed to Notre Dame before changing his mind and going to Boston College, though he ultimately signed a pro deal and never reached Chestnut Hill.
The practice of “de-committing”
As Jackson points out, the word de-commit was practically invented by college hockey. It doesn’t actually exist.
“To me, a commitment is a commitment,” Jackson said. “The word de-commit doesn’t exist in Webster’s Dictionary, it’s breaking a commitment. To me, I won’t do it. I won’t go out and recruit a kid who has committed to another school, I don’t care if it’s a big school or a school at the bottom of the standings.”
Players are committing younger and younger – BU verbally committed a 14-year-old earlier this week and Maine committed a 13-year-old player last January – and recruiting to the NLI would render those “commitments” meaningless.
Of course, some would argue that’s already the case.
“Everyone is involved in it,” Jackson said. “The advisors are involved in it, the parents are involved in it, other players are talking in the locker rooms. I don’t like recruiting 15 year olds. I don’t think we should be in that business. I think we should have an agreement where we won’t commit a kid until he’s 17, but we can’t do that because we’re competing with the Canadian Hockey League.”
By signing with a CHL team, a player gives up his NCAA eligibility. In the eyes of the NCAA, because CHL players can be signed by NHL teams and assigned to CHL teams on loan, it’s considered a professional league.
The number of players de-committing, Jackson says, has increased over the years. Part of it, however, is simply the increased public and media attention being placed upon where players are committing. There is nothing stopping a player from proclaiming on Twitter that he has committed to such-and-such school, well before a school is ready to say the same.
“It has increased because they see other people doing it,” Jackson said. “Maybe kids are making decisions too early for them. When I offer a kid, I always tell them upfront that I’m not going to put a gun to their head. I won’t say that I need to know in 10 days. I want them to make the decision on Notre Dame being the place where they want to be. For some kids it takes a whole year to make that decision, and other kids call me on the ride home. I won’t put pressure on a kid to make a decision.”
Jackson and York are in agreement that players are being recruited too young, but with the CHL lurking, it becomes hard in Jackson’s eyes not to recruit players at the same time CHL teams are conducting their drafts and pressuring players to sign.
York believes committing players later on in the process could help curtail the issue, while also being in the best interest of the players.
“I think if my son is 15, and he’s not quite sure if he can get his driver’s license yet, how you can ask him to pick a school is really not in the best interest of the young man,” York said. “It might be in the best interest of the schools, they can lock up guys very early, but if we’re in this to help the young guy make a very educated decision on where he will spend his next four years, at that age it should be about B.C. High, St. Mark’s or Xaverian, not colleges. If that’s your framework, what’s best for the young man, it’s better to wait and make your decision later.”
Many of the points York and Jackson make have similar sentiment, but with much different suggested resolutions. It points out the difficulty of the situation.
While other sports do recruit to the National Letter of Intent, hockey is unique in its battle for players with the CHL. In no other sport are programs recruiting against a group of teams that would result in a player losing his NCAA eligibility at such a young age.
“We deal with the integrity issue with the OHL,” Jackson said. “I don’t want to have to deal with it with my friends in the college hockey business, that’s my opinion. I won’t recruit another guy’s kids and I hope they’d respect it with our guys.”
He continued, “I feel it’s a tough situation, more for many some of the eastern schools because the Ivies don’t have a limit. They can recruit as many kids as they want. We in the Midwest have to deal with the OHL.”
It’s also a two-way street. When a verbal commitment is made and that handshake occurs, a player is committing to a school but the school is also committing to the player, holding a scholarship for the agreed upon entry date.
That’s another layer to this onion, however. Behind the scenes, some coaches have accused their counterparts of hiding behind the gentleman’s agreement, stockpiling as many players as they can and dealing with the consequences – such as cutting players – later.
“If I’m committing a kid, I’m holding that scholarship for that kid and I’m missing out on a whole lot of other players,” Jackson said. “It works both ways. I don’t break my commitment to a kid even if he doesn’t pan out the way we expected him to. I still honor that and he keeps his scholarship. I think it’s the same when you shake a kid’s hand and make a verbal commitment with him. That’s integrity, and I think there’s something to be said for integrity.”
What others are saying ...
Jim Madigan, Northeastern head coach: “For me personally, for Northeastern, we support the gentleman’s agreement. I like that in our sport, with only 59 teams, I like the fact that that we have a verbal commitment we honor that through the process. I do understand that the argument is, with younger commitments, kids don’t know what they’re signing up for. I’d support the idea of — honor it but putting a date on it where the player can opt out. Let’s say Sept. 1 of their junior year (of high school), so if a player commits early, he has until that date to opt out.
“That would create a more even playing field too. Maybe you’re a team who didn’t see a player when he was a freshman in high school, or early sophomore, and if we were to start it in their junior year, that student athlete still has the ability to change his decision.
“When you recruit to the NLI, as basketball and football will tell you, it ends up being where you’re recruiting not only your student athletes who have made verbal commitments to you but other team’s verbal commitments in case you end up losing a player. Your recruiting becomes much more broad. You need to be willing to steal someone else’s player if someone steals your player. It goes right up until signing day, players will have three or five NLIs sent to their house and they’ll sign one.
“We’re more of a finite number of schools and kids. Our players are regional for the most part. I think the gentleman’s agreement gives us a sense of diplomacy.”
John Micheletto, UMass: “I don’t think there is a perfect answer, because if there was, we’d be there. This has been a topic for years in Florida. How do we deal with it? If we can move the NLI up earlier, that would be better. What’s that magical date? I don’t know that there is one. That would probably be the best. The gentleman’s agreement has become difficult.
Mike Eaves, Wisconsin head coach, to Madison.com on 5/8/14: “I could live with the gentleman’s agreement before, but now things have changed.”
Don Lucia, Minnesota head coach: "I think it's gotten out of hand. There's not only (player) de-commitments, there's schools de-committing players at the same time. I'm not sure that's good for anybody, and hopefully we can get back to the point where there's no such thing as a commitment until a kid's a senior in high school. Because what's going on now with ninth and 10th graders — who knows who the coach will be, who knows who your teammates are going to be. And in the long run, it's not good for anyone that all of a sudden kids decommit, or all of a sudden the school no longer wants the player."