Big Ten Legislation Raises Controversy
Proposal In Pipeline Would Add Age Restrictions
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
A Big Ten-sponsored piece of legislation is currently in the NCAA's pipeline and scheduled for vote in April, despite the objections of the vast majority of college hockey coaches and personnel.
The legislation calls for lowering the age limit for incoming recruits from 21 to 20 years old, or, more accurately, two years past the player's expected high school graduation date. Anyone enrolling in college after 20 years old, would lose one year of NCAA eligibility for each year.
College hockey players have the highest average age of any NCAA sport, because of the preponderance of those players who first go to junior and prep programs before enrolling. This is particularly true for programs that aren't at power universities. Big Ten schools tend to recruit more blue chip players who are younger, on average.
Because the Big Ten is the only member of the hockey community that is an "all-sports conference," it has the power to propose legislation directly to the NCAA. This was done during the summer at the request of its six coaches, first proposed by Minnesota's Don Lucia, without the knowledge of the other conferences.
This legislation is now on the docket, and the period for submitting comments has now closed. It will be voted on by an NCAA committee at the annual April convention in Indianapolis. That committee is made up of athletic directors, faculty athletic repesentatives, senior women's administrators and some conference commissioners — most of whom have no connection to hockey-playing schools.
In a memo obtained by College Hockey News, college hockey coaches voted 49-11 in a straw poll against the legislation. That poll has no bearing on the NCAA vote, but it demonstrates the mindset of the college hockey community as a whole. The specific 11 to vote for it is unclear, though six are presumed to be the Big Ten coaches.
The criticism has come on two levels: 1. That the legislation will only give Big Ten schools more advantages than it already has, while hurting those schools that rely upon older players for competitive balance; and 2. That the legislation was not discussed among the larger college hockey community before being introduced to the NCAA.
"College hockey is unique and I think that's one of the beauties of it," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. "They are more mature coming to us as student athletes, and that makes for better hockey. It's not their first time away from home and they're less distracted academically and socially. ... We're at an all-time high producing NHL players. Why change things?"
Said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, "The athletic department has a much higher graduation rate than the general student body. "There's plenty of general students that go to school for 6-7 years."
Big Ten people say they are just trying to get college hockey a little more in line with the rest of the NCAA, while still acknowledging its unique landscape. The legislation would not prevent 21-year old freshmen from playing, but they'd only have three years of eligibility remaining.
"If we wanted to eliminate the entire hockey exception, it wouldn't recognize the uniqueness of the junior system, and hockey and the NCAA was not ready for that," Big Ten Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia said. "So we jumped right to what was the compromise proposal. Seventeen and 25 year olds, there's not a lot, but there's 100 kids at 24 (years old). ... Eight years is a big difference. That's a concern.
"It doesn't look and feel as much like college sports when you have this eight-year gap. We realize there's going to be age differences — there's redshirting, medical redshirts — so maybe a four- to six-year gap. But now we're getting into eight years."
However, many coaches believe this is not about the sanctity of college sports, but more about the Big Ten schools' own self interest.
"A lot of these schools right now, and I'm not naming names, are doing everything in their power to push the scales in their favor," Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. "A lot of these guys should be embarrassed. They want NCAA (tournament) games on home campus sites. Why is that? These are the same guys who started recruiting 15-year olds, then when everyone else did, they started crying about it. When it comes to playing Northern Michigan, Lake Superior, Michigan Tech — instead of two games on their campus, two on mine, they want four games on their campus.
"All these advantages, so then they still want to hammer this other stuff down. This is the stuff that feeds college hockey, what makes college hockey great. This is why 40 programs survive."
Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said he recognizes the role of the so-called non-traditional schools in college hockey, but would like to see more balance in the age levels.
"Older players have a role in college hockey no doubt," Anastos said. "But I hope we're not pushing out younger players.
"The maturity has leant itself to higher graduation rates and more competitive balance. That's all good. But where (the age) is creeping so high we have to be careful. This proposal helps hold that line a little bit. ... I don't think it's unreasonable personally."
When Union won the national championship two years ago against Minnesota, the seeds of this legislation may have been germinated. But Union only had two 24-year olds on the roster at the time (one who turned 24 at the Frozen Four), and no 25-year olds.
"I don't think this is some huge change. It's not pushing kids out of the system," Anastos said. "In some cases schools might have to make a decision. It's just something that will provide a little more balance. ... It's getting blown out of proportion in terms of what its actual impact will be."
Most coaches share the sentiment of Kyle, however, and remain unconvinced.
"What is the problem? What is your issue? You don't want to recruit those kids, then don't recrut them," Kyle said.
"It's a joke. Number one, these kids graduate. They have a higher graduation rate than the younger kids. Number two, what business do we have to restrict the age of who can and cannot play? We all know junior hockey has become a big component in the development of hockey players and kids want to stay in it for different reasons, and they go into college for different reasons. ... (They are) better prepared to go to college for their experiencecs. I think those kids do nothing but benefit our game."
Traviolia has been with the Big Ten for 19 years, but only recently came into his role as liaison to hockey and was thrown into the middle of this, after his predecessor, Jennifer Heppel, left to become Director of the Patriot Conference (a conference that includes Colgate and which could, ironically, have a role in opposing this legislation).
Traviolia's role is to get legislation from an interested party — in this case, the hockey coaches — up to the broader Big Ten group, which is comprised, like it is on the NCAA level, of athletic directors, faculty advisors and senior women's administrators from all 14 schools in the conference membership.
Historically, college hockey has been a relatively tight-knit community that discusses legislation among themselves before finding a way to pass it on. This is done at the NCAA coaches convention annually in Naples, Fla., and/or through the Hockey Commissioners Association. Neither was aware that the Big Ten had submitted the legislation.
The larger hockey community was caught off guard.
"I think that's a fair characterization," Traviolia said.
"We would rather be able to go to our Florida coach's meetings and discuss this as a coaching body and how this would affect all leagues," Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. "As a group, whether we agree or disagree, we have good dialogue. And most of that takes place at Naples. We would love to see that be tabled until then. But it doesn't look like that will happen."
The Big Ten is standing by the philosophy of the legislation, while acknowledging things could've been handled differently.
"I don't think there was any malicious intent on how this developed," Traviolia said. "We believe in the legislation. Quite honestly if we could educate folks, it's a pretty benign piece of legislation and people can get behind it."
In the past, if the hockey community wanted something done on the NCAA level, it would come to consensus among themselves, then find a way to introduce the legislation into the NCAA chain of command via one of the school's ADs, or what not. This is the first example in hockey of a multi-sport conference sponsoring legislation directly into the system.
"The Big Ten is very mindful of its unique position," Traviolia said. "We want to be a good member of the hockey community. We realize we may have a different level of resources, but there's also a great sense of responsibility for doing right by college hockey as well."
Traviolia said he expects the Big Ten to weigh the opinion of the coaching body as a whole more carefully in the future, but couldn't guarantee the Big Ten wouldn't submit legislation on its own again. For example, he said, on an issue like the "Gentleman's Agreement," — another hot-button, semi-related, topic about coaches laying off recruiting other team's verbal commits — if coaches are split in Naples on what to do and the Big Ten was unanimous, it would break the logjam by introducing legislation.
"If there's no hope (to agree) and the Big Ten was unanimous on what we wanted to do, and there was a full conversation about it but not a majority agreement, and nothing was moved forward but the Big Ten was united, we might take a different route so (we could) have the discussion at the administrator level," Traviolia said.
"It's a good first example of a difference of philosophies in the sport of hockey. So put this in the system. Maybe conversations didn't take place in Naples, but they're going to take place in the NCAA system."
This issue is tagential, but in some ways tied into, the "Gentleman's Agreement" and the current discord over recruiting practices across the board. The agreement was put in place to prevent coaches from pilfering other teams' verbal commits. But then players were verbally committing at younger and younger ages, and many coaches believed that some teams were over-committing players as a way of preventing others from recruiting them, and then pulling the plug on some of those players later on because there was no room for them.
Whether those coaches were genuinely concerned about the players being treated unfairly, or just unhappy they couldn't keep recruiting certain players until their Letter of Intenet was signed, is up for interpretation. But some have stated they're no longer following the agreement.
But for many other schools, they could stay happily out of the fray, and recruit older players and still keep their team competitive.
This legislation would change that to a degree.
"Each program will choose who they want to wear their jerseys," Burkholder said. "To each their own."
"College hockey is a phenomenal product right now, as a whole," Pecknold said. "There's a lot of parity. A lot of great teams. It's not just the big football schools that are the great teams. The Frozen Four is phenomenal. Why try to make a major drastic change?"
"We'd have to adapt. We'd have no choice, right?" Gotkin said. "That's just how it is. We'll have to wait and see how it goes down."
Coaches that are against the legislation are trying to rally support and, more importantly, get their athletic directors to rally support within the higher NCAA committee that will be voting in April.
"Every coach's job is to make sure they're on the same page (with their athletic director)," Burkholder said. "When it all plays out, I think the right decision will be made."
Said Traviolia, "Whether it's hockey, wrestling, gymnastics ... any time you have a sport sponsored by 100 schools or less, they do face the challenge: (Are) people in the room (voting) really knowledable about that sport. I do believe the people on these commitess take their position seriously and try to educate themselves best they can."
Mike McMahon contributed reporting to this story.