May 22, 2003
Early Decision
When 15-year-olds know where they'll play college hockey, is it good for the game?

By Nate Ewell

The toughest decision most high school sophomores face as their school year winds down is this: should they take a summer job in the air conditioned comfort of Denny’s, or aim to become a greenskeeper’s assistant?

Verbal Commitments
from 1987 Birthdates

Andrew Cogliano
Jack Johnson
Jason Lawrence
Joe Ryan
Jack Skille
Ryan Turek

Boston Univ.
Michigan State

More and more, that’s not the case if you can skate and fire a wicked slapshot. Earlier this week Ryan Turek – who’s wrapping up 10th grade in Northville, Mich. – made a verbal commitment to Michigan State, joining five other 1987 birthdates on college commitment lists (see box, right).

“It certainly is a trend,” said Ken Martel of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP), “and it’s a trend that’s here to stay.”

It’s here to stay, despite the fact that many express concern about potential potholes. Most notably, do 15- and 16-year-olds really know where they want to go to college more than two years down the road? And do colleges know what they’ll get – both as players and as people – once they arrive on campus?

Yale head coach Tim Taylor, for one, thinks that the trend spells trouble – and not just because at Yale, he can’t take a kid’s pre-algebra grade and know whether he will be a candidate for admission.

“It creates a lot of issues for the student-athletes and the programs,” Taylor said. “I think there’s going to be more and more kids who realize, maybe after they commit, that they wish they had more time to think about it. And it seems to be a little bit of an epidemic right now.”

Those on either side of the early commitments see the positives involved. Colleges ensure, at least verbally, that these top players won’t end up playing at a rival school, or in the Canadian Hockey League (major junior). Players get a potentially stressful decision out of the way, and can focus on hockey and school for the next two years.

“It feels good inside to know where I’m going,” Turek said. “It takes a lot of pressure off, and it gives me something to work toward. I know I’ll be playing at Michigan State – now I just have to be sure that I keep working and getting stronger before I get there.”

“A lot of it has to do with the players themselves,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “They hear of one kid making a commitment and they think why not get it out of the way, and not have to deal with the hassles and the phone calls come July 1. A lot of these kids have a gut feeling of where they want to go anyway – they’re BU guys, or BC guys, or UNH guys.”

Martel, who has been with the NTDP since 1998-99, has seen the trend develop and commitments begin earlier and earlier, like the sunrise inching earlier each day in May. As the program’s player personnel director, Martel is scouting the same players who are beginning to make college commitments.

“Our average kid comes in to the program in the 11th grade, and the first couple of years maybe you had kids committing the summer before their senior year,” Martel said. “With the 1983s, we had someone commit in October of their junior year, and we all thought, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable.’ From that point on it really escalated. We now have kids committing the year before they even come to us.”

Parker said that, because of the age involved, BU is very careful about the players it will offer a scholarship to that early.

“We’re not looking to load up with guys that young,” he said. “The guys who have committed to us – and we’ve made a commitment to them – we’re pretty sure are can’t-miss Division I players. And they’re guys who not only will be good for us, but are ‘brand-name’ players who other guys will want to play with as well.”

The NCAA prohibits colleges from initiating verbal or face-to-face contact with a prospective student-athlete prior to July 1 the summer before their senior year. But coaches can write to prospects by mail or email, and there’s no way to legislate against a high school student visiting a school and talking to coaches on his own.

That’s exactly how Turek came to his decision. He went with the Honey Baked AAA midget team to see a game at Michigan State and talked to the coaching staff afterwards. As a Michigan native and an elite player, he thought his choice would eventually come down to Michigan and Michigan State. He loved the atmosphere in East Lansing and, after a subsequent unofficial visit, decided it was the place for him.

A few months later at a tournament, Turek’s family advisor, Bryan Deasley of the Octagon athlete representation firm, told him that the Spartans were offering him a scholarship for the fall of 2005. As thrilled as he is with the opportunity – “it wasn’t hard to decide,” said Turek – he acknowledges that it’s an odd situation for a 10th grader.

“It does feel weird,” he said. “I didn’t even know where I was going to be playing next year, and now I know where I’m going to college.”

Turek’s coach at Honey Baked, Jon Cooper, said that it’s a good situation for both Turek and Michigan State.

“There’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Ryan’s as close as you can get,” Cooper said of his 6-foot-0, 178-pound defenseman. “And it’s a good decision for the entire family. He lives less than an hour away, and his parents will get to see him play in an elite program.”

As a coach at the midget level, Cooper has seen the explosion in colleges’ interest in younger and younger players. And because of the NCAA rules, he’s often in the middle of it.

“It’s the new wave of recruiting,” he said. “A lot of times, I’m the liaison. Coaches will say, ‘Listen, here’s my card. If the kid and his family have an interest in our school, have them give me a call.’”

That’s perfectly legal, according to the NCAA, but some coaches will still avoid it.

“We don’t want to get into that,” said Taylor, when asked if he would join the fray and recruit high school sophomores. “There’s no way I’m going to somehow work around the rules and have a parent or a coach put me in personal contact with a recruit.”

At age 15, Parker said, it’s much more common for the player to contact the school or schools in which he has interest.

“Most of the contact is by the family or the player,” Parker said. “He contacts a few schools that he might be interested in and come for an unofficial visit. Some others might email, or you’ll get an email from their coach.”

And while Parker said that it’s the players following the lead of their peers, other college coaches certainly see the BUs of the world getting early commitments and feel like they have to keep up with the Joneses.

“It’s a function of the high degree of competition that goes on in recruiting,” Taylor said.

“Some of the schools probably feel pressure (to recruit young players) because otherwise they’re going to lose them to major juniors,” Martel said. “Others may say, ‘I’ve got to do it to keep up with BU or Michigan.’”

Keeping kids away from major junior is one reason that early recruiting could be considered a positive development for college hockey. Without these early contacts with college coaches, younger players might end up trying major junior hockey and forfeiting their college eligibility.

Martel – a Lake Superior State grad and former college assistant coach who does his best to steer players towards college hockey – can appreciate that benefit. But he still thinks these early commitments spell trouble for both the players and the schools that recruit them.

“Some school is going to get burned,” Martel said. “I’ve already seen a few mistakes. But it’s more of a problem from the kid’s perspective than the school. Do they really know what they want in a school at 15, when their personalities haven’t even been shaped yet?”

Turek, however, feels confident that he knows what he wants, and now he doesn’t have to worry about his college choice. This summer, he’ll focus on some other concerns of a typical 15-year-old hockey player – building his strength, and improving his golf game.

Send this to a friend

About Us | Advertiser Info | Site Map | Privacy Policy
© 2003 Inside College Hockey, Inc., All Rights Reserved