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Matt Wellens

College hockey: Adults can’t fix early recruiting process in NCAA, only kids can

DULUTH -- For two years, a committee of commissioners, coaches and administrators gathered in hopes of formulating a plan that would slow down the recruiting process in college men’s hockey.

Their goal: to make verbal commitments by eighth-graders, freshmen and sophomores a thing of the past while also reducing the number of decommitments.

On paper, the plan proposed last month by the committee — which included Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin and NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton — seems to be a mighty strong one. It goes above and beyond what the committee set out to accomplish and could bring some civility back to college hockey recruiting.

The proposal starts with rewriting a toothless rule in which coaches are banned from contacting prospects prior to Jan. 1 of their sophomore year of high school, but the prospect can make direct contact with a coach at anytime. Under the new proposal, that rule would apply to both sides. No communication or contact is permitted between coaches and prospects prior to Jan. 1 of a kid’s sophomore year.

The second key to the proposal is delaying when coaches can make a verbal scholarship offer. That is now pushed back to Aug. 1 prior to the prospect’s junior year of high school. All official visits and off-campus contact also is banned until then.

On paper, those rules all sound great. If programs and prospects can’t communicate with each other until Jan. 1 of a kid’s sophomore year and a scholarship can’t be offered until seven months later, then we can all sing “Bye, bye, bye” to verbal commitments by 13-, 14- and 15- year-olds. And that right there should lead to fewer decommitments and fewer squabbles on the recruiting trail.

On paper, this all makes perfect sense, but we all know how fragile paper is. The second this proposal gets passed in April, someone will start searching for a way to rip through these new rules, if they haven’t already.

Social media often gets blamed for early commitments. It’s an easy target these days for everything. But I get the sense it’s pressure from coaches, agents and overzealous parents that leads to kids making decisions earlier than they should.

It’s the people around these top prospects, not the prospects themselves, who are going to whatever length is necessary to do an end-around the system. And when a well-meaning coach is eventually presented with an underage prospect he can’t refuse, the offer will come. The prospect — or prospect’s associates — will accept and then the tweet will come.

“Thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way.”

That tweet — or Instagram post as I’m starting to see — should prompt an investigation by a school’s compliance department into possible NCAA violations. Depending on how sophisticated a school’s compliance team is, a clear violation may be hard to prove.

The only way the recruiting process will ever slow down is if the kids themselves slam their skates on the breaks and tell everyone around them to chill. That’s probably easy for a 33-year-old to say, but honestly, kids really do hold all the power in the recruiting process.

The school is not the ultimate prize, the prospect is. Any coach in any sport will tell you that great players make great coaches, and if you’re really as great as people say you are at 13, 14 or 15 years old, then you’re likely to be an even better hockey player at 16, 17 or 18, and you’ll have even more leverage in the recruiting process at that time.

I do hope the NCAA men’s hockey recruiting proposal passes in April because I think it will decrease the number of early commitments and decommitments.

If we want to see a significant impact, however, and really make early commitments and decommitments a rare thing, then the youth of North American need to stand up to the adults around them.

They’re the only ones who can clean up college recruiting and possibly more.

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