Some top coaches and administrators in college hockey held a summit in Chicago recently to discuss possible rules changes in response to a trend of schools recruiting players in their early teens, or younger.
Gophers coach Don Lucia represented Big Ten coaches on the new recruiting advisory committee, which consists of one coach, one administrator and the commissioner from all six hockey conferences.
In a bit of irony, Lucia received verbal commitments from a 13-year-old and 14-year-old last week.
“I’m guilty of it because you have to,” Lucia said in general about recruiting young players because he’s not allowed to comment on prospects. “Is it a great situation? You’ll probably get arguments on both sides.”
Chaz and Cruz Lucius are believed to be the youngest commitments in Gophers program history. The brothers are eighth-graders at Gentry Academy, a private school in Vadnais Heights that was founded by their parents, Chuck and Tami.
The Lucius brothers are well-known in Minnesota youth hockey circles as prodigies. Their top-end talent has been evident at every age level.
Chaz has always been the better goal scorer, Cruz the better passer.
“They’re exceptional hockey players,” said Billy Hengen, Gentry Academy’s director of hockey operations. “Very unique.”
The brothers played against older competition in the bantam elite league, a showcase of the state’s top talent at that age level.
Chaz shattered the point record, finishing with 22 goals. The next closest scorer had 11. Cruz finished fourth in scoring as the youngest player in the league.
“Their play was alarming to the scouts, it was unheard of,” Hengen said.
Alarming as in, take notice. Scholarship offers followed, not just from the Gophers.
“There were a lot of schools in the Midwest recruiting them,” Hengen said. “It created a frenzy. They were head and shoulders above other top players that are being recruited.”
Reaction to news of their commitment was predictable. Some howled that college sports are out of control. Some criticized Lucia for recruiting kids not even in high school yet.
But what was he supposed to do? Not recruit superior young talent and risk losing them to a rival school? Lucia would’ve gotten hammered publicly for that, too.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The trend of recruiting younger talent is not isolated to hockey. Other college sports have widened the recruiting window to earlier ages, hoping to cultivate relationships that ultimately might lead to commitments. Stories of pre-teen prodigies receiving scholarship offers have become far more common.
Fans might not like it, but that’s how the game works now, another tentacle of the arm’s race in college sports, much like facilities upgrades and escalating coaching salaries.
Ten years ago, Lucia didn’t scour bantam games in search of talent. Now, it’s standard practice in his sport.
The recruiting committee discussed a rule that would prohibit schools from having any contact with players before Jan. 1 of their sophomore year. Currently, there are few restrictions as long as interactions with recruits occur on campus.
Lucia said hockey is unique in the age debate because colleges also compete with the Canadian Hockey League for star players. Stricter age rules might benefit the CHL — and hurt college hockey — in terms of recruiting and building relationships.
For years, college coaches mostly adhered to a gentleman’s agreement in recruiting. Once a player committed to a school, other schools stopped recruiting him. Not always, but generally speaking. Lucia said that practice is “fading.”
“I don’t think we’re necessarily in a great spot right now,” Lucia said. “Hopefully we can put in some rules to make it better for everybody.”
Hockey officials are monitoring new NCAA legislation for lacrosse that prohibits communication with recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year, which significantly shrinks the recruiting timeline.
Commitments are non-binding so schools and recruits have flexibility if things change. Recruiting young players poses risks, but not always. A kid that is uniquely talented at 13 likely will remain a top player by his senior year. Not guaranteed, of course, but certainly likely. Casey Mittelstadt committed to the Gophers before he played a varsity game at Eden Prairie.
“We couldn’t have told you three years ago that he would be the eighth pick in the draft [this year],” Lucia said.
Unless rules change, recruiting younger players will remain the norm. As Lucia noted, “you’re either in or out.” Sitting out on an island could be a losing proposition.
Even if age restrictions are put in place, coaches will find loopholes. That’s the cutthroat nature of college recruiting.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org