Big Ten’s Freshman Proposal Splits Universities
With three first-time champions in the last three years, Arizona State having completed its first season in Division I, and the highest graduation success rate among men’s major sports, it is poised for further growth.
But a proposal introduced by the Big Ten to lower the age limit of incoming freshmen by one year, to 20, has agitated the hockey community, pitting a number of traditional powers against many programs with small enrollments and smaller budgets.
“College hockey is very healthy right now, with a great product and great parity,” said Quinnipiac Coach Rand Pecknold, whose team is the No. 1 seed for the N.C.A.A. tournament, which begins Friday. “Why make a change for something that’s not broken?”
The legislation, which will be voted on by the 40-member Legislative Council at next month’s N.C.A.A. convention in San Antonio, was proposed in response to the rising average age of players, which was 21 years 9 months, in 2014-15. According to Brad Traviolia, the Big Ten’s deputy commissioner, more than two-thirds of the 2015-16 freshman class reached its 20th birthday before playing a college game.
Players currently are allowed to spend as many as three years past their high school graduation playing junior hockey before matriculating. (In most sports, athletes are allowed only a one-year grace period.) As a result, there are more 24- and even 25-year-olds playing against true freshmen, who are 18 and 19.
The proposed legislation would not rule out 21-year-old freshmen, but it would limit their eligibility to three seasons from four.
Traviolia said the proposal was also intended to encourage students to enter college at an earlier age and reduce their time until graduation.
The practice of using older players developed over the years as a means of competing against the sport’s leading programs. Teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Boston College and Boston University have always attracted top recruits. This year, Michigan has 12 players on its roster who were drafted by the N.H.L., two of them in the first round.
To combat this, teams like Lake Superior State, which won three national championships between 1988 and 1994, began relying on players who, after playing a few years of junior hockey, were more skilled and physically developed.
These players also are on the rosters of the top programs, but to a lesser degree. The traditional powers continue to attract the best recruits, but many leave for the N.H.L. after three years, two years or even one year, as was the case with B.U.’s Jack Eichel, the second pick in the 2015 N.H.L. draft.
Coaches who are succeeding with older players argue that the Big Ten teams and others are intent on taking away one of their advantages in an age of college hockey parity.
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“I think this is a reaction by schools that are used to winning,” Holy Cross Coach David Berard said. “They want to have their cake and eat it, too.”
Among N.C.A.A. sports, hockey is sponsored by the fewest number of colleges and universities. Of the 60 colleges in Division I, 21 compete in Division II or III in other sports. That allows Union College, a private school of fewer than 2,500 students in Schenectady, N.Y., to beat Minnesota, a public university with an enrollment of more than 30,000, for the national championship, as it did two years ago.
“Why does the Big Ten want this?” asked Pecknold, whose captain, Soren Jonzzon, and star goalie, Michael Garteig, are both 24-year-old seniors. “To be honest, things are not going their way right now.”
Teams currently in the Big Ten have combined for 23 national titles, but the last was Michigan State’s in 2007, when the Spartans competed in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. A six-team Big Ten hockey conference was formed for the 2013-14 season after Penn State joined Division I.
“For me, philosophically, I don’t think there should be 22-year-old freshmen,” Minnesota Coach Don Lucia, a leading proponent of the legislation, said in an interview with The College Hockey News. “It’s good for kids to be in college in closer proximity to the age of their peers.”
Hockey East contains a mix of traditional powers like Boston College and Boston University, which have won 10 national titles between them, and smaller programs like Massachusetts-Lowell, which reached the Frozen Four in 2013. Commissioner Joe Bertagna acknowledged that his league was split on the legislation, but Massachusetts-Lowell Coach Norm Bazin was adamant.
“I’m against the legislation, wholeheartedly,” he said. “We’re not a ‘name-brand’ school, so we have to work on developing the late-maturing kid. Limiting the player pool would be a big, big mistake.”
Also causing consternation was how the proposal was introduced. Typically, coaches and conference commissioners discuss issues surrounding the sport among themselves at their annual postseason convention in Naples, Fla. Consensus rules.
But as is its right as a so-called Power 5 conference, the Big Ten took the legislation directly to the N.C.A.A. in September, although coaches had voted, 49-11, against it in a straw poll, according to an article in The College Hockey News.
“People felt they were caught off guard by this,” said Josh Fenton, commissioner of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, whose members include the seven-time champions North Dakota and Denver.
Arizona State, a member of the Pacific-12 in other sports, with one of the largest athletic budgets in the country, expects to be able to attract some of the nation’s elite players once its program matures. Yet Arizona State Coach Greg Powers said he would always be against the proposal.
“We will never be for this as long as I’m here,” he said. “We need to do what’s best for the entire body of college hockey.”
What’s best for hockey, many argue, is the status quo.
“If I were a betting man,” Bertagna said, “this legislation isn’t going to pass.”
This article was selected for educational purposes only.
Jennifer M. Condaras
BIG EAST Conference
The opinions expressed in the Daily Compliance Item are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by The BIG EAST Conference, JumpForward, or the Collegiate Sports Group of Bond, Schoeneck, and King. The Daily Compliance Item is not a substitute for a compliance office, case specific research, or the NCAA Bylaws. Do some homework, ask around, and get it right.