September 23, 2010 E-MAIL PRINT ShareThis
Early college commitments have embedded dangers
by Mike Zhe/
Corinna Jenkins Tucker (photo: UNH Photographic Services)
Paul Kelly (photo: Getty)
Tim Whitehead (photo: University of Maine)
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal as part of the "State of College Hockey" package.
When Lane Kiffin, the new football coach at Southern Cal, made headlines in February by offering a scholarship to 13-year-old quarterback David Sills – who accepted – many observers quickly branded it a publicity stunt.
Not college hockey coaches. They know too well what passes for reality these days.
Young players wear their college commitments like a badge of honor, the way older players may proudly sport a bruise absorbed when sticking up for a teammate. But they’re also wearing those commitments at younger and younger ages.
If seeing 14- and 15-year-olds choosing their colleges before even settling into high school is a trend that’s bothersome to coaches, to the people that study adolescent behavior, it’s more than bothersome – it’s disturbing.
“It’s a difficult decision about where to go to college when you’re 18,” said Dr. Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in child and adolescent development. “I can’t imagine making a commitment of four years of your life when you’re having trouble making a commitment about what to have for dinner, or whether to go to the movies or the mall with your friends.”
Coaches must be realists. With major junior teams in Canadadrafting players as young as 14, and thereby making them largely ineligible to play college hockey in the U.S., the process of identifying recruits begins at an earlier age. For better or for worse.
“We try to be as patient as we can,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead, “but we’re certainly open to the possibility of taking an early commitment.”
Recruiting is always evolving, but the last decade has really seen it accelerate, due to a number of factors: the aggressive approach taken by Canadian major junior teams in the CHL; better technology, which has shrunk the world and broadened the recruiting base; and the increased role of family advisers, who ostensibly are entering the process with their player’s best interest at heart, though that’s not always the case.
When Whitehead was at UMass-Lowell in the 1990s, first as an assistant to Bruce Crowder and for five years the head coach himself, he recruited a pair of Hockey East Rookie of the Years in Greg Bullock (1993-94) and Greg Koehler (1996-97).
What Bullock and Koehler had in common, besides scoring ability, was this: Both made it through high school largely unknown, something that in this day age would be almost impossible.
“It used to be quite common in the ‘90s to find a player who was 20-years-old who was available and had the potential to be a great player,” said Whitehead. “Now it’s extremely difficult for a ‘late bloomer’ to surface at that age.”
Partly in response to these trends, the last year has seen the creation of College Hockey, Inc., an organization headed by former NHL Players’ Association executive director Paul Kelly (Newton Highlands, Mass.). Its purpose is to promote the benefits of college hockey through information and legislation; one of its first targets was the recruiting practices of major junior hockey.
“CHL teams have no rules or restrictions,” said Kelly. “They can lobby early and often. It’s a big business, a successful business. They have a large staff and they can attend every tournament, every tryout camp and they do.”
At 14 or 15, parents have already likely invested thousands of dollars and thousands of hours in their child’s hockey development. The guarantee of a four-year education, with a value in excess of $100,000, is a pretty persuasive argument for making an early commitment.
But the differences between a 14- or 15-year-old who makes that commitment and the 18-year-old that will eventually step onto campus as a student-athlete are vast.
“At 14, your decision-making skills are not well-developed,” said Tucker. “And youths aren’t as good as those who are older at interpreting social situations. It might be harder for them when they’re interacting with coaches and recruiters to catch all the messages that are being given and understand them, and understand the implications of those decisions and what it might mean for them.”
Recent research has shown that the period of what is considered adolescence now extends past the teenage years. The years between ages the ages of 18 to 25 – once termed “early adulthood” – is now being termed by many researchers “extended adolescence.”
“The reason is it shares a lot of the characteristics of the period of adolescence,” said Tucker. “It’s a time when youth are still exploring their identities. Many of them are still living at home with their parents. They haven’t committed to an occupation.
“With the period of adolescence being essentially extended into the early 20s, closing in or committing to a particular occupational goal at 14 or 15 is very early.”
But it’s happening. More and more. Nobody seems to think it’s very healthy – for the players or the schools – but it’s reality.
“There’s no way a kid at 14 or 15 is ready to make that kind of life-changing decision about where he wants to go to college,” said Whitehead. “Having said that, some of those decisions turn out pretty good. But a lot of mistakes have been made, too.”
Mike Zhe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.