NCAA Hockey 101: The great player age limit debate rages (2023)

NCAA Hockey 101: The great player age limit debate rages (1)

Say this for Minnesota coach Don Lucia: At least he has the courage of his convictions.

Over the last few weeks, the “age limit” proposal, which would prevent schools from taking 21-year-old freshmen and guaranteeing them four years of NCAA eligibility, has been a hot topic in the college game.

The vast majority of coaches — a recent straw poll showed it at 49 against and only 11 for — think it's a bad proposal advanced by the Big Ten, and spearheaded by Lucia's Minnesota, because of the competitive disadvantage they now feel for themselves.

That is, you look at the last three national champions, and it's Yale, Union and Providence. These are not “prestige” colleges that, prior to the somewhat recent changes in the college and junior hockey landscapes, would have even sniffed a Frozen Four, let alone a national title. Those who (rightly) criticize the rule proposal as being a craven attempt to re-grab lost power by a group of six underperforming programs say it's anti-competitive and necessarily limits the pool of players that can play the sport at this level.

Well, sort of.

One of the players who benefited from playing college hockey as a 21-year-old freshman is Minnesota Wild defenseman Christian Folin, who has 55 games at the NHL level since he got a one-game tryout in 2013-14. He traveled a very bizarre path to the big time, and went through UMass Lowell — a program which relies heavily on older recruits and has risen to national prominence in the last four seasons, including going to three straight Hockey East title games, two of which they won — to do it. He left school after just two years, and while he recently said that this rule would have basically stopped his NHL dream dead in his tracks, he's only partly right because, again, he would have still had three years of eligibility.

Nonetheless, Folin's is a somewhat rare case of a late-blooming player catching a lot of attention. There are lots more 21-year-old freshmen who effectively have no chance of making the NHL, but can still be strong contributors at the college level and help their teams succeed. Again, Lowell went from a team that won 21 games one time in the previous 15 seasons, to one that has done so three years running.

“It's unfortunate that you would limit older kids from having four years of eligibility,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin, after stressing a “vehement” objection to the proposal. “Christian Folin wouldn't be a college player if that were the case. Dwayne Roloson wouldn't have been a college player. Matt Gilroy, who was a Hobey Baker winner [at BU] wouldn't have been a college player. So it's really unfortunate. I'm not sure they've really thought that through, and whether it's a ploy just to get everybody to go young, they have the same opportunities to go old and young as we do. So I'm not sure why this was put forth, but no, I'm very very much against it.”

Which brings us back to Lucia, there was this Q&A with College Hockey News in which he basically said, repeatedly, that while he understands his opinion is not popular with his coaching peers, he also doesn't care because “they are looking out for their program, and I am looking out for mine.”

This is the kind of casual F-you attitude you can adopt if you have the political clout of the Big Ten — a big-money power conference in all sports, which makes it unique among college hockey conferences — and one you may necessarily feel must be adopted if your program is struggling for the second year in a row.

Ditto Michigan, which hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2011-12. Ditto Michigan State, which hasn't cleared 20 wins since Obama got elected. Ditto Ohio State, which he been a .500 team just twice since 2009. Ditto Wisconsin, which has seven wins in its last 49 games. And ditto, I guess, Penn State, which is a new program but has the resources behind it to start attracting high-end players that others likely cannot.

And that's the issue here for many coaches and fans. Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and all the other supporters of this idiotic, self-serving proposal, have the ability to attract extremely talented players who are going to get drafted, and they can do it in droves. Therefore, the proposal only helps them. They take 21-year-old freshmen rarely, if ever, and more as a means of filling out their rosters or as a last resort. Guys like Folin, who contribute for programs like Lowell the second they arrive on campus, might not even get ice time at Minnesota just because there are probably three or four drafted players ahead of them on the depth chart.

But again, there are 11 coaches who supported the proposal, and only six in the Big Ten. Who are the other five? The poll was anonymous and we don't know for sure, but vast majority, if not all of them, are likely other moneyed or traditional powers. We're talking your Notre Dames, Boston Universities, Boston Colleges. That level of program is the only one that can or should logically support the proposal. Interestingly, though, the NCHC unanimously opposes it, including a North Dakota program that most would likely have lumped in with the long-time titans of the sport.

However, it's tough to say for sure which are definitively for and against, because I went to four college hockey games this weekend, featuring six different Hockey East teams, and six different coaches were asked their opinions on the proposal. Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, Northeastern coach Jim Madigan, and Bazin really panned the hell out of it, as you'd expect.

“Why would you want to limit our player pool?” Madigan asked rhetorically after his team fought BC to a draw on Saturday night. “I understand why the big boys are supporting it, because they have access. It's not just the Big Ten, there are some big boys in our league too, but I don't know why you'd want to limit our player pool. The NHL is [already] taking our players, as they should, when they think they're ready.”

Sneddon was more succinct.

“I don't want to swear, but...” he said, after his team beat BU on Friday, later adding, “I think it's absolutely ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, BU's David Quinn and BC's Jerry York offered mealy-mouthed non-responses to whether they support the proposal, which they almost certainly do. Not to call Quinn a liar, but his explanation that he hadn't really thought about it makes literally no sense and seems to be disingenuous-at-best if you're being extremely lenient with him in that “Donald Trump isn't lying if he really believes the BS things he says” type of way. There is no way he hasn't thought about this at all, and that he doesn't understand the inherent benefit to his club such a proposal would carry if it were to pass.

The next night, York simply offered something along the lines of, “I don't want to get into all that.” Which says plenty anyway.

At least UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh — a former BC assistant whose cash-rich program is in its second year in Hockey East and already attracting draft picks; the roster currently boasts a second, two thirds, and a seventh — came out and actually said that he supports the proposal. But even that was tempered.

“I'd like to look more at it,” he said after UConn completed its weekend sweep of Lowell on Sunday afternoon. “I was one of the ones who voted for it, for a number of different reasons, which I don't want to expound too much on right now. I think there should be some healthy discussion on it, but personally I don't mind the proposal.”

We know for sure, thanks to comments from Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna on a podcast with WEEI's Scott McLaughin, that it was only the “majority” of coaches in that conference who opposed the rule change. Connecting the dots a little bit, that indicates that York and Quinn support it, but choose to do so only in the shadows, likely because of how politically inexpedient their anti-competitive ideas are among their peers and probably a pretty good chunk of their fanbases. Bringing this idea out into the light only serves to make them look like coaches who feel they can't win with a level playing field. Which, well, it's probably not far off.

Their support is Randian in the basest way imaginable.

It's not that the college hockey world wouldn't totally understand their position. Again, to Lucia's point about looking out for the health of their programs, that's 100 percent what this proposal does. The question is whether the Haves of college hockey really need all that much protection from the Have Nots.

Yes, traditional Have Nots have won the last three NCAA titles. But they did so against Frozen Four fields that included Haves like North Dakota (twice), and Minnesota, BC, and BU (once each). The only Frozen Four that should gin up any real fear was in 2013, when it was Lowell, Quinnipiac, Yale, and St. Cloud, all of which were playing in their first national semi-finals ever. But again, there was an immediate return to relative normalcy. These teams are basically a coin flip or two away from having two national titles in the last three seasons, in addition to those won by BC in 2012, Minnesota-Duluth in 2011, BC in 2010, BU in 2009, and so on.

It is therefore not a stretch to say that the real issue for these coaches is that their long-heralded programs are running into difficulties against teams with fewer resources (one Lucia and, say, Rick Bennett at Union are looking at very, very different budgets) and better strategies. You can further argue this proposal is as much to protect the job security of guys with big-money, high-pressure jobs as it is the programs they oversee. What could a Nate Leaman do with Boston College's recruiting budget? What could Norm Bazin do if first-round picks took his calls in the way they do for Red Berenson? Lucia, York, and Berenson likely shudder at the thought.

And the reality is that if any of those big-ticket coaches were actively recruiting older player they knew were likely to stay for four years, instead of crying over another high draft pick jumping to the pros and trying to backdoor-legislate their way to a competitive advantage, they'd be pretty good at attracting both types of players. Present a guy like Folin with the choice of either Minnesota or UMass Lowell, and you tell me where he's going to be playing his college hockey.

The rules behind how this proposal might or might not be passed are, as with all else in the NCAA, ludicrous and protracted. So there's a non-zero chance that despite the vast sea of opposition, it might go through.

And that would be a shame. Unless you're a fan or, perhaps, coach of the small handful of teams that would benefit at the expense of the entire rest of the college game. But hey, objectivism is going to look like a good philosophy if it tells you everything you've done is right and good. And if you had the power, you would do anything to protect your standing, too. Rationalize it however you want, but everyone knows what this proposal is really all about it.

And the fact that some of the coaches who do support the proposal refuse to do so publicly tells you everything about their own opinion of where they feel they have to stand.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Quinnipiac (won at Yale and at Brown)

2. Providence College (swept a home-and-home with Merrimack)

3. North Dakota (swept Denver)

4. Boston College (three points in a home-and-home with Northeastern)

5. St. Cloud (split with Omaha)

6. Nebraska Omaha (split at St. Cloud)

7. Denver (swept by North Dakota)

8. Harvard (tied at Union and at RPI)

9. UMass Lowell (swept by UConn)

10. Michigan (took three points from Wisconsin)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is hereand his Twitter is here.


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