Ban on older hockey players to meet stiff NCHC opposition

GRAND FORKS -- The Big Ten's proposal to the NCAA to eliminate some older players from the college game has created controversy this week in the sport, and National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams will unanimously oppose it.The legislation wou...

North Dakota’s Trevor Olson (11) and St. Cloud State’s Blake Winiecki collide as the puck gets past Coltyn Sanderson (26) during Saturday’s game in St. Cloud. (Photo by Dave Schwarz / St. Cloud Times)

GRAND FORKS - The Big Ten’s proposal to the NCAA to eliminate some older players from the college game has created controversy this week in the sport, and National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams will unanimously oppose it.
The legislation would only allow players to defer enrollment into college for two years, or else they would lose a year of eligibility. Currently, some players compete in junior hockey for three years after high school graduation.
The Division I Legislative Committee will hear the proposal, which was brought forth by the Big Ten, and decide whether to send it forward to the NCAA Division I Council, which meets in April.
The eight NCHC coaches are unanimous in their opposition, commissioner Josh Fenton said, and he expects schools in the league to send feedback to the Legislative Committee during the next week. WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson also said he and his league’s teams oppose the legislation.
Fenton said he has numerous concerns with the proposal, and University of North Dakota coach Brad Berry said he’s “not a fan of it at all.”
“We’ve had much discussion to this point,” said Fenton, who added that the teams were well aware of the legislation before College Hockey News first reported it this week. “We’ve been talking about it at least two months.”
Although the legislation could help many NCHC teams, which recruit and bring in younger, high-end players often, Fenton said he thinks older players are an important equalizer in college hockey.
Fenton pointed out that the last three NCAA championship have been first-time winners. Three consecutive first-time winners hasn’t happened since the first three years of the tournament in the 1940s.
“I think it encourages schools to invest in college hockey, knowing that the balance is there and you have a chance to win,” Fenton said. “The competitive balance in college hockey is there right now, and it’s there because we have a wide variety of prospect pools that are coming into each institution.”
Fenton outlined several other concerns, too.
The commissioner said he expects teams will still add 21-year-old players, even if they only have three years of eligibility. But he questioned whether it would affect graduation rates with players presumably leaving school after their hockey careers are over or not being able to afford the fourth year of school if not on scholarship.
He also said a discussion point at all levels of hockey is players rushing their development, and this could increase that.
“People would argue that we’re forcing kids to make decisions too early in their lives,” Fenton said. “College hockey is a part of that.”
Berry questioned whether it would “snuff out the development side of the game.”
“I don’t know why we would want to change it right now,” Berry said.
According to College Hockey News, a straw poll among college hockey teams at the national convention last year showed 49 teams oppose the legislation and 11 supported it.
Although most opposed it, the Big Ten went ahead and proposed it anyway, another sign of the major split between college hockey’s higher-budget programs and lower-budget programs.
In the last two years, several traditional powerhouse programs also told the others that they would no longer honor verbal commitments and they would start recruiting anyone who hasn’t signed a National Letter of Intent, a break from previous policy.
There has been recent upheaval with the start of the NCHC and Big Ten, which fractured the old Western Collegiate Hockey Association and wiped out the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Big Ten yields the most power with the ability to directly submit rules proposals to the NCAA, because it is a full Division I league across the board.
Although Fenton opposes this piece of legislation, he said he thinks it’s a good thing.
“I think it’s great that we have a conference with a seat at the table directly,” Fenton said. “It creates some leverage for our sport in particular. I think everyone is looking at it saying, ‘How can we use that power to strength the sport overall?’
“What you’re seeing with this is people are not necessarily in favor of this proposal. They are looking at it as the conference using their seat at the table to do something that is maybe not shared or seen by the rest of the Division-I playing membership.”

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