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College hockey undergoes a freshman reorientation

Email|Print| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / March 2, 2008

For intriguing views of what once was, you have the mosaics in the museums or the cartoonish antagonists in sci-fi movies. But there is another way you can cast your eyes upon the mighty dinosaur, for he still lives.

Rather, he skates, because he is the true-age freshman hockey player, an 18-year-old collegian not six months separated from his high school senior prom. He seemingly isn't far removed from triceratops or Tyrannosaurus rex.

"A vanishing breed," submits Brian Burke, general manager and executive vice president of the NHL's Anaheim Ducks and a guy who can remember a time when the 18-year-old freshman hockey player was the norm. Such as the fall of 1973, when Burke arrived in Providence from Edina, Minn., to join coach Lou Lamoriello's program. Surely, Lamoriello couldn't have thought twice about an 18-year-old freshman; after all, he himself had been just 16 when he landed on the Providence campus in 1959.

But fast-forward more than 34 years and Burke knows he'd be doing things differently.

"I'd probably have gone from Minnesota to two years of junior hockey and then arrived at Providence via Des Moines [of the US Hockey League]," said Burke.

He pauses, sighs, and anticipates what the storyline is all about. This trend of hockey players delaying their college entrance until they are 20, or even 21 or older, and whether it is right or wrong, good or bad.

"Frankly," said Burke, "in my mind, it's like bitching about the weather."

Here in Boston, where Matt Keator conducts business as an NHL agent, comes a shake of the head and a similar interpretation of the college hockey landscape.

"It is what it is," he said, though he concedes on a personal level that something about the purity of true-age players and "just letting them play" soothes his soul.

In that, Keator has great company, because two men whose legendary hockey roots were nurtured in Somerville and Watertown, stretched to West Roxbury and Dorchester, and have taken hold at opposite ends of Commonwealth Avenue - Jack Parker and Jerry York - aren't enamored with the current landscape of Division 1 college hockey, where the average age of a freshman is 19.8. What that means at the other end is unsettling to some coaches.

"Last year we played a team that had two 26-year-old [seniors]," said Parker, in his 35th season as BU's coach. "I'm not saying it's not fair, but it might be dangerous."

For the 18-year-olds, that is, which is why Parker and York have reassessed the way they recruit. Cognizant that so many teams are skating 20- and 21-year-old freshmen and thus have an abundance of 23-, 24-, 25-, and even 26-year-olds in the lineup, York - in his 36th year of coaching and 14th at BC - and Parker have to be convinced a true-age freshman is not going to be overmatched physically.

"I'm certainly not going to pass up on a 17- or 18-year-old if he can be one of my best players," said Parker, who has just such a scintillating freshman package in Colin Wilson. "But you have to make sure they can compete."

Call him old-fashioned, but York, who like Parker played his collegiate hockey in the 1960s when freshmen weren't allowed to play varsity sports, still favors the traditional landscape. The average age of his seven freshmen at the start of the season was 18.6, and what speaks to the bizarre nature of the way things are is this: BC's assistant captain, senior Dan Bertram, turned 21 Jan. 4, but he's younger than two Providence College freshmen against whom he skated this weekend - forward Ian O'Connor will be 23 in June, forward Matt Germaine will be 22 in April.

"It's a fascinating [landscape]," said York.

But is it right? York knows on which side of the discussion he sits, but the two-time NCAA championship-winning coach concedes there's evidence in support of all these 20- and 21-year-old freshmen.

"There is," he suggests, "no right or wrong."

Advantages seen
From Biloxi, Miss., where his minor league team, the Charlotte Checkers, were in wait of two East Coast Hockey League games against the host Sea Wolves, former University of New Hampshire forward Shawn Vinz offered testimony on behalf of today's collegiate hockey landscape.

"I'm happy with my decision. Overall, it gave me a chance to get to know myself better," said Vinz, a native of Rochester, Minn., who was 25 when he graduated last spring.

Vinz said he's typical of a lot of today's collegiate hockey players, in that when he surveyed the scene as a 16- and 17-year-old and the favorable Division 1 offers weren't there, he took advantage of the many options available. In his case, he chose to head to the United States Hockey League, a premier junior circuit that features a dozen teams in Midwestern outposts such as Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Waterloo, Green Bay, and Sioux City.

When he didn't fancy the offers he had after playing in 2001-02, Vinz headed back for a second season in the USHL. Then, he played a third.

"I didn't think it would hurt," he said. "I figured playing 70-80 games [in the USHL] would be better for me than 30 or 40 [college games]."

Vinz thus stepped onto the UNH campus in the fall of 2003 almost five months beyond his 21st birthday.

Head coach Dick Umile didn't blink.

"Typically, the freshman is coming in two years after graduating high school," said Umile, in his 18th year as UNH's coach.

Umile has recruited his share of true-age freshmen - most notably Sean Collins, Steve Saviano, and Colin Hemingway - but he said those highly skilled 18-year-olds are the exception; for today's grind, most young players need the year or two to grow, mentally and physically.

"Give me the 20-year-old who has matured a few years," said UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald, his Rivers Hawks having started the season with six freshmen whose average age was 20.33. "I think he's more likely to stick [in school]."

MacDonald feels the way many other coaches do, that incoming freshmen who are 20 or 21 are not only physically more mature to handle the yearlong commitment, but also scholastically more prepared. Keator suggests that coaches feel that a "mature 21-year-old isn't apt to run around as much as an 18-year-old," and from another corner of the minor league hockey world, a voice concurs.

"I think it helps to be a little bit older," said Josh Soares, who plays for the Anchorage Aces of the ECHL less than a year after he graduated from the University of Maine at 25. "You are less likely to be overwhelmed by the school load and the hockey load."

But he agreed that there's a flip side.

"When you're coming out [of college] and turning pro at 25, you only have a small window and you tend to have to prove yourself right away. If you're younger, you'd have a little more time to prove yourself."

That dilemma applies even to those players who, unlike Soares, don't pursue pro hockey. It's a reality that MacDonald feels coaches have to be up front about during the recruiting process.

"I'll tell players, that's $100,000 you just cost yourself, because you've just delayed your entry into the workforce," said MacDonald.

Parental guidance
Currently, the Maine roster includes seven players who are at least 23, and last year the Black Bears not only graduated a 25-year in Soares, but a 26-year-old, Michel Leveille. That's not to single out Maine, because building teams around older players is the norm, not the exception, and even Parker and York have recruited the older freshmen.

"I'm certainly not averse to it," said York. "Sometimes you miss a kid on the first cycle, he plays junior hockey and is a 'late bloomer,' so you get a chance at him in the second cycle."

But for the most part, York is committed to "true-age players" and Parker feels strongly that "25- and 26-year-olds shouldn't be playing college hockey."

Yet they are. So, why? The answers lead you in a multitude of tangents. Parker said for years "the haves" were getting the better 18-year-old skilled players, so "the have-nots" went in a different direction. Rather than settle for a second-tier 18-year-old, they opted for older and perhaps stronger, though not necessarily more skilled 20-year-olds "and once that happened, [the haves] realized they couldn't continually bring in 18-year-olds."

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said teenage hockey players have more options than they ever have - from postgraduate seasons at the prep schools, to quality junior hockey leagues, to the looming presence of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Players use these as leverage; if they don't feel they're getting a college offer that pleases them, they always can find a place to play until the next recruiting cycle begins. And usually there's a common denominator to all of these decisions being made - the parent.

"I believe parents manipulating kids early on is one of the biggest contributors to this phenomenon," said Bertagna. "They look at little Johnny and think it would be best to hold him back, so that he'll be physically more mature." And that mind-set stays with them.

MacDonald agrees, and as a father of three hockey-playing boys, he knows the sort of finances that are put out by parents. "I'm not saying that they're looking so much for a 'return' on their investment, but I think you want to see [hockey] carried through as far as it goes," he said.

The NHL, of course, stands as the players' ultimate goal, and that's where people such as Burke pass judgment. Thus does he observe with keen interest the current, older Division 1 hockey landscape. On the one hand, Burke takes stock of the viewpoints held by Parker and York, "guys I respect and who have dedicated their lives to college hockey," but there is the other side.

"College hockey is the beneficiary of better players," said Burke. "But whether it's worth giving up two years and delaying your entry into the workforce, I'm not smart enough to say. I'll leave that up to others to answer."

He knows it could be a long wait.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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