Brett Lebda of the Detroit Red Wings played four seasons at the University of Notre Dame. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
“It’s different than in the NHL or junior because we don’t have a draft; we don’t have lists to follow.”
- Andy Slaggert, associate coach and recruiting coordinator for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s hockey program.
While you’ll start to see mock drafts and player rankings released in the coming weeks and months for the high-profile NHL draft and perhaps even the major junior drafts, there’s one group of scouts who don’t follow the hot lists of hockey’s future to the letter, but instead search for players capable of receiving a varsity letter.
NCAA programs are designed to combine hockey abilities with academic integrity and social awareness. Schools don’t have scouting departments, but instead the coaching staff take up the role of recruiters. The search for a player is different for NCAA programs because there’s more to consider when gathering information on a prospect.
“We don’t walk into an arena and ask, ‘Where are all the good students?’” said Slaggert, whose Fighting Irish program is currently ranked No. 2 in the NCAA and has coached players such as Brett Lebda, Mark Eaton and Yan Stastny during his 16-year tenure. “You have to identify if the player is desirable for your program first and then look at everything else.”
Since putting a team together is about more than just the on-ice detail, the whole experience is different throughout the NCAA. There’s no draft into college so a recruiter is ultimately trying to introduce a player to an opportunity and win him over with the program’s credentials and the possibilities it presents.
The process is much more personal and much less in the dark than the standard major junior or NHL systems.
“Recruiting is more about the relationship you build with a player,” Slaggert said. “In the NHL draft, you may pick a guy without speaking to him at all, but in college you get to know each other.”
Of course, there are strict rules for recruiting. Whereas a junior or NHL scout can check in on a prospect anytime, the NCAA has certain guidelines. For instance, a recruiter may only drop by to see a player seven times during a season.
“It’s more restricted the younger the player is, too,” Slaggert explained. “You can’t call a player in Grade 9 or Grade 10, but on June 15th after his Grade 10 year you can call him once per month and eventually it’s once per week.”
The college recruiters don’t watch the same amount of games or travel as many miles as scouting staffs, but the patience and persistence demanded on the road to acquiring a player lines up perfectly.
After the NCAA recruiter evaluates a player’s hockey skill and determines he fits into that program, the distinctiveness of the NCAA kicks in. When the academic and character evaluations have been completed and passed, a school can then invite the player and his family for a campus visit.
“They meet the staff, walk the school grounds, meet the players on the team and see how everything operates,” Slaggert said. “The campus visits are actually really important in the process of recruiting.”
And when the analyzing and familiarizing has been done, it all comes down to the player and his family to decide which school or hockey destination is a best fit for them.
“First is a verbal commitment (a non-binding declaration),” Slaggert said. “And after their Grade 12 year they can sign a National Letter of Intent to go to your school and that formalizes the commitment.”
And after all the red tape has been cut and a player chooses a program, rosters are born. While this stage of an NCAA player’s hockey career rests on their shoulders, the future NHLers who decided to take the road less traveled embark on a journey through NHL draft lists on their way to a selection process that is completely out of their hands.
A Scout's Life is a weekly look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. Each week we'll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation.