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Big Ten ignites firestorm of controversy in NCAA hockey

Ryan Kennedy
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Future Oiler Andrew Miller (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Big Ten ignites firestorm of controversy in NCAA hockey

Ryan Kennedy
By:

How old can a freshman player be in the NCAA? The Big Ten conference believes that 20 years old should be the limit and schools from other circuits are not happy about it – especially since the Big Ten has a lot more weight with the NCAA than they do.

It's the hottest and most controversial argument buzzing around college hockey right now: the Big Ten proposal to bring down the age limit of incoming freshmen, something pundits and opposing coaches believe would hurt them, while helping that one power conference. Simply put, the legislation put forth to the NCAA could change the college hockey world and will certainly confront the community to examine what it wants to be.

As detailed in an incredibly in-depth story by College Hockey News, the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State) has sponsored legislation that would limit four-year eligibility to players who have graduated high school within the past two years. So essentially, if you entered NCAA hockey as a 21-year-old, you would most likely only be able to play three seasons instead of four.

This would have virtually no impact on Big Ten schools, which tend to recruit blue-chip talent from a young age. Michigan's Zach Werenski, for example, was still 17 when his Wolverines career began last season – he actually had to crush course work that summer just to get eligible early. And, he'll probably leave school after this season to play for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who selected him eighth overall in the draft this past summer.

But for other schools, older recruits are more common and can really help drive success. Edmonton Oilers right winger Andrew Miller, for example, was the leading scorer and captain of Yale when the Bulldogs won the national championship in 2013, while goalie Jeff Malcolm played the hero in that final game against Quinnipiac. Miller was 25 by the time the Bulldogs conquered the Frozen Four, while Malcolm literally turned 24 the day of the final.

When Ferris State went to the final one year prior (losing to Boston College), those Bulldogs were led in scoring by Jordie Johnston, who didn't hit campus until he was 21. And right now, one of Quinnipiac's top scorers is junior Tim Clifton, who was also a 21-year-old frosh. The Bobcats are one of the highest-ranked teams in the country.

The Big Ten legislation argues that these players are too old for college hockey, especially in an era of 17-year-olds such as Werenski or Boston College's Noah Hanifin last season. But it does keep these programs competitive in an environment where recruiting can be both cut-throat and exhausting – even if your lesser-known school does get an early commit from a kid, he could jet for major junior if he doesn't switch to a better-known program before he hits campus.

And that's partly how we've had national champions from Yale and Union lately, not to mention finals appearances from Ferris State and Quinnipiac.

Plus, how long should a player be in college hockey? Boston University's Matt Gilroy won the Hobey Baker Award when he was 25 years old. Well, of course he had a good season, he was 25 years old. A lot of NHLers have played 200 games by then!

Which brings us to big picture question: What does men's college hockey want to look like?

In its current form, these runs by well-maintained programs with little national name recognition, but doggedly talented coaches and older players at their peaks (Twenty-three 23-year-olds, as I like to tease) have become the norm. It's tremendously exciting in terms of parity and certainly presents fans with the notion that any school can win a national championship, but I can't help but assume marketers and TV execs are rolling their eyes.

But if the Big Ten legislation goes through – and it is scheduled to be voted on in April – the power balance could shift to the marquee schools even more. Not just Minnesota and Michigan, but Boston College and North Dakota – programs that recruit clusters of future NHLers that are out of school by the time they're 21. Those teams would be less likely to get knocked out of the Frozen Four's single-elimination tournament by the "underdog" schools and provide the NCAA with a much more sellable product.

I know it's cynical, but I can guarantee it would be easier to snag the casual sports fan's attention for a Frozen Four that featured Penn State, Notre Dame, Arizona State and Ohio State, rather than one involving Lake Superior State, R.P.I., Denver and Michigan Tech – even though the latter group has combined for 15 national titles and the former zero.

The downside? You'd get some shuttered programs. Hockey is an expensive sport and if the odds of glory become even longer, I could see some athletic directors simply pulling the plug. Whether or not the Big Ten is good (it hasn't been), it has its own cable TV network and a lot of resources. If Arizona State helps usher in Pac-12 hockey eventually (the conference has already agreed to national broadcasts for two Sun Devils games this season and the school isn't even playing a full D-1 schedule yet), that's another power conference in the hockey game and a potential ally for the Big Ten, which shares a rich rivalry in football with its West Coast peer.

And because the Big Ten is the only "all-sports" conference among hockey circuits, it has special rights in the NCAA. It is a power conference in several senses of the word.

This won't be the last we hear on this issue, but it certainly brings up a lot for the NCAA community to chew on.

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Big Ten ignites firestorm of controversy in NCAA hockey