Denver coach Jim Montgomery.
Competition in the college ranks begins long before teams hit the ice. The initial battles are fought in the increasingly-competitive recruiting war.
There has never been a more competitive time to attract talent in the NCAA. Arizona State and Penn State have added big-name status to a field of 60 Div. I schools, while the CHL constantly threatens to pull a hot young talent over to major junior.
So recruiting isn’t just a big part of the job now for college coaches – it’s a constant job.
“You’re recruiting every day, to be honest,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “If you’re not making a phone call, you’re at least thinking about it.”
Montgomery estimated he’s on the road 15 percent of the season, while his assistant coaches are on planes or in rental cars as much as 40 percent of the time. Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson said that even a couple weeks every summer month are dedicated to recruiting. “It’s become year-round,” Pearson said. “It’s not only your immediate class, it’s the class after that and the class after that.”
Over the years, the recruiting arms race has reached incredible heights. Kids are committing to schools at 13, even though they know they won’t be donning the jersey for another five years – if that. “We try to wait as long as we can,” said Boston University associate head coach Albie O’Connell. “Some kids aren’t even shaving yet and they’re committing to schools.”
Practically speaking, though, the chances of that 13-year-old sticking with the commitment are low. Coaches change, players change and the lure of major junior is enticing – especially since players can join a CHL team at 16.
The same goes for the women’s game. Boston College coach Katie Crowley just added a second assistant (Canadian Olympian Gillian Apps) to help with all the scouting her Eagles have to do. The battle for talent is just as feverish, even though the women don’t have a major junior circuit to reckon with. “It’s getting more challenging,” Crowley said. “We’re following the men, sadly. Kids are committing earlier – 13, 14, 15 – it’s getting crazy.”
There are strict rules about recruiting, which adds another layer of difficulty. Coaches aren’t allowed to contact a player until Jan. 1 of the teen’s Grade 10 year. But the players – and their parents – can call a coach anytime. So being proactive is important for a potential student-athlete. Campus visits allow families to see what kind of environment their kid will be in, but it also gives the coaches a look at the still-forming human being they’d be welcoming to their program. “It’s a feeling-out process,” O’Connell said. “We try to find kids who are intelligent, with stable families and good support networks.”
The competition is fierce. Recruiting used to largely be regional, with Minnesota or Michigan getting most of the best in-state kids and Clarkson (which is in New York state) venturing into nearby Ontario and Quebec, for example. Now the game is wide-open. “Back in the day, you’d go to a BCHL game and there would be five schools there,” Pearson said. “Now there are 60. Everybody is everywhere.”
And Europe has become a new frontier for the NCAA. Montgomery said that landing eventual Florida first-rounder Henrik Borgstrom was a six-month process that included assistant coach David Carle going to Finland. O’Connell went to the Ivan Hlinka tournament in Czechia and Slovakia this year, while other BU coaches made sojourns to Finland and Sweden. Fortunately for the jetlag weary, more European players have been coming over to the USHL and NAHL lately. But ask any coach about travel horror stories and you’ll get your fill. “Like the motel room I got in Yorkton, Sask., for $16.95?” Pearson said. “You jumped in bed and it would just sink around you.”
Carle made a big mistake last year, en route to seeing hot prospects Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro in Penticton, B.C. He flew into Seattle in mid-February, landing at 8 a.m. Renting the smallest car in the lot, he set out for the B.C. interior, only to get walloped by a storm on the Coquihalla highway. Carle got there – more than 10 hours later – on what should have been a five-hour drive. “I’ve been to Alaska,” Carle said. “But never in a storm like that.”
Pearson, who was Red Berenson’s longtime assistant at Michigan, also recalled sending his boss down the Coquihalla with similar snowy results – and Berenson couldn’t even rent a car right away because he forgot his wallet at home. Berenson finally got to Vernon to see David Oliver, who ended up a four-year man with the Wolverines. After more than 200 games in the NHL and stints in the AHL and Europe, Oliver retired. Now, he’s director of player development for the Colorado Avalanche, the team that drafted Jost this summer.