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Freshman age limit proposal stirs up college hockey

When Penn State elevated its men’s hockey team to varsity status, pushing the Big Ten to sponsor the sport at the conference level, there was a seismic shift in college hockey. A conference folded, a new one started and alignments were redrawn.

And the plates are still moving in new and unexpected directions.

The Big Ten Conference has put legislation in front of the NCAA to change the age limits for freshmen hockey players and the proposal is not sitting well with many in the college hockey world.

Here are the basics:

• Elite teenage hockey players almost always play junior hockey, sometimes before they leave high school, sometimes after graduation. Junior hockey ranges in age from 16 to 20. This is viewed as an important part of the development process for a hockey player. It’s part of the system. Part of the culture. Some play one year of juniors and go to college. Some play three.

• Playing out junior hockey eligibility means starting college late, often at age 20 or 21.

• High-end, big-name programs typically recruit few players who will be 21-year-old freshmen, instead attracting the best 17- and 18-year-olds, many of whom have been or will be drafted by NHL teams. (For example: Jack Eichel)

• Entering college as a 21-year-old freshman means you’re 24 or 25 by your senior year, depending on your birth date. That means 17- or 18-year-olds are going up against 24- or 25-year-olds. The Big Ten believes this is an imbalance that needs to be corrected. Other schools believe recruiting older players aides the competitive balance.

And that brings us to the Big Ten’s proposal. The conference is asking the NCAA to amend the age exemption rule for college hockey, asking for the age limit for incoming freshmen to be 20 years old, or two years after their scheduled high school graduation year. A player can still be a 21-year-old freshman but he surrenders a year of eligibility, giving him just three years to play college hockey and get his degree.

Proposal aside for the moment, many college hockey coaches seem most upset at the way the Big Ten has gone about the process.

Wayne Wilson, head coach at RIT, said the topic was never discussed at the annual coaches’ convention held in April in Florida. The Big Ten went to the NCAA without talking to the rest of college hockey. And the way the NCAA is structured only all-sport conferences have the ability to propose legislation. That means the six schools in the Big Ten hold all the power when it comes to the 60 college hockey programs and the NCAA.

“I just think going about it the wrong way and because going about it the wrong way I’m suspicious they’re doing it for selfish reasons,” Wilson said. “My guard is up.

“I know with my older guys they’re graduating. I think that’s as big as any part of it,” Wilson said. “I want the best possible hockey players who also graduate and become alumni of our school. … Is getting players at an older age worse or better than an NHL first-rounder who stays one year and leaves early?”

Men’s hockey hit an all-time high last year with a 92.1 percent graduation rate. It dipped to 88.5 percent in the most recent NCAA report, but still ranks among the top in men’s Division I sports.

If players are docked a year of athletic eligibility, it could have an impact on graduation rates, particularly if scholarship dollars only cover three years while most student-athletes need four or five to complete course work for their degree.

The spin on the side of the Big Ten proposal is that other programs are choosing to recruit older players. Don Lucia, head coach at Minnesota and a big proponent of the proposed legislation, took that theory one step further in a press conference last week.

“I don’t buy the fact that schools recruit older players,” Lucia told College Hockey News. “They recruit players and then delay them.”

That may be the case, but conversely big-time schools with big-time recruits are losing them early to the NHL.

Among the 300-plus former college players on NHL rosters this year, 21 were one-and-done with their college experience while 54 only played two years.

Regardless of where they play, college hockey freshmen are on average older than most other college freshmen. Across Division I this year the average age for a freshman in college hockey was 20 years, 126 days according to data from College Hockey, Inc.

The largest age group among all DI freshmen was 20 – 196. There were 132 21-year-old freshmen and 107 19-year-olds. There were just 48 18-year-old freshmen and four 17-year-olds.

At Canisius, two freshmen – Jimmy Mazza and Felix Chamberland – were 21 at the start of the season. Cameron Heath and Alex Jaeckle turned 21 during the fall, while Ian Edmondson will turn 21 next month. The Griffs also started the season with two 18-year-old freshmen, Josh Supryka and Matt McLeod.

At Niagara, three freshmen were 21 before the season started – Devin Campbell, Sean King and Guillaume Theiren. Nick Farmer, Tanner Lomsnes, Ryan Kuhn and Joe O’Brien will turn 21 before the season ends.

“For us, we’ve been able to identify late bloomers,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “Yes, they’re enrolling later than say the average true freshman across the country, but they’re bigger, stronger, faster and the key for us is they’re more mature socially. They’ve had a couple of years away with juniors and they’re better focused in regards to academics and the importance of a university degree.”