Five things: Answering some NCAA questions

1. A quick introduction

Last week I wrote something about Johnny Gaudreau playing his junior year at Boston College and someone in the comments was very confused by this, given that Gaudreau had already played his junior season in the USHL and therefore there was a bit of confusion as to how could he also do so while at college. It was then that I started to think that maybe the average Canadian hockey fan doesn’t have a firm grasp on the NCAA hockey system to which the Flames seem to be turning more and more often for their prospects.

This matter was compounded on Sunday afternoon when I was watching a televised game between Jon Gillies’ and Mark Jankowski’s Providence College Friars and their Hockey East rivals, the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. I commented on Twitter that Gillies was the best goaltender in the conference as a freshman (and boy is he ever), and what a rare thing that was, to which our own Vintage Flame asked what the chances were that he would move to a Division 1 school like Boston College, where Gaudreau and Billy Arnold play.

It was then that I decided to write this Q&A (combined with the fact that my week is insanely busy and I don’t know if I’ll even have time to watch the Flames’ games this week and would therefore have little to contribute on the subject) about some of the ins and outs of NCAA hockey after soliciting some questions on Twitter. If, after reading this yourself, you still have other questions, I will be happy to answer them in another one of these at some point in the indeterminate future. Of we go…

2. How do divisions and transfers work?

Again, this question came to me from Vintage Flame, and was spread out over a few tweets, so I don’t have a quick and easy way to explain what was asked. But basically, there was some confusion as to what excatly an NCAA "division" was, and how players could move between them.

Let’s start with the basics. There are two NCAA divisions for ice hockey: Division 1 and Division 3. There is no Division 2, but there was for a long time; it basically died when all the really good Division 2 teams moved to Division 1 in the mid-1980s.

Division 1 is the one from which nearly every professional hockey player in North America plays college hockey. I can’t think of very many NCAA Division 3 players who have made it as pros, but they do exist; Keith Aucoin, who has 42 points in 113 career NHL games, including four goals this year for the Islanders, played for Div. 3 Norwich University but was so far ahead of the competition he faced that he scored 240 points in 116 career games. Guy Hebert of all people is another guy who did it.

Now, as with NCAA football or basketball or probably any other sport, players at one school are free to transfer to another if they so choose. However, if they go from on Div. 1 school to another, they are required by NCAA rule to sit out a year before they can play for the new team, and the same holds true for those who move from Div. 3 to Div. 1 (which happens but is very rare, obviously). However, if you move down to Div. 3 from Div. 1, there is no such restriction; most players who do that are generally not good enough to play Div. 1, though, so for the purposes of NHL fans’ interest, they don’t matter much.

Transfers from one school to another happen with some degree of frequency, usually precipitated by players on very good teams that have a lot of talent (BC, North Dakota, Minnesota, etc.) moving to programs where they have a better chance at getting more ice time. There are exceptions to this, of course. Some guys get dismissed from a team despite being very good and catch on with another; Jets draft pick Vinny Saponari was booted from BU’s team, and moved across town to Northeastern University, for example (not that Northeastern isn’t a worse program than BU). But for the most part, that’s extremely rare.

3. On NCAA "corruption"

This next question came from tweeter @Halifax_NS, and he asked: "[H]ow does NCAA corruption and exploitation compare to CHL corruption and exploitation of ‘amateur’ athletes?"

This is an accusation I get a lot from CHL fans whenever I talk about how much I like NCAA hockey: That the NCAA is a corrupt, exploitative organization. That’s both somewhat true and not at all accurate, at least as far as ice hockey is concerned. Yes, it’s totally and absolutely and plainly true that big-money sports for the NCAA such as football and basketball are full of recruiting violations, guys getting paid by boosters, and all kinds of other things that are against the organization’s rules but really get brushed under the rug if not outright ignored by schools, conferences, and the NCAA itself. That happens for sure.

But I can tell you unequivocally that if that’s the kind of corruption you’d see in college hockey, which is not in any way a money-maker for the NCAA or most of its member schools, you’re wrong. I’ve been covering the college game for several years now, and I know many people who have done the same for even longer. We all know people in the game, we’ve all talked about this very subject with each other and those who would be privvy to all kinds dirty details if they existed. They don’t really exist though. Let me give you an idea of what I mean: The biggest scandal in NCAA hockey in not-all-that-recent memory was at the University of Maine in 1994, when it was discovered that some players on the hockey team there were receiving the occasional free breakfast from one school employee for one semester. Other, more recent developments saw coaches reprimanded for texting potential prospects before they were allowed to do so under NCAA rules, and in 2003-04, UMass Lowell had to forfeit five wins because they unknowingly played a forward who was academically ineligible for the second semester (incidentally, he was a transfer player).

I honestly can’t speak too much to the kind of corruption that exists in the CHL because I don’t know much about how players may or may not be getting paid to jump to those leagues and forego their college eligibility, but I know it happens because of what the OHL did to Windsor over the summer and I’ve heard reports, unsubstantiated but all from people I totally trust, of players getting fairly significant sums (in the hundreds of thousands in some cases) from various teams throughout the CHL. Again, the details are things I can’t begin to confirm or report, but rest assured that this happens in the CHL, and not the NCAA. None of these kids, no matter how good, are getting free cars or cash from anyone.

As to exploitation, yeah, that’s an issue I suppose. NCAA players aren’t paid, most CHL players only get stipends. Teams and the NCAA make a lot of money on their athletic accomplishments. But at least in the NCAA, most of those kids are getting free educations out of the deal, and depending on where they go to play, that could be worth $200,000 or more, so it’s not like they’re not getting value out of it at the end of the day.

(I should also note that the vast majority of college and major junior hockey players don’t make the NHL. Nate Ewell of College Hockey Inc., a private organization designed to promote NCAA hockey as an option for young players, told me about 10 percent of CHL players historically make the NHL, compared to 8 percent or so of NCAA players. Not that big a gap. Today, about 50 percent of the NHL are former CHLers, and the NCAA’s portion is roughly 30, but growing steadily.)

4. Player signings

Another good question came from @CanadasPredsFan who asked, "Can any team sign any player to a entry contract? And when?"

The answer to this one is basically, "Yes, unless that player was already drafted by someone else." There is nothing preventing a team from signing an undrafted free agent, and those players are free to field offers from any number of them through what are known as "family advisors" as a means of skirting NCAA rules about amateur athletes having agents (but believe me when I tell you they are just agents who aren’t getting paid yet). Lots of undrafted NCAA players get signed every spring when the college hockey season ends, and there’s always a little bit of talk about the bidding wars for them on CBC or TSN or whatever.

There’s a decent amount of data about the usefulness of these players, and some of them can turn out to be very good. Perhaps the most famous undrafted NCAA free agent in hockey today is probably Marty St. Louis, who played four years at the University of Vermont before going pro and becoming an NHL All-Star, Stanley Cup champion, Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay winner, and potential Hall of Famer. Dan Boyle, Ed Belfour and Adam Oates were also undrafted, just to give you an idea.

When players are drafted, it’s different. They can sign any time, and some even choose to leave in the middle of the NCAA season, but that’s rare. Kyle Okposo and Paul Kariya are the only two I can come up with off the top of my head who did it, and they did it for very different reasons: Okposo wasn’t happy at the University of Minnesota and signed with the Islanders (though Minnesota argues that the team pressured him into it, which is kind of seen as a dick move, but teams and drafted players are allowed to talk all they want); Kariya was waaaaay too good to be playing college hockey, as he collected 124 points in just 51 career NCAA games, and just never went back to Maine after World Juniors in 1993.

Obviously, though, they have to be signed by the team that drafted them, though the rules for this are a bit wonky. Justin Schultz, you’ll recall, recently screwed the Ducks, who drafted him in the second round a few years ago, by allowing the deadline to sign him to lapse, and became a free agent under the old CBA. Well-known college hockey media member Bruce Ciskie explained the rule Schultz, and Blake Wheeler before him, exploited more concisely on his blog than I just did in attempting to write it up, so here’s that:

"Per the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, a player who is drafted and then plays in junior for one season before going to college can exercise a rule in the agreement. That player has the right to withdraw from school after his junior year. After a 30-day window where the drafting team has exclusive negotiating rights, the player can become an unrestricted free agent, just like Wheeler did, and now how Schultz has done."

Obviously this is a pretty rare thing to happen, as relatively few players get drafted out of junior and then go to college, and fewer still have no desire to play for the team that selected them. It might become more common in the future, though, because more high-quality players are taking a year of junior before going to college, and the NCAA is generally becoming a better-regarded prospect development system, so there is that to consider.

Frankly, this whole process is a little convoluted so if there are less general questions about it, I’m happy to answer them later on.

5. And finally…

This wasn’t so much a question from @theycallmemorty, but it’s easy to answer. He says, "I don’t think I really get the point of conferences…"

Simply put, conferences exist for the purposes of geographic reasons, as they do in the NHL and CHL. Each has their relative strength to consider as well, and interestingly, the entire college hockey landscape will be completely shaken up next season with the creation of the Big 10 Hockey Conference, which took big-time programs like Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State out of the existing CCHA and WCHA. They join brand-new program Penn State in the Big 10 conference, which will have only six teams despite the name.

That prompted the other top-flight schools in those conferences to break off into their own super-conference, called the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Those include Denver, Colorado College, Miami, Minnesota-Duluta, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan, all of which were, like their Big 10 counterparts, in either the CCHA or WCHA.

Those two moves prompted most of the rest of the CCHA and WCHA to combine into a new, worse WCHA, and also take the University of Alabama-Huntsville, which is an independent school, into the fold.

Meanwhile, the last remaining CCHA team, Notre Dame, joined the no-longer-accurately-named Hockey East, which previously had no members outside New England. Hockey East will also take in UConn for the 2014-15 season.

Basically, conferences just got a lot messier and harder to understand and stupider, but they exist to cut down travel costs.

  • Vintage Flame

    Really good stuff Ryan. Didn’t realize that Div 2 had just gone away like it had.

    I also didn’t realize that a player had to sit out a year if he transferred programs, whether it’s up to a Div 1 team or within division 1. That makes it a lot more slear as to why you don’t see it very often.

    One question I’ll ask you Ryan is what happens if a player is released by a University and then joins another program?

    For example, in NCAA football, Troy Aikman broke his leg while playing for Oklahoma. He was released and then picked up by UCLA where he was allowed to play there without having to sit out the year.

    Is that just a special circumstance where his time off with injury was considered his sit out period, or are there special conditions that circumvent the one year period?

    • As noted above, Vinny Saponari was “released” by BU (i.e. told he wasn’t on the team any more), but had to sit out a year without playing for Northeastern. He spent that year off playing in the USHL.

      The only case I recall of a player not having to sit out like that was when an Oilers draft pick named Ed Caron transferred from UNH to Yale after his freshman season, sat out one semester per NCAA rules, decided he didn’t like it at Yale, and transferred back to UNH. This was in the early 2000s.

      Basically what happened was he then sat out the remainder of that season at UNH, but by rule would have also had to sit out the first semester of the next one as well. The NCAA, however, said that this was a special circumstance and allowed him to play the full season the next year.

      Essentially, because of all the transferring (which never happens to this degree ever ever ever), he was supposed to have sat out a season and a half, but only had to sit out a season because he was transferring back to his original team or something.

      That’s the only case I can think of where the rules about sitting out didn’t fully apply.

      • Clarke Saunders is another case. Started at Alabama-Huntsville last year, transferred up to North Dakota and was able to play without sitting out.

        His exception was because UAH was going to fold and had announced they were re-classifying to Club. That allowed players to transfer, they eventually went back on the decision and decided to stay D-1. But because of the announcement of going to club players were eligible to transfer without sitting out a season.

  • gotommygo

    Great article.

    On point number 4 I’m still a little bit foggy on the whole ‘Justin Schultz loophole’. I don’t need the whole thing explained, but am interested in how it pertains to Flames prospects.

    So, because Johnny Gaudreau went right into NCAA after he was drafted, does that mean this clause doesn’t apply to him? Same with Jankowski? If Jankowski had decided to go to the USHL first before going to NCAA does that mean that could have potentially exercised that loophole?

    Didn’t they fix this in the new CBA?

  • SmellOfVictory

    My question regarding the loophole is: why is it considered a loophope? Effectively it states that, ~4 years after being drafted, the player has a 30 day signing window after which he becomes UFA.

    With a standard straight-to-college prospect, if they finish their senior year in college, do they not also have a relatively short (possibly more than 30 days) signing window after which they become UFA? If so, the two scenarios strike me as incredibly similar.

    • The Window to sign a player that spent 4 years in college and graduates is longer than the clause that allows players that spend a year in Juniors than only completes 3 years of college. In the event that the player completes all four years the window extends to August 15th after they graduate as opposed to June 1st.

      So in theory a player that does not want to play for a team could hold out to become a free agent, but it would really put them behind the curve. Most rosters are practically filled by August 15th. Miss out on prospect camp/tourneys, etc. Not a huge benefit which is why it rarely happens.

        • gotommygo

          I agree. Even if Schultz would have had to wait until August 15th to become a free agent, I imagine most teams would have been happy to sign him then. But much better timing for him to be able to shop around before the market is flooded with free agents on July 1st.