Before he even dressed for his first high school game, Ben Brinkman knew what college jersey he’d sport.
The current Gophers freshman was among the wave of college hockey recruits committing to schools at increasingly younger ages. He decided on his hometown team as a 15-year-old Edina freshman. But a new NCAA rule will make commitments like his a relic of the past.
“Honestly, I think I was a little too young to truly understand what was happening,” Brinkman said. “I was making a decision on where I’m going to get an education ... where I was going to meet a bunch of people. And really, all I really thought about then was the hockey.”
Earlier this month, the NCAA’s Division I Council approved changes to recruiting timelines as a way to keep early commitments in check. Men’s hockey coaches now can’t offer scholarships until Aug. 1 before a recruit’s junior year.
NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton said the push to change the rules began in 2016.
“It’s gotten more competitive,” Fenton said. “And that’s just pushed earlier and earlier the time frames in which prospects have contacted coaches.”
The new rule bans all contact before Jan. 1 of a recruit’s sophomore year. Before, recruits could initiate contact, and coaches could make offers at any time.
Under former coach Don Lucia in 2017, the Gophers received commitments from Chaz and Cruz Lucius, then 14 and 13, respectively. When current Gophers coach Bob Motzko was at St. Cloud State in 2014, he received a commitment from Ryan Poehling, then a 15-year-old Lakeville North freshman.
Just in the past two weeks, Gophers women’s coach Brad Frost has received commitments from two Breck eighth-graders, part of a rush across college hockey to lock down young recruits before the changes take effect Wednesday.
Frost explained that programs have developed relationships with young players under the former rules and want to see those through while younger commitments are still allowed. But overall, Frost said the change is “healthy.”
“Certain programs start getting early kids, and then it almost forces the hand of other programs because you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” Frost said.
“If you do it, obviously you’re taking a risk on, are these players going to develop the way that you think? ... And if you don’t, then kids that you view as kind of top kids in their class have the potential to start going other places.”
Fenton agreed this move could protect coaches and recruits from uncomfortable decommitments. Coaches won’t have to project what a player will perform like anywhere from four to six years into the future, and recruits won’t feel chained to a decision they made when young.
It also might smooth relationships between coaches. College hockey recruiting has basically operated on an honor system, with other coaches backing off from pursuing players once they commit to a school. But when the commitments occurred at younger ages, many coaches never had a chance to make their pitch and felt it was unfair.
In the hockey community, reaction to the new rules has been mostly positive, with Motzko saying they bring an “out of control” situation back to some “normalcy.”
One concern men’s college hockey coaches have with the condensed contact window is competition with major-junior hockey and losing potential college players to the Canadian Hockey League.
Women’s college hockey doesn’t have to compete with those leagues, so the first contact date is 5½ months later — June 15 after the recruit’s sophomore year, also the earliest coaches can offer scholarships.
But an even greater challenge could be the enforceability of these rules. How does the NCAA police a private conversation between two parties?
“The biggest worry is that coaches and programs just try to find some sort of gray area, some loophole to try to circumvent the rule,” Frost said. “The spirit of the rule is pretty clear.”
While college hockey recruiting will no longer be a chaotic guessing game, the next years will be interesting to see if all the young commitments hold up and pan out.
Brinkman, at least, has no regrets about his choice. The 6-1, 210-pound top-four defenseman started with the Gophers a year early and played in all 38 games this season.
But not all young commitments might be as successful.
“The hardest part is just the unknown. It’s a risk,” Frost said. “And teams, us included, will probably start knowing in about three or four years, were we right?”