Verbal commitments tougher to remember when they are honored
With college hockey phenoms exponentially electing to forego eligibility in favor of their professional dreams, Division I programs know they need to start recruiting quickly to find the next wave of stars. It is a year-round process that impacts all teen ages.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers just reaffirmed that reality, fielding verbal commitments from brothers Chaz and Cruz Lucius at the ages of 14 and 13, respectively. The Grant, Minn. natives, who play at Gentry Academy, reportedly drew attention from two other colleges as well.
Of course, Minnesota cannot comment on the verbal commitment until both brothers sign a national letter of intent, but recruiting players this early is no isolated occurrence. If past precedents serve as any indication, however, the Gophers must be cautious in reserving two bench spots for these brothers and letting hype envelop their potential future together.
In 2014, then-13 year-old Oliver Wahlstrom committed to his home state Maine Black Bears, becoming the youngest player ever to commit to an NCAA hockey program. However, within about 18 months, he spurned Orono and now has plans to enroll at Harvard in 2018-19.
Similarly, Jordan Schmaltz, now riding the NHL-AHL shuttle, initially had his sights set on Wisconsin. But he ultimately decided to play for North Dakota, where he stuck for three seasons. Schmaltz was 14 when he committed to the Badgers, and a week-and-a-half away from his 17th birthday when he switched to UND.
Wahlstrom and Schmaltz illustrate why the Gophers need to proceed with caution with these verbal commitments. Just as the media tends not to report on vehicles whose journeys meet a smooth and safe ending, more people will be either cautiously or expectantly eyeing Minnesota and the Lucius brothers for a potential change of heart.
Over a period of years, sometimes months, many factors could impact a player’s decision on where to play in college. These include the program’s ability to compete for a national championship, changes to the coaching staff and even the university’s academic caliber.
The player, much like the school, is under no obligation to fulfill a verbal commitment.
Beyond the examples listed above, Minnesota would be wise to look at current trends. This past April, neutralzone.net reported that more than 60 pending recruits had backed out. That amounts to an average of at least one setback for every Division I men’s program.
In a worst-case scenario, a coach could be prepared to offer a player a scholarship and not have a suitable replacement if he expects a young player to sign with his team. Not only does the coach face the potential loss of his job for that, but the recruiting class and the school’s performance on the ice could also suffer.
Beyond these factors, the Gophers must prepare for another worst-case scenario, namely the transition that the Lucius brothers will face as they mature. As they grow , the competition level increases, and if the brothers prove that they cannot step into the lineup right away, the college can walk away from the player.
None of this is anything new. But it has proliferated to a point where the best of intentions are more noticeably precarious.
In a 2004 interview with USCHO, former St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl articulated his adamancy about both parties sticking with mutual promises. As he told the site at the time, “If you have a job and you don’t do it, how long should you keep it? We always have (honored verbal commitments). I’m not sure we always will. The best thing you can do is tell them up front that it’s a competitive situation — and we’re going to be honest with you as we see it.”
That same USCHO report cited other verbal commitments waiting for fulfillment at the time. It noted that Jack Johnson had made an informal pledge to Michigan, and Jack Skille to Wisconsin, in 2002. They both followed through, each arriving on campus in 2005 and staying for two seasons before going pro.
Conversely, Peter Mueller, who was bound for the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2004, started building anticipation of a stint with the Gophers. Instead, the future two-time World Junior Championship participant squandered his NCAA eligibility to play for the Western League’s Everett Silvertips.
Mueller was 15 at the time of his unfulfilled commitment, and scenarios like his are only growing in frequency. Now Minnesota has gone younger with its headline-generating verbal commitments. Per the general rules of nature, those headlines will stick and reproduce all the more if the Lucius brothers never don the maroon and gold.
In the end, while the Gophers made a pre-emptive strike in snatching up these brothers before other colleges could stake their claim, they must temper their expectations. You never can know for sure that a player will be thinking clearly about their puck path before they are even old enough to drive.